In honor of East Meets West Day, we’re bridging the gap between traditional tribal modifications and modern socially and culturally motivated western mods. Just check out the historical links to some of your favorite tattoo and piercing styles; you might be surprised at what you find.
Piercings of the nose are the second most common type of piercing worldwide today (falling just under the ears of course), but they can be traced back literally thousands of years. Nose piercing traveled from the Middle East through India, and finally made it to the Americas in the 1960s and 70s with the return of large groups of American youth from abroad.
We can also thank India for the popularity of henna tattooing or mehndi. (Although other styles and colors of henna tattooing still occur today in the Middle East and north Africa too.)
Speaking of tattooing, Polynesian and Pacific Islander styles of tattoo have recently risen to popularity in the west as well, particularly Samoan and Maori. Traditionally these tattoos would be made by scoring the skin with sharp instruments dipped in ink, but today such methods are nearly extinct, and most modern versions are performed with a regular tattoo gun.
Even the aesthetics of western maritime tattoo art have been significantly altered in the modern era, with the same type of imagery and nautical themes prevalent, but a cleaner, brighter, and more defined edge.
Many other modifications have varied just as widely, such as piercings of the lower lip. Several tribal groups in Africa have been piercing their lips for centuries, most notably the Surma and Mursi of Ethiopia’s Omo River Valley region, who also stretch their piercings.
Stretching of the ear lobes is common in Africa as well, with some groups using plugs, and others (like the Masai) using weights. Numerous styles of stretching have become typical in the west, including both of these methods, and lobe sizes vary up to several inches.
Some tribes from Ethiopia and Kenya pierce their upper ear cartilage or helix and adorn their piercings with elaborate dangling jewelry. And ethnic minorities in India such as the Kondh and the Soura have worn multiple cartilage piercings for generations.
Other tribal groups, like the Matses from South America, are known to wear multiple piercings in their lips or noses, outfitted with long wooden pins that appear much like whiskers. This particular look has been mimicked on the runway in recent years, along with tribal style face and body paint. Multiple piercings of the lower lip, referred to as bites, are now commonplace in western countries, and stretching of labret lip piercings has begun to find a foothold there too.
Tongue piercings too are much older than their American standard, having been performed by the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican civilizations as a form of ritual bloodletting. Piercings of the tongue have also long been practiced during Thaipusam and other variances of the Vegetarian Festival in Thailand and Asia.
Thaipusam is also known to include the insertion of hooks into the back or chest to move or pull against large objects. In the west, a very similar practice is commonly known as an “energy pull” and is considered by some to be a form of suspension.
Hill tribes from Thailand, Nepal, and Burma (Myanmar) have been practicing other forms of extreme modification for centuries too, including neck elongation through the wearing of heavy coils or rings. Many of these peoples, like the Karan and the Padaung, continue to use neck rings even today.