Updated: May 6, 2021
From the first moment we harnessed fire, made needles from bone, or painted cattle on cave walls, humans needed to create... to give birth to an expression of where we come from, to understand and sustain ourselves. We continued to evolve from chipping stone into spears--to hunt and gather, to observe the color of rocks and soil, mixing them into paint and inks that tinged history from our consciousness and onto the third dimension. We began to realize that we... simply, exist. We yearned for ways to coalesce with the elements; plant and fungi, animals and creatures, the sea and the sky. We found ways to honor, protect, heal, and translate them into our very own skin.
Our skin is something deeply personal to each of us. It can hold us, carry us, and let us feel ourselves in our own body. Skin is something that is visible to all and everything we encounter. It is a way of recognition and identity, of pride and undeserved hatred. Our skin can also bring deep love and appreciation--the melanin, markings, and scars all have history and a power that connects with something beyond us.
As consciousness shifted, we became introspective. Our bodies hold even more sovereignty and beauty, yet, because of conditioning, trauma, and limitations, they can also hold disease. There is importance in understanding that altering energetics of the body interlace the physical and ethereal. Movement, medicine, and modification are part of how we place and ground ourselves. We must remember that adjustments like acupuncture treat more than just physical pain and bodily modulation like tattooing is more than just ornamentation.
One perspective of pain, is seen as a creation of the mind--pain can also manifest from karmic, intergenerational, and unresolved trauma. The body remembers trauma, whether it was inflicted accidentally or intentionally. We sometimes don't understand how or why, but we know when we feel pain. Interestingly, over 230 studies of reincarnation have been conducted by Dr. Ian Stevenson, stating that birthmarks relate to an inflicted wound from another life. Epigenetics shows how these injuries and illnesses can stay in our DNA, passing through our matrilineal and patrilineal line, obstructing our ability to move toward our authentic potential. As a larger society, our scope is beginning to open to the possibility of ailments relating to an energetic root. When I think of acupuncture points, I think of how each system has a channel, every channel has points, and each point has a name that can be linked with others to form a poem. Like every cell, every point has its own energy, its own universe--just as every star is a sun.
Our skin also holds a multitude of emotion and information, it can tell us the origin of disease, how and where it manifests, the cause and effect. In Chinese Medicine, the skin relates to the Lungs and is understood through a system called the Five Elements, or more appropriately termed, Five Phases (五行 wuxing). Each element relates to a yin/yang (阴阳/陰陽) paired organ, every organ with an emotion, a planet, a season, a bodily manifestation. This Five Phase philosophy can always go deeper and can ultimately be applied to all worldly aspects. In this medicine, the skin is also interchangeable with the cutaneous regions, which correspond with the 12 Regular Channels and their paired yin/yang organs (脏 Zang, associated with a vessel/ 腑 Fu, associated with movement // see chart below).
The Lungs are our breath, our life, and how our body protects against illness, internally and externally. It blocks ailments and evils from entering our body, it makes passage for dissipation--escaping out of our pores. It helps circulate body fluids to moisten and elevate movement within. The skin is associated with Defensive or Wei Qi (卫气). It is the first line of defense against pathogens and the unseen. The knowledge of Chinese Medicine was said to be received from the heavens--a simple, limitless, and comprehensive system transferred from our ancestors/higher beings who helped us navigate throughout history. To this day, we erect temples and altars, allowing prayers to travel back to those who came before, reminding us that those veritable sanctuaries live inside. As more intelligence and information was transmitted, we became more sentient, integrating these teachings into our existence.
By thinking of our skin like the surface of the Earth, She has many layers and mountains, lakes and ravines. In a perfect world, we would have true symbiosis, learning to care and adapt with one another. With this, we can take a scientific perspective and dissect each layer of skin and it's physiology. In modern day tattooing, a needle is made of different "groupings" which determine the shape/size of the needle. It also depends on how the needles are laid out, this dictates it's use for lining or shading.
Needles perforate at a rapid speed along the epidermis (epi- upon/above).
After getting through the first five layers, the needle hits the top layer of dermis, made of sweat glands, ducts and tiny muscles (arrector pili) that allow the hair to protect the body from cold. Some studies show how tattooing can boost one’s immune system, comparable to strengthening bone & bone density by adding weight to the body. Tattooing essentially creates an immune response to the affected region by bringing heat/inflammation, red and white blood cells to the tattooed area, amping up resistance and strengthening the body.
Tattooing and acupuncture may seem worlds apart, and while they do function in different systems, there are many intersections of similarities than differences. The advent of acupuncture and tattooing is still concretely unknown, and we are slowly discovering that the history we once knew is changing. There are temples underneath temples in Egypt, Stonehenge spanning miles underground--technology is helping us uncover and rewrite true history. Since flesh is impermanent, tattooing is more difficult to document than the inception of acupuncture. It's very possible that tattooing extended back as far as the first cave paintings. Chinese Medicine has many other modalities that came before acupuncture like; gua sha, moxibustion, massage, and cupping. These all arose around the time of the Yellow Emperor (Huang Di 黄帝) in 2,500 B.C. Some accounts even believe acupuncture pre-dates 5,000-6,000 B.C. It's also important to remember that Chinese Medicine is not exclusive to China. China was adamant about written and visual documentation, helping usher this medicine into the new age. Dating back to Ancient Kemet (Egypt), cupping was and is a globally ubiquitous healing practice. During my visit to the Temple of Kom Ombo, dedicated to Sebek (Sobek) and Heru (Horus), one wall had a hieroglyphic relief for Imhotep (sage, healer, astrologer, architect, and priest).
On this wall are medicinal and surgical instruments, among which are cups. In Sudan, a form of cupping called, hijama (Arabic for "sucking"), creates an incision, placing the larger horn circumference around the area, then, the in-breath creates a vacuum to suction out bad blood. This "bad blood" is usually darker in color, more viscous and dense. The healers who practice these methods are very aware of the dangers, not only from the infectious and transmittable components, but what spirits reside in blood and fluids, what can enter through the mouth in a single breath. From my teachings at the temple, there was great emphasis on strengthening Qi to ward off any potential energetic/physical disease that could affect the practitioner. There are methods of prick-bleeding, cup-bleeding, and other blood-letting that are still used in Chinese Medicine today, the results of which have shown great outcomes. The involvement of blood and body fluids in tattooing serves no different purpose than the method of cupping. Therapeutic tattoos were placed and administered in regions of the body that have junctures or pockets where things can hide.
One of the major differences between acupuncture and tattoo acupuncture is tattoos' use of ink and its decorative attributes. However, they share such a rich history of shamanism and healing/changing the Qi or energy of the body. Some believe that tattoos have the power to change ones' energetic field. By placing an image or a particular symbol on someone, it opens the possibility for energies associated with that design to resonate throughout the corporeal and energetic bodies. The oldest known tattooed mummy to correlate tattooing and acupuncture dates back to 3,400 B.C. His name is Ötzi the Iceman. Ötzi was discovered in the Ötzal Austrian Alps in 1991. He lived during the Chalcolithic (Stone/Copper) Age, more widely known as the Neolithic Era (~12,000-4,500 B.C), and died around age 46. He was living with a myriad of ailments; rheumatism (joint pain and inflammation), whipworm, and digestive disorders, “with narrowed arteries, and he had arthritic knees and rotten teeth, a likely case of Lyme disease, and signs of stomach ulcers.”
Since Ötzi was found, we have been able to use scanning, radiocarbon dating, and UV/infrared photographic filters to see details of his tattoos. The argument that Ötzi's tattoos are primarily ornamental, feels like a misrepresentation of the specificity and intentionality of placement, sizing, and arrangement. These tattoos connect to acupuncture points and channels, many are very close in location, if not on an exact point. The direct cause of his death is still unknown, but the glacial changes and a severe injury/fall, could have altered the original tattoo placement. There's still a lot in question about the orientation of the lines, numeral significance, and what these really treated, but I hope to unpack that as time goes on.
Although most modern medicine believes anything predating our current medical paradigm is “primitive,” I'm consistently awestruck at the ingenuity of ancient & advanced medical techniques. Even during the Stone Age; broken bones were set by a sun-dried clay cast, trepanning or brain surgeries opened a small hole into the skull in order to release blood clots and hemorrhaging--even the use of army ant heads as stitches in India, Africa, and South America. Not only was there an advanced symbiotic medicinal practice during this era, but a transcendental understanding of nature, energetics, and anatomy.
Along with these procedures, the use of herbs and formulas was widespread. Herbs like dried sage were often used to disinfect and cleanse wounds or spaces, which has only recently been scientifically proven. Among the plant medicines found with Ötzi was, liverwort (Anemone hepatica) was found with Ötzi, an antibacterial, anti fungal, antitumor, anticancer, and insecticidal, it can improve circulation & digestion, lower cholesterol, and heals wounds. Two additional medicinal herbs that were found with him are; the bracken fern or common/eagle fern (Pteridium aquilinum), used to treat intestinal disorders and diarrhea and birch polypore fungus (Pitptoporus betulinus), which has been credited by renowned mycologist Paul Stamets as being used for its antiseptic, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory versatility and even stops bleeding. It is easily carried/stored, can harden to sharpen knives, and be hollowed out to transport fire-starting embers.
Ötzi’s tattoos were made by creating a small incision, likely with sharpened/broken bones, and rubbing charcoal into the open wound. My hypothesis is that the tattoo ink was made of burnt herbs or soot, smoothed into ash and mixed with a type of glycerin-base. When observing Ötzi's 61 vertical, horizontal, and intersecting line tattoos, it makes sense that they were placed strategically, they are small in size, relatively hidden, and aren't placed in any known biomimetic pattern.
Among several peoples in recent centuries and today, there are groups that still do therapeutic tattooing, that shows the efficacy of tattoo acupuncture and its healing potential. Looking to the Kayan people of Borneo, the tattoos around joints affected by rheumatism have a resemblance in application, placement, and repetition to Ötzi's markings. It sparks the question of how medicinal inks play a role in this process, how they effect and live under the skin.
“When he asked about the tattoos, the Kayan explained that whenever they sprained a joint, one woman in their clan would tattoo dots on the swollen area and full mobility would typically return within a week. Krutak noticed that some of the people who had experienced multiple sprains had layers of tattooing. (Actually, Krutak and others believe that the Iceman’s tattoos may have been applied on several occasions, since they are so clear and dark to this day.)
I wonder about Ötzi and his story... who tattooed him and when did people first realize how to tattoo or why they did it? Was tattoo acupuncture something of common knowledge and who were the ones allowed to give & receive them? I hope to excavate and research in depth; the order, sequence, length, placement of these markings, the potency of point combinations and what those treat. What were the inks really made of and how do medicinal tattoos work in the long-term? How can Chinese Medicine theory help us understand the way tattoos and healing work together? The curiosity and questions are endless...
As I continue my Masters in Chinese Medicine, my tattoo practice, and writing within the INDELIBLE // Ötzi Series, I hope to go point by point, tattoo to tattoo--and connect the dots, slowly piecing the puzzle back together.
(Photo credit: Photograph © South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/EURAC/Samadelli/Staschitz)
All referenced material is linked in the article.