ASTANA – Tattoos and body decorations have been traditions in many cultures for thousands of years. They demonstrated membership in groups, showed status, served as good luck charms, indicated religious beliefs or, as is common now, were just fashionable. In ancient times, tattoos often belonged to royal or privileged classes. In the more recent past, that notion was turned on its head and tattoos were thought to be a sign of savagery.
Different cultures had their own tattoo traditions. Often, knives or needles were used to scratch the skin in a pattern, which a shaman would then rub with dye, leaving a permanent mark. Other methods used needles, sharp stones or bones inserted into a wooden handle, which was used to puncture the skin in a pattern.
Today, most tattoos are done under professional, hygienic conditions and are relatively common. Some tattoo fans are looking back to older tattooing traditions, however, and ancient designs are gaining popularity. Today, Scythian (known also as Pazyryk style) tattoos are increasingly popular.
“A Scythian (animal) is a conglomerate including traditional decorations inherent to different nationalities. They may be images of one or many animals. The Scythian style is rich in design techniques, forms and the complexity of its patterns. However, it would be good to use a style similar to Scythian. I think that to make a tattoo more interesting, you should draw a background like a rocky flat on which it is possible to stylize those tattoos,” says Astana tattoo artist Ruslan Batyrbaev.
The Scythians respected the hunting skills and admired the beauty of the big cats of the region, the snow leopard and the Siberian tiger. They may have believed the cats’ images would transfer the animals’ fearlessness and hunting skills to the bearer of their image. The animal images were important sources of protection for a people who needed strength and cunning to survive.
Archaeologists have excavated a tomb in the Altai region belonging to the Pazyryk culture, which belongs to the so-called Scythian circle. In the sixth to third centuries BC, these people lived in the territories now belonging to Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Russia. Due to the climatic conditions in the region, mummies, decorated with complicated tattoos, have been perfectly preserved in the mounds. Today they are the oldest surviving examples of tattoos in the world.
Pazyryk tattoos were made using bone needles and a mixture of soot. The tattoos are located on shoulders, arms, hands and legs and appear to have been used for luck rather than decoration. These protective talismans were thought to confer hunting prowess and protect the wearer from harm. Some tattoos that covered most of some Scythians’ bodies depicted real and imaginary beasts and events from their mythology. There was a belief that the more tattoos a person had, the longer he would live and the higher his status in society.
“From personal experience, I can confidently declare that to become a tattoo master, first, one should be an artist. People are often afraid to make a mistake in the size, colour or location of a tattoo, but these are not as important as choosing a good tattoo artist… Remember, a tattoo is painful, expensive and will stay forever!” Batyrbaev counsels.
Prices for tattoos vary widely globally and locally, depending on the complexity of the tattoo, the skill and experience of the artist, the attitude of the customer and other factors. A small, simple design might take 15 minutes, whereas an elaborate sleeve tattoo or back piece requires multiple sessions that may last several hours at a time and can go on for weeks.
Attitudes toward tattoos have changed. Where not long ago, they were seen as the markings of shady characters, now they are often treated as an art form that allows for self-expression. People get tattoos about their jobs, about hardships endured or places visited. Some women use tattoos as a form of makeup, using tattoos with natural colours to permanently enhance eyebrows, lips, eyes or moles or neutralising skin discolourations.
“As the owner of a Scythian tattoo, I would like to share my feelings, because I know that people are afraid of tattooing, taking into account the prejudices of an overwhelming majority of Kazakhstan. They usually ask, ‘Why did you decide to get a tattoo? It hurts, it’s not beautiful, and it’s not for women…,’” says Renata Uspanova who is proud about her tattoo. “Well, first of all, it doesn’t hurt at all! I like tattoos: tattooing is a way I can express my feelings. The main thing about tattooing is to choose the right one, one you can be proud of. I chose my own tattoo; it depicts my feelings and my way of living,” Uspanova says.
“The tattoo industry in Kazakhstan is in a primitive state of development compared to Western countries. I would like to organise a tattoo convention in Kazakhstan that could be a great platform for professionals and experts who could not only share their plans for the future and tell the history of tattooing, but also find new clients. The finest tattoo artists in the world will be invited here. But there are difficulties, the main being finding sponsors for this kind of event in Kazakhstan,” Batyrbaev says.