Tattoos can mark the occasion of either a victory or a defeat, can be an expression of joy or sorrow, performed as part of a ceremony or ritual and accompanied by mantras, song and dance.  The phase of the moon may determine the time for a tattoo, as may also a particular constellation of the stars, or a season.  Some people get themselves tattooed because of certain visions, taboos, oaths or injunctions.

Sometimes, tattooing can have a traditional religious background: people want to ensure a place in heaven and tell God and the world about their devotion by means of the tattoos.  Amongst the Nawa women it supplies proof that the person concerned is married and allowed to wait for her husband in heaven.  Tattoos function here as a kind of passport, as an entrance ticket for the various heavenly spheres.  Just how important tattoos were considered in this respect is evidenced by the fact that even corpses were tattooed.

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In India and Tibet, tattoos provide assistance in getting through difficult periods in life such as, for example, puberty and pregnancy; they also help overcome illness and grief.  The latter is a particularly frequent trigger of the desire to subject oneself to the tattooer’s needle.  The attempt to drown out mental suffering by means of physical pain even leads to mutilation, burn wounds and amputations.


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In the western world “in memorian” tattoos are also common.  The memory of a father, mother, brother, sister, loved or admired person is kept alive by means of a tattoo: crosses, roses and banners inscribed with the name of the deceased.  Or, to name another alternative, a realistic portrait, or the grave-stone with a death’s head.  These acts represent an attempt to come to terms with grief, one not necessarily limited to the loss of a person: a loved pet can also be commemorated in this manner.

Tattoos have also achieved importance as a type of vaccination or for other medicinal purposes; among the Berbers and Samoans, for example, you can get tattooed against rheumatism.  Medical tattoos can be found from Egipt to South Africa, employed to combat eye diseases, headaches and the like.  The Eskimos and North American Indians covered the skin with signs to protect against disease.  The artistic welt “tattoos” of young Nubian girls in Sudan and also common in other African states are not only for decoration but are also a traditional form of vaccination.  The creation of small wounds strengthens the immune system, reducing the risk of infection during pregnancy and birth.