Inspired: Tattoos as pain relief

15 March 2017
 Te Manawa: an Arawa warrior
Rock Webb

Sometimes provocative and always interesting, this series of shorter stories can be inspired by pretty much anything in Wellcome Collection and offers a quick insight into some of the themes we explore. This one comes from Rock Webb.

 L0035683 Plaster cast, man of the Arawa tribe showing Maori tattooing
Plaster cast of the face of Tauque Te Whanoa, a Rotorua native, of the Arawa tribe.

The Treating Yourself cabinet in our Medicine Man gallery contains two tattoo exhibits. One of them is a facial plaster cast depicting Tā-moko, traditional Maori tattooing. Incisions are made into the skin using uhi (chisels) made from albatross bone; the skin is carved, leaving it with grooves, rather than a smooth surface, in which soot is rubbed for colouring.

Moko designs are very much about belief and spirituality; never just decorative, they have to be earned. A mark of rank, they are generally concerned with ancestry and Iwi, or tribal, information. Captain Cook often remarked on these practices during his Pacific voyages and reputedly coined the word ‘tattow’, or tattoo, from a local word.

Body modification and personal adornment seems as popular as ever. Whatever the motivation for being permanently inked, we encounter it throughout the ages and across cultures. Mummified human remains, ceramic figurines and art all give us a glimpse into historic practices. Getting a tattoo is usually viewed as a painful event; however, a view into the past suggests that it may have served as, and maybe had its origins in, a procedure for pain relief.

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Te Manawa: an Arawa warrior.

The discovery of a 5300 year old mummy in the Alps has shed light on many aspects of life at that time. This particular mummy, nicknamed Ötzi, has been extensively studied and scanned. To date, over sixty tattoos have been identified on his body. Consisting of simple line-work, it was initially thought these may be stylised art or symbols. Closer inspection does not support the idea of decoration: being situated on likely areas of pain such as the lumbar spine, wrist and hip suggests that the tattoos may have been therapeutic. Indeed, the scans have confirmed that Ötzi had osteoarthritis and other old wounds in these areas.

Just like Maori tradition, perhaps Ötzi’s lines and dashes are part of a belief system. In this case, he may have believed in the enchanted properties of tattoos to hinder pain. Further examination possibly reveals a medically related explanation: many of the tattoos tally up directly with known acupuncture lines. With so many individual tattoos, Oetzi seemingly trusted in their power to heal. Whether he realised that there might have been more to it than his belief alone, we don’t know.

Rock is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Rock Webb