Lars Krutak

Extras - Issue 25

After extensive meetings in Frankfurt and Florence, HeartbeatInk Tattoo Magazine has the pleasure and honour to host the distinguished, renowned and globetrotter American tattoo anthropologist Dr. Lars Krutak. Lars Krutak researches extensively and studies the tattooing traditions of the indigenous people for twenty-two years.

Interview: Ino Mei.
Photos: Lars Krutak.

How would you describe the field that you mainly specialize in?

I’ve been studying Indigenous tattoo practices for twenty years, so I am usually working in remote regions where this tradition of tattooing is perhaps thousands of years old. But it may disappear in the near future with the last generation of tattooed elders who carry this ancient tattoo tradition on their bodies.

Yonkon Naga women of Myanmar bear facial tattoos believed to repel evil spirits. These tear-like markings also helped carry women safely into the afterlife. Image © Lars Krutak, 2014. ​

How did you initially get involved, what attracted you to go towards that direction?

I have a background in art history and anthropology, and my tattoo research began when I started working on my master’s degree.  I was living in Alaska and I came across an Indigenous person with a facial tattoo. I was intrigued, because I didn’t know anything about this Arctic tradition. Then, I began finding information in old books about the meanings behind these tattoos. They told personal stories about individuals and important cultural beliefs. Later, I was told about a group of women who continued to wear these types of tattoos; tattoos that were applied through the ancient technique of skin-stitching or needle-and-thread tattoos. These women lived on a remote island in the Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska called St. Lawrence Island. So I journeyed there and began recording their life histories and tattoo meanings. In essence, I was able to open a window into many aspects of their culture, because tattooing was related to almost every aspect of it: from language to hunting to religious practices, and from medicinal to fertility tattoos. These elders made me realise there were many other regions in the world where important tattoo knowledge was being lost. So I thought it was extremely important to begin traveling to document these ancient traditions, especially for future generations who may want to bring them back.

Jela Sivonjíc, a tattooed Bosnian Catholic woman from Zubovići village. Image © Tanya Kanceljak. Published in Ancient Ink.

When was that?

I started researching Arctic tattooing traditions in 1996. I’ve been collecting material and conducting field research across the world since that time, and the results of this work have been published in several books, including (2007) The Tattooing Arts of Tribal Women, (2010) Kalinga Tattoo: Ancient and Contemporary Expressions of the Tribal, (2012) Magical Tattoos and Scarification: Spiritual Skin, and (2014) Tattoo Traditions of Native North America. The first chapter of the latter book focuses on the Arctic, and it brings together nearly two decades of research, including tattoo revivals happening in Alaska. It also speaks about the sacrifices Indigenous peoples were forced to make which, in turn, lead to the demise of their tattooing customs.  

What sort of sacrifices are you referring to?

I am talking about the effects of colonisation, forced assimilation, forced removal to reservations, the boarding school system which was mandatory, and the outlawing of religious practices which were related to tattooing. Many generations of Native North American people had to overcome so many obstacles to bring tattooing back from the brink of extinction. And today, with the revival of tattooing happening in so many places, Indigenous tattoo bearers are making a profound statement. Their tattoos confirm they are still here as an Indigenous people, and will continue to do so into the future. In short, Indigenous people are reclaiming their heritage, reasserting their identity, and they are doing it through tattoo.

Book cover of Tattoo Traditions of Native North America (LM Publishers).

When it comes to traditional tattooing practices is it ethically “correct” to mix the different traditional styles and motifs?

Perhaps, if it’s a contemporary version of a traditional tattoo that has been modified as to not display family, clan, spiritual, or ancestral designs. But I think it is very important to work with a respected tattoo artist who knows the cultural protocols involved and who also understands what cultural appropriation is.  

Nowadays, how do you see tattoo at large?

I don’t think people are going to stop tattooing any time soon. There are more motivations for people wanting to get tattooed today than at any other time in human history. The culture of tattoo has always been evolving, has always been changing, otherwise we wouldn’t be here talking about it right now! 

Tattooed Ibaloy mummies from the Timbac Rockshelter, Benguet Province, Philippines, 1500-1600 A.D. Image © Analyn Salvador-Amores. Published in Ancient Ink.​

Do you reckon that tattoo is an art form?

I know many people today who collect tattoos as art.  But in most Indigenous languages there was no word for “tattoo art,” “art,” or “tattoo artist.” Tattooing was much more meaningful than “art,” because it was related to marking one’s identity and/or marking the accomplishment of becoming an ideal man or woman in the eyes of the community. Tattoos were not created for art’s sake, and very rarely to beautify the body or add to one’s sex appeal. 

Do you “separate” hand-poke from electric tattooing?

The mechanics are similar, yes. But the technology is different, and the feeling and experiential aspect is different. Plus, traditional tattoos heal much faster because your skin is not damaged as much as with a machine. I prefer to experience more traditional methods, because most of the people I work with were not tattooed with machines: they were inked with thorns, bones, or needles. Even if you don’t speak the same language and come from a different cultural background, on some level having a traditional tattoo allows me to share something with the people I work with.

Two Makonde best friends, Muidumbe village, Mozambique. Image © Lars Krutak, 2007.​

Do you always get tattooed on your trips?

Not always. Sometimes it feels right and sometimes it doesn’t. My tattoos connect me to a place, an event, a memory, a tattooist, new friends or new groups of friends. I will always carry those memories and stories with me, so that is what they mean to me.

Bianca Gutierrez and Irene Mangon of the Mark of the Four Waves Tribe, Philippine tattoo revival. Tattoos by Elle Festin / Spiritual Journey Tattoo. Image © Lars Krutak, 2014. Published in Ancient Ink.​

Tell me about your documentaries, are you still doing the “Tattoo Hunter” series?

No, we made ten episodes for that particular project in about sixteen months, and it was kind of an experiment that had never been done before on that scale. I would like to see more programming like this, but it’s a major financial investment. At the moment, however, I am involved with a Facebook Watch pilot series called Ink Expedition, where I am the resident tattoo historian. 

What was the general feedback you received for “Tattoo Hunter”? 

Overall “Tattoo Hunter” has been well-received, and I have since revisited many of the communities we featured to deliver DVDs and publications related to the project. I continue to work with several of these communities, especially on future book projects. 

Inupiaq/Kiowa tattoo artist Marjorie Tahbone, Nome, Alaska. Tahbone is reviving ancient tattoo traditions across Alaska and the Arctic. Image © Kalynna Ashley. Published in Ancient Ink.​

How many different groups did you feature in your documentaries?

We focused on ten primary groups. Nevertheless, we met other people along the way in our journeys, so all in all fifteen to twenty groups in total. I tried to document as much as I could, because I knew this material could be of future use in other important projects. But it was very difficult to take photographs during the filming of that series, because I was hosting and I had to hide my camera behind a rock or house or somewhere out of the scene! I was never given much time for photography, so it was very challenging to capture anything that was usable. Luckily, I was able to feature some of my photographs in my 2012 book Spiritual Skin: Magical Tattoos and Scarification, which turned out to be a beautiful publication. I don’t know of anything else quite like it. It’s the first book that combines traditional scarification and tattooing practices, and it discusses their religious and more magical aspects.

Was “Spiritual Skin: Magical Tattoos and Scarification” book’s material compiled during the “Tattoo Hunter” journeys?

More or less. A few follow-up journeys outside of the series were necessary, especially to answer questions that I forgot to ask initially, as well as for additional photography.

Kayabi tattooing session, Capivara village, Xingu Reserva, Brazil. Image © Lars Krutak, 2007. Published in Magical Tattoos and Scarification: Spiritual Skin (Edition Reuss).​

What is your new book "Ancient Ink: The Archaeology of Tattooing" about? 

Ancient Ink is a co-edited volume bringing together the research of more than a dozen tattoo researchers. I am the senior editor of the project, and I also wrote several chapters, including those focusing on tattoo revivals worldwide (Papua New Guinea, Alaska, North America, Balkans, Philippines). Ancient Ink is the first book dedicated to the archaeological study of tattooing, and presents new research from across the globe examining tattooed human remains, tattoo tools, and ancient art. Our goal is to contribute to human understanding of the antiquity, durability, and significance of tattooing and body decoration by illuminating how different societies have used their skin to construct their identities. Ancient Ink connects ancient body art traditions to modern culture through Indigenous communities and the work of contemporary tattoo artists, especially those individuals who are reviving these ancient tattoo traditions.

Book cover of Ancient Ink: The Archaeology of Tattooing (University of Washington Press).​

How has "Ancient Ink" been received thus far?

Dutch tattoo artist Henk Schiffmacher reviewed the book stating: “As tattooing has become massively popular, the world has commodified our trade for cash, television shows, magazines, and flash books. Thankfully, every now and then a significant publication comes along that is created by people who know its history and are themselves tattooed. Ancient Ink is an important book and a must for every library."

Heavily tattooed art historian Dr. Matt Lodder says Ancient Ink “is a careful, measured, detailed, well-researched, and interesting volume. It updates a huge range of scholarship on tattoo practices from across the globe."

So I can't complain with those reviews!

Kalinga tattoo artist Whang-Od and Lars Krutak, Buscalan village, Philippines. Image © Lars Krutak, 2016. ​

Is your book audience mainly American or European or is it mixed?

It is definitely mixed and I sell books to people around the world. Two of my book publishers are European and my current publisher is American. For many years I wrote articles for tattoo magazines in Germany, Hungary, Denmark, France, and the UK, but also the USA too. 

I don’t like to generalize, but could it be that the European audience perhaps reads more than the American one?

It’s a hard question to answer because I do not go to tattoo conventions in the States very often to promote my books, but I usually attend one or two annual conventions in Europe, like Florence, Italy. I also lecture internationally and book several events a year at universities in the USA and Europe. I also curate several tattoo exhibitions a year, including the current travelling show Tattoo: An Exhibition at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, which started in Paris at the Musée du quai Branly in 2014. So it’s really a mixed bag, but my general feeling is that there is perhaps more interest in my books in Europe than in the States.

Maybe it’s a cultural thing.

It could be because the tradition of tattooing in Europe goes back thousands and thousands of years. However, it also does in the Americas (e.g., Indigenous tattooing).

The Kayan hand tattoos of Ado Ngo promote fertility and repel evil spirits. Image © Lars Krutak, 2011. Published in Magical Tattoos and Scarification: Spiritual Skin (Edition Reuss).​

Do you believe there is a big gap in the field of tattoo research?

There is a small network of art historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, and Indigenous tattoo historians and tattoo artists I work with. We collaborate together on publications and exhibitions, and I know there are many more people studying tattoo that I am not aware of.  Job prospects are pretty limited in tattoo anthropology, so unless you want to be an academic and teach in the university, work in a museum as a researcher or curator, or hold a day job and conduct tattoo research on the side, you may find yourself unemployed!

Bone tattoo combs, Māori culture, Oruatangi site, New Zealand, 1550-1800 A.D. Image © Louise Furey. Published in Ancient Ink.​

Were you the first anthropologist to focus on tattoo history, its chronicles and preservation?

I am not the first, but I think I coined the term “tattoo anthropologist!” I certainly look-up to many writers and tattoo ethnographers who came before me, but tattooing seemed more like an exotic novelty to them and they failed to ask many important questions. Sadly, so much knowledge has been lost, but then again there are still elders in remote communities that continue to hold precious information that needs to be documented before it disappears forever.  

The irony is that tattooing has been around for thousands of years…

In academic circles it seems that everything else has been studied except tattooing. Now all of a sudden archaeologists, anthropologists, art historians, and sociologists are interested in tattooing, and “Body Art” and “History of Tattoo” courses are taught in the university. Tattooing is not as taboo as it was twenty years ago, and because it is as popular and fashionable as ever it has peaked an incredible amount of worldwide interest.

Konyak Naga facial tattoos, Tangyu village, Nagaland, India. Image © Lars Krutak, 2010.​

Do you believe that tattoo is not taboo anymore?

Today, there are many more academics that are tattooed, law enforcement officers, other professionals, etc., so tattooing is obviously more acceptable in the workplace. But of course there are certain places where it is still taboo; some branches of the military and particular companies in the United States don’t allow for visible tattoos on the neck, hands, or above the wrists (sleeves), etc. I am curious to see if these rules change in the future.

Tattooed skin from the right shoulder of a Pazyryk Chief, Siberia, 400-300 B.C. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg (#1684/298). Published in Ancient Ink.​

Taking into consideration your studies in historical archaeology, have you so far come across evidence of early Greek tattoos?

In Europe, the earliest records of tattooing date to the 6th-5th centuries B.C. The writings of the ancient Greek historian Herodotus describe Greek punitive tattoos as well as those applied by the Persians. There is a chapter in Ancient Ink that provides a bit more detail about this subject, as well as early Greek sources for tattooing among the Thracians and other groups. For the most part, however, these ancient records describe the tattooing traditions of foreign peoples.

Yaari Kingeekuk Walker (St. Lawrence Island Yupik) showing her traditional tattoos. Image © Lars Krutak, 2012. Published in Tattoo Traditions Native North America.​

Are you working on new publications now?

I have five new projects in press. A journal article on medicinal tattooing in the Arctic and another on the Iceman’s tattoos. I recently completed an encyclopaedia entry on the history of ink, a material used in ancient forms of tattooing and writing. I also have two book chapters in press; one is about tattoos and ageing and another on Naga tattoos and the Naga tattoo revival in Northeast India. 

Facial tattoos of Anna Aghtuqaayak of Gambell, St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. Image © Lars Krutak, 1997. Published in Tattoo Traditions Native North America.​

How do you see the future?

I know that in some of the places I am working right now, the last generation of tattooed elders will soon pass away and these tattoo traditions will not be continued. Many of the traditional meanings and reasons for getting these tattoos have been lost. Missionaries, governments, and other colonizing forces are largely responsible for the demise of tattooing. But on the positive side, there are many Indigenous tattoo revival movements now underway. And I think Indigenous tattooing traditions will rebound. They are here to stay, and they will reach new horizons with each successive wave of tattoo bearers.

Macham Naga chief with tattoos representing his social status, Lahe Region, Myanmar. Image © Lars Krutak, 2014.​

Mekeo tattoo revival, Inawi village, Papua New Guinea. Tattoos and image © Julia Mage’au Gray / Published in Ancient Ink.​

Mentawai tattooing session, Siberut Island, Indonesia. Image © Lars Krutak, 2007. Published in Magical Tattoos and Scarification: Spiritual Skin (Edition Reuss).​

Waima body tattoos, Waima village, Papua New Guinea. These full-body tattoos were received at various rite of passage ceremonies. Image © Lars Krutak, 2012.​

To learn more about Lars Krutak's research and order signed copies of his books, please visit his website