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A Brief History Of Medicinal Tattooing

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MEDICINAL TATTOO
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(This piece originally appeared on Wanderlust.com)

From mummies to "I love Mom", Tattoos have long been considered to be much more than body decoration. The spiritual, social, personal and political significance of getting inked is an indelible aspect of body art, and most people who have undergone the uncomfortable, to outright painful procedure attest to it's intrinsic spiritual experience. But what about tattoos as a form of healing? What if there was a medicinal and curative element to this global ritual?

Archaeologists are now certain that some ancient remains bear the marks of traditional healing modalities. The most famous of which were found on Otzi the Neolithic Iceman, Europe's oldest mummy (5,300 years to be precise). Otzi has lines, circles and crosses etched predominantly on his lower back and legs - astonishingly, approximately 80 percent of these tattoos overlap with the classical acupuncture points, which are used to treat rheumatism, a condition that experts believe Otzi suffered from.

Lesser known stories like the 1,000-year-old female mummy found in Peru in the 1990's further the hypothesis of therapeutic tattooing. In this case, it's not only the symbols and locations of the mummy's tattoos that point to a healing practice, but also the composition of the 'ink' itself. All ancient tattooing practices used soot as their pigment. However, in the case of the Peruvian mummy, scientists found that the circles on her neck contained a different substance than her other tattoos: plant matter. The team of scientists studying this case believe that the plant matter was used to tattoo her body as a part of a ritual designed specifically for healing and/or strengthening.

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Fast forward to the tattoo industry of today. Far from their fringe culture past, tattoos have gone mainstream, to the point where an un-inked body is a rare find. There is a niche revival of therapeutic acu-tattooing happening in Europe, as well as further investigation into testing the effectiveness of this 'healing art' by experimenting with mixing substances into the ink. For example, the case of memorial ash-tattoos.

Modern commemorative ink has evolved to another level with regards to emotional healing after experiencing a loss. There is a quickly growing tattoo trend that involves mixing the cremation ashes of a loved one into the ink of a tattoo in honor of the dearly departed. While we often keep personal objects belonging to those we love when they die, like a ring or watch, to create a sense of continued connection, this popular ritual is just about the most permanent reminder we can have. Here is a case where tattooing becomes a symbolic act of healing, where the intent is to heal the heart.

Beyond simple ornamentation, tattoos have and continue to have social, biographical, therapeutic, and tribal significance. According to tattoo anthropologist Lars Krutak:

"The study of ancient and contemporary tattooing culture offers one of the most profound biographical, artistic and intellectual statements on the importance of cultural diversity, human experience and visual communication. Tattoos transmit a vast body of information about who we are, where we came from, our desires and fears and who we aspire to be."

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