1. Belcher, David

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Photographer and Arizona State University anthropology student Lars Krutak, who has worked for the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian and has written extensively on the medicinal uses of tattooing, shot the cover photograph of a Yup'ik (Alaska native) woman, Anna Aghtuqaayak, on Alaska's St. Lawrence Island in 1997. She later died in a house fire at age 94. Aghtuqaayak's facial tattoos were done in stages, partly because of the enormous pain involved. The nose was tattooed at age 12, the chin at puberty, and the cheeks soon after. The three linear bands that curve along the cheek and that frame the circles were believed to induce fertility. Aghtuqaayak said of her tattoos, all of which were done in the 1920s, "We did it to be beautiful, so we would not look like men. We wanted precious pictures for the afterlife."


The tattoos were hand stitched into the skin by using bone slivers as needles and thread made from reindeer or seal tendons soaked in a pigment of soot, graphite, animal urine, and seal oil; in recent years steel needles have been used. The skin is stitched at a depth of 1/32 in. Immediately afterward, soot is rubbed into the stitches to enhance pigmentation.


Krutak has researched the 2,000-year-old Yup'ik tradition of tattooing, from its origins (some 3,500-year-old Yup'ik mummies show signs of face painting) to its gradual decline among young members of the Yup'ik tribe. Yup'ik traditions, as well as those of hundreds of cultures worldwide, hold that tattoos guard against evil spirits and summon good ones, assist with fertility, and ease passage into the next life. According to Krutak, only two Yup'ik women on the island-ages 96 and 98 years-bear the traditional, hand-stitched tattoos.


Krutak's photograph at right, taken in 2002 during the filming of a television documentary for the National Geographic Channel, shows extensive tattooing (which indicates high tribal status) in an elder with the Iban tribe of the Ngaju Dayak native people of Borneo, Indonesia. The man, who is more than 80 years old, was dressed in traditional tribal attire for an adoption ceremony. Tribal tattooists call on spiritual guides to help them create designs, according to Krutak. Although women traditionally apply the tattoos in many Dayak tribes, men apply the tattoos among the Iban, who were the most feared of headhunters on Borneo until the Indonesian government outlawed headhunting a century ago. The Iban believed the soul inhabited the head, and so taking an enemy's head was a way to capture the soul, as well as to ensure fertility for crops and family. Traditionally, after the Iban tribesmen returned home from headhunting, tattoos were applied in celebration and honor, often depicting anthropomorphized images of animals.


Tattoos have become ubiquitous in Western cultures, alarming clinicians with the potential risk of transmission of bacteria and viruses-specifically, HIV and hepatitis B and C viruses. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (reported on in the New York Times on February 1) found that one in five college students has at least one tattoo or body piercing on a body part other than the earlobe. Said Miriam Alter, lead author of the study: "Regardless of whether or not we can demonstrate that bacteria or viruses are spread in this manner, anything that pierces the skin and has blood on it can potentially spread an infection."

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For information on another potential risk of tattoos, see Practice Errors, page 65.