A Visual History Of Body Art From Around The Globe

Body art is practiced in all world cultures. Here, a survey of designs from Maori facial engravings to prison tattoos to gay pride ink.

Whether it’s the Sanskrit Om symbol tattooed on a yoga teacher’s back, the ‘50s pin-up girl inked on Amy Winehouse’s bicep, or the ancient Celtic cross on a policeman’s arm, contemporary western body art tends to borrow designs from different locales and eras throughout history.


Body Art, out this month from Thames & Hudson, reveals the historical origins of many designs you might see while walking around the giant body art gallery that is the contemporary western city. It spans from Australian and African traditions of scarification to Russian prison tattoos to Tupac Shakur’s “Thug Life” stamp. Writes art historian and anthropologist Nicholas Thomas in the book’s introduction:

We cannot but recognize a paradox: we think of the body art we choose to bear as an expression of our identity, yet the motifs and styles that we typically adopt are not anchored in the places and communities in which we have grown up. Rather, they are the products of more or less distant cultures and epochs. In some cases, such as the Gothic imagery associated with heavy-metal music, they have been embraced and revalued, not once but several times. We are all familiar with retro fashion in clothing, furniture, and design, but it is important to remember that nothing can be the same as it was. The images that are being reintroduced, that abound in popular culture, that appear on the bodies of celebrities, may be old or second-hand, but their meanings and our motivations are new.

The gallery above reveals that the meanings and motivations behind various body art forms range from signifying criminal identity, seen in the prison tattoos of a former high-ranking gang member; to signifying a woman’s obedience to her husband, seen in the patterned scarification marks on the torso of a Bena woman in a Nigerian village; to signifying gay pride, seen in the body paint of revelers at the Sydney Gay and Lesbian March of 1988. Click the slide show for a survey of the ways humans have inked, pierced, branded, and otherwise modified their flesh from prehistoric times to the present.

Body Art is available from Thames & Hudson here for $22.

About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.