Tattoo art qualifies as one of humankind's oldest artistic expressions. Two fine current exhibits feature decorative body art. Contemporary artist Antoine Tzapoff studied Indian dance rites in Mexico, resulting in a superb series of 25 documentary paintings on view at the Maison de l'Amérique Latine. The Marquesan exhibition at the Musée de l'Homme highlights magic rites and the extraordinary nature of Marquesan tattoo designs, which cover large areas of the body.
"Tattoo" comes from the Tahitian "tatau," used throughout Polynesia to describe the light tapping technique used for cutting the skin and adding soot or pigments to create permanent designs and markings. The French navigator Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, who explored the Pacific in the late 1760s, supposedly introduced the word to the west.
Ethnologists can trace the significant role of body ornamentation in diverse cultures back to the stone age. A 4,000-year-old mummy of an Egyptian child of royalty had a sun god design cut into his skin. The Celtic tribe known as the Picts are thought of as aptly named because of the picture-markings they pricked into their epidermis. Recently, the famous discovery of the 5,000-year-old Iceman's body in a glacier revealed some interesting tattoos, not marks of tribal identification but apparently highly personal decorations, done for their own sake.
Traditional tattoos often incorporate sacred rites and myths that have continued to flourish throughout the centuries. In many cultures masterpieces of tattoo art are associated with initiation rites, marking the transition from childhood to maturity. Some Native American tribal beliefs taught that tattoos were the only thing you could take with you in an afterlife, where they would serve as a sign of identification for family and fellow tribesmen. In southeast Asia most tattoos are done for protection.
In this age of global communication there is a renewed fascination with tattooing as an art form in the west. Tribal tattoos are the most fascinating, for these symbols once engraved into the skin of people from another age continue to speak of past civilizations. Encoded in abstract triangles, lines and circles is a forgotten wisdom about living harmoniously with nature -- a message we desperately need to hear as we approach the end of the 20th century.