Whispers from the Past

Tattooing Histories and the Transformative Power of Knowledge

Abstract: This text explores histories of tattooing to showcase how certain supposed knowledges were skewed by dominant colonial narratives, from the tattooed people exhibited in human zoos to the modern tattooing industry that prioritises pale skin. In so doing, this paper questions existing methodologies in the creation and conception of knowledge and offers a playful way to decolonise knowledge.

Keywords: tattoo, decolonisation, oral tradition

Văn Lang, Frame from a private recording in the studio of Kwinnie Lê in 2021

Văn Lang, Frame from a private recording in the studio of Kwinnie Lê in 2021

Growing up, my family always told me that tattoos were only for criminals. Yet, an instinctive fascination for the practice arose. When I began mapping tattooing histories, I simply assumed that Vietnamese culture didn’t have one until I stumbled upon the ancient tattooing traditions. Vietnamese tattooing traditions started to diminish after the Chinese occupations1 and became criminalised during the French colonial era,2 during which prisoners were coded with tattoos. This (re)discovery of a forgotten tradition shocked me and broke a long-held narrative. And while this was new to me, its history was not.

This suppression of tattooing traditions is not unique to Vietnamese culture. Even though it happens in different ways, the erasure of tattooing traditions is deeply rooted in colonial history. Under colonial rule, tattoos were often used to codify and brand the colonised and enslaved peoples or they were demonised by Christian missionaries. As a result, we are currently on the cusp of losing cultural traditions in places because the knowledge is only possessed by older members of the community. And since this knowledge is passed on through oral tradition, it will die with them.

While some traditions disappear gradually, I am specifically referring to traditions that have been explicitly removed or criminalised through colonial administrations. In reaction, members of the newer generations are trying to revitalise these practices from their own respective cultural heritages. For instance, Hovak Johnston, an Inuk woman, describes how she had a visceral reaction when she heard that the last women with traditional markings in her community was dying: ‘It hit me hard, kind of like a stab, because I didn’t want it to be something you just read about in books, or in photographs that you just see.’3

It inspired her to start the Inuit Tattoo Revitalisation project. The project aims to restore traditional cultural uses of tattooing, such as for communal connection, spirituality or harmonising with nature. These practices are now also being used to heal from historic trauma. To use tattooing as a way to heal from historic trauma also means understanding its history. It means delving into pain in order to heal from it.

‘Research’ is listed by Linda Tuhiwai-Smith as one of the dirtiest words in Indigenous vocabulary.4 Similarly, ‘tattoo’ has become a dirty word among traditional practitioners as the word—an amalgamation borrowed from Polynesian languages—was introduced to European languages by captain James Cook. In the pursuit of artistic research, this is an attempt to cleanse from it. This is not to completely do away with these concepts altogether; rather, it is perhaps an attempt to approach a history without being confined it.

For this reason, this text is written as a deconstructed essay but also, in parts, as a rite of passage or a cleansing ritual. The ritual can exist individually for those of you who have experienced a similar (re)discovery, but it can also perhaps work within the collective consciousness.


Oral traditions play a crucial role in passing on tattoo traditions. Consider it like a game of whispers, where information is passed on from generation to generation through oral storytelling, singing and/or chanting. In this sense, tattooing can be considered to be an ephemeral archive. Like a game of whispers, knowledge can transform according to the perceiver—and the perceiver can simultaneously act as the transmitter.

But the comparison I am making here does not work as easily for the colonised. The narrative that lasts belongs only to those who have the sovereignty. As I mentioned earlier, tattooing traditions were erased, demonised and criminalised during the colonial era. This history is vast and will not be discussed in detail in this text for reasons of space. However, the narrative around tattooing was also politicised and weaponised against them.

I will depart from a historical narrative about tattooing traditions from the colonies. Imagine yourself coming across the following story:

‘Prince Giolo, son of the king of Moangis, a fruitful Island abounding with rich spices and other valuable commodities. This famous painted prince is curiously and most exquisitely painted on his whole body, except for his face, hands and feet. The paint itself is so durable, that nothing can wash it off. It is prepared from a juice of a certain plant or herb, peculiar to that country, which they consider impeccable to protect human bodies from the deadly poison or hurt of any venomous creature whatsoever. The body is carried naked, with a ceremony, to a spacious room, which is filled with all sorts of the most venomous, pernicious creatures can be found, such as snakes, scorpions, vipers and centipedes. The multitude of spectators seeing the naked body surrounded with so many venomous creatures, and unable to wound or do any mischief to it, seem to be transported and ready to adore him; for none but those of the royal family are allowed to be painted with it.5

This story, the story of the painted prince, is completely made up. It was one of the narratives that surrounded the exhibition of ‘the painted prince,’ which presented a fictional background story on his tattoos. In reality, the painted prince was a common man named Jeoly who was taken from Mindinanao in the Philippines and exhibited, privately and publicly, in London in the 1690s under the enslavement of William Dapier.6

He is a better-known example of the exhibitions of tattooed colonised people and is considered to be the first exhibition to inspire the widespread exhibitions of tattooed colonised people in Western Europe. The exhibitions of colonised people were made for commercial exploitation and to entertain curious crowds, but perhaps, above all, to ‘scientifically’ prove the distinction between the modern civilised white man from the savage colonised peoples. It is this distinction that was also used to incite fear and create an exoticised Other through the narrative it spun.

These exhibitions, or human zoos, have shaped a dominant narrative about people from the colonies. In regards to displaying tattoos specifically, the records show that as early as 1567, a tattooed Inuk and her daughter were abducted by French sailors and brought to Zeeland (the Netherlands), where they were exhibited for money in The Hague and were later placed in Antwerp.7 A decade later, two Inuit people, one of whom was tattooed, were put on display in England.

Another famous example of exhibited peoples is Ota Benga, who was eventually displayed at The Louisiana Purchase exhibition in 1904 and later on in the monkey house at The Bronx Zoo in 1906.8 While not bearing any tattoos, his sharpened teeth, another form of body modification, was highlighted in the narration around these exhibitions. The practice of teeth sharpening, which is also a dying tradition, was mainly done for spiritual purposes. Yet Ota Benga was displayed with a story that his teeth were proof of cannibalism. He was presented as a pygmy (an anthropological term) who was supposed to prove that they were the lowest form of human to exist.

The enslavement of these tribes into these exhibitions occurred in the second half of the nineteenth century. However, the existence of ‘the pygmies’ was already in Western European consciousness by 1357 and were first described when Sir John Mandeville published his The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, which was prior to the start of the recognised era of European colonialism. These are just a handful of examples that demonstrate how cultural traditions have been weaponised against the colonised and how fictional narratives were presented as science. These stories reveal roots of racist ideologies, as well as shedding light on coloniality and the oddity of certain universalised concepts embedded in science, history, popular culture and politics.

Sitting with the pain

I am telling these stories to demonstrate how vast and longstanding these ideologies are. Coloniality spills beyond the cages of these human exhibitions. It is also to be found in art and the early conception of modernism within art. In Ornament and Crime, published in 1913, Adolf Loos argues that minimalism belongs to the modern man and ornament belongs to the savage. He describes decorating objects—and the body—as a criminal act. He refers specifically to Papuan people, whom he compares to children because children are, according to Loos, amoral.

In Loos’s view, those who ornament their objects and who tattoo themselves weren’t capable of morality and therefore lack the ability to know such things are criminal. The ultimate goal was to prove that ‘the evolution of culture is synonymous to the removal of the ornament in utilitarian objects.’9

Loos’s work is still influential today. As demonstrated in the history of tattooing, such theories promoted racism, which was hidden under a guise of science and objective truths. It is also crucial to understand these arguments as arbitrary, as these exhibitions happened simultaneously with the rise of tattooing on white Western European bodies. It has even developed to the point where, nowadays, certain tattoo artists exclude Black and Brown bodies on the premise of their skin being too dark to tattoo. This is reinforced by TV shows such as Ink Master or various Instagram portfolios that only show tattoos on light skin.

And so, it is not the tattooing itself—or any other tradition for that matter—that was criminal or unaccepted.  Rather, the racialised body was doomed no matter what they did. This poses a problem in the conception of knowledge, enclosed as it is in a Western framework. Certain strands of knowledge are critiqued for their inability to refute universalised concepts of personhood figured by, and for, the West. However, this is an attempt to assimilate the subaltern into essentialised ideals. Decoloniality, therefore, is necessary in order to deconstruct and contest such ideals entirely.

In Decolonizing Methodologies, Linda Tuhiwai Smith mentions that indigenous methodologies tend to already include cultural values and protocols as an inherent part of the methodology.10 Certain practices, such as tattooing traditions, are sacred and protected. Yet, this has not always been taken into consideration—it is a kind of knowledge that has been consumed by a colonial gaze for the greater good of knowledge.

Oral traditions play a key role in preserving these traditions in a way that is in alignment with spiritual protocols.11 For example, Whang Od, whom many tourists visit to get tattooed, does specific tattooing for tourists and reserves specific tattooing, such as chanting during the ritual, for her tribe.12 Oral traditions are, in this sense, specific in whom knowledge is transmitted to. It is a way of allowing practices to be contained and collides with a wide circulation of knowledge. An (an)archival method—not in order to be exclusiveness but to honour and include the cultural values and protocols as an inherent part of the methodology.

The question arises of how this history of tattooing can be decolonised and, ultimately, reclaimed. As Franz Fanon argues, ‘decolonisation which sets out to change the order of the world is, obviously, a programme of complete disorder.’13 Besides imperialism, this demonstrates a significant principal of colonialism—order. Highlighted by the exhibitions of colonised people, tattoos were used to signify and order the human races.

Here, I would like to return to the game of whispers as a transformative knowledge that can escape classification. Yet, they can go back for centuries and can give us insight to our ancient ancestors. One could say that comparing such traditions to a game of whispers might suggest oral traditions are inaccurate or imprecise. It might also suggest that Indigenous methods of knowledge—through rituals, dance, storytelling and other ephemeral methods of passing on knowledge—are exactly that. However, I would respond that perceiving these methods as inaccurate and imprecise upholds the Western sovereignty over epistemology as the unpacking of history showcases a multitude of inaccuracies.

Rather, I am posing these traditions, and knowledge in general, like a game of whispers because it holds power in understanding knowledge as something that is always under constant reconstruction. It signifies why such traditions are valuable in passing on knowledge. But perhaps equally important, it shifts the sovereignty of who gets to spread information and to whom it is passed on.


While most essays end with a structured conclusion, a summary, the recapping of arguments and how these are supposedly so significant, I would like to make one last reference to Tuhiwai Smith. A reference to a personal experience. Not an introduction but an ending with an anecdote. She discusses working in museums, helping her father, who is a Maori anthropologist. ‘I do remember quite vividly, however, the ritual of cleansing ourselves by sprinkling water over us which my mother insisted on when we returned home.’14

And as much I have tried to deconstruct this essay, certain engrained frameworks still remain. I would like to ask you, the reader, to take a piece of paper. Process this text by writing down the parts that stuck in your memory. When you are done, you can burn this text. 

Kwinnie Lê

Kwinnie Lê wants to reveal stories that are not always visible, which reveal themselves mainly in performances, installations and poetry when the body is at the centre. Once the body morphs, the way and the extent to which someone dares to be vulnerable changes. This affects another core element in her practice, which is language. In connection with language, she looks at its use as a way of including and excluding certain bodies.



  • Alex, Cathy, Mike Karapita and Sunaya Sapurji, ‘Hovak Johnston.’ CBC News. N.d. https://www.cbc.ca/news2/interactives/i-am-indigenous-2017/hovak-johnston.html.
  • Barnes, Geraldine, ‘Curiosity, Wonder, and William Dampier’s Painted Prince.’ Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 6, no. 1 (2006): pp. 31–50. https://doi.org/10.1353/jem.2006.0002. 
  • Blume, Harvey, and Philip Verner Bradford, Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.
  • Buccat, Rhys, ‘How an Old Woman Tattooed an Age-old Tradition on the Global Map.’ ABS-CBN News. N.d. https://news.abs-cbn.com/specials/ph/tattoo/whang-ud.
  • Conrads, Ulrich, Programs & Manifestos on 20th-Century Architecture. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1976.
  • Fanon, Franz, The Wretched of The Earth. Translated by Constance Farrington. London: Penguin, 1990.
  • Sturtevant, William C., and David Beers Quinn, ‘This New Prey: Eskimos in Europe in 1567, 1576, and 1577.’ In Indians and Europe: An Interdisciplinary Collection of Essays. Edited by Christian F. Feest. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.
  • Tuhiwai-Smith, Linda, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London: Zed Books, 1999.
↑ 1

During the years 1407-1427.

↑ 2

During the years 1887-1941 and 1945-1954.

↑ 3

Cathy Alex, Mike Karapita and Sunaya Sapurji ‘Hovak Johnston,’ CBC News, n.d., https://www.cbc.ca/news2/interactives/i-am-indigenous-2017/hovak-johnston.html.

↑ 4

Linda Tuhiwai-Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (London: Zed Books, 1999), p. 1.

↑ 5

This is a retelling of passages surrounding the advertising of ‘Prince Giolo.’ Geraldine Barnes, ‘Curiosity, Wonder, and William Dampier's Painted Prince,’ Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies (2006): pp. 31–50.

↑ 6

Barnes 2006, p. 33.

↑ 7

William C. Sturtevant and David Beers Quinn, ‘This New Prey: Eskimos in Europe in 1567, 1576, and 1577,’ in Indians and Europe: An Interdisciplinary Collection of Essays, ed. Christian F. Feest (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), p. 136.

↑ 8

Harvey Blume and Philip Verner Bradford, Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), p. 97.

↑ 9

Ulrich Conrads, Programs & Manifestos on 20th-Century Architecture (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1976).

↑ 10

Tuhiwai Smith 2012, p. 15.

↑ 11

Spiritual protocols vary among tattooing traditions. Passing on spiritual knowledge or practice outside of a bloodline, tribe or community can be considered infectious to the practice or a sever in ties with ancestors. For this reason, specificities of these traditions are not described or referenced here. The suggestion is to be mindful in trying to attain further references surrounding these traditions.

↑ 12

Rhys Buccat, ‘How an Old Woman Tattooed an Age-old Tradition on the Global Map,’ ABS-CBN News, n.d., https://news.abs-cbn.com/specials/ph/tattoo/whang-ud.

↑ 13

Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (London: Penguin, 1990), p. 27.

↑ 14

Fanon 1990, p. 11.