The body marking of prisoners has been practised since ancient Egyptian times at least. But many cultures also see it as an art form in its own right.
Tattoo on the right arm of a tribal chief, Pazyryk culture. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Photograph © The State Hermitage Museum /photo by Vladimir Terebenin
Permanent markings can encode a person’s social identity. Impermanent methods like painting often express ritual roles, as in the Nuba ceremonies photographed by Leni Riefenstahl.
Felice Beato, Studio portrait of Japanese tattooed ‘bettoes’ (horse grooms), circa 1863-1877. Felice Beato/Universal History Archive/Getty Images
The body of a 5th-century BC chief preserved in permafrost at Pazyryk on the Russia-Mongolia border was covered with tattoos of stylized animals and plants. From the 17th century in Japan tattooing attained painterly finesse, with the use of multiple needles and colours.
Hannah Wilke (1940-1993), S.O.S. - Starification Object Series, 1974-82. Gelatin silver prints with chewing gum sculptures. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence. © Marsie, Emanuelle, Damon and Andrew Scharlatt/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015
Since the 1960s the body has been a highly politicised surface. In her S.O.S: Starification Object Series Hannah Wilke photographed her own naked torso, bearing tiny stigmata of vulva-shaped lumps of chewed gum. French performance artist Orlan underwent surgical operations to reshape her own features to resemble works of art.
Nuba Photographed by Leni Reifenstahl © 2000 - 2003 All Rights reserved. Leni Riefenstahl Produktion. Photograph: © Christie’s Images
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