Lost Treasures: Taiwan’s Atayal Facial Tattoos

Are Taiwan’s facial tattoos still taboo?

By Sylvia Dean

Under a clear mountain sky, an Atayal boy of twelve years prepares to transition into manhood by way of a painful ceremony passed down from his ancestors. Like many boys his age, he has proven his valor and courage by mastering the art of hunting. In another village, a girl of similar age awaits her own passage into maturity after mastering her craft of weaving. Both subjects wait as a mixture of charcoal and pine tree oil is prepared, applied, and slowly pushed under the sensitive skin on their cheeks and foreheads.

This narrative describes traditional facial tattooing, the most significant coming-of-age ceremony for the Atayal, one of Taiwan’s sixteen recognized indigenous tribes. Often referred to as a “cultural treasure,” this artistic and purposeful custom began to vanish when the Japanese controlled Taiwan (1895-1945).

“My grandmother had facial tattoos, and they were very beautiful,” said Kimi Sibal, cultural advocate, and historian, in a recent interview. “When I was seven years old, I stood by her side while we took pictures together. I asked her, ‘Why do you have that tattoo?’ My grandmother replied, ‘We mustn’t speak of it. I can’t tell you.’ Why? Because at that time, the Japanese still ruled Taiwan. They reviled the tattoos and decided to ban them.”

As a native of Hualien and a member of the indigenous Sediq tribe, Kimi didn’t find out about his heritage and the rich indigenous bloodline until much later in life.

“After my grandmother passed away, I still didn’t know the answer. I grew up, got married, and had a son. When my son started school, he had fights with his classmates. What were their words? ‘The tattoo on your ancestors’ faces is just like the tattoo of the master of the underworld,’ they said. ‘You are uncivilized indigenous people.’” After this encounter, Kimi’s son returned home and told him what had happened. “I remembered my grandmother. She never told me. My child was so big – I was already 37 years old. So I took my camera, I took my voice recorder, and I set out. I found that there were still many people who had tattoos.”

Kimi has now dedicated years of his life to the documentation of this sacred practice and displays an extensive collection of his work in Hualien. Today, there are only two remaining elders with facial tattoos.

“One of them is 98 years old, and the other is 99. They won’t be here for much longer. I came to think, why have I been researching these people for years? Well, the words they speak are history. The words they speak are rich and wonderful.” [Editor’s note: following the death of one, Atayal elder Lawa Toyu, last month on September 14th, Lin Chi-mei, a Sediq living in Hualien County, is now the only remaining Taiwanese Aborigine with a traditional facial tattoo.]

Kimi has captured hundreds of portraits of tattooed elders and has written many books about this symbolic tradition. He describes the history behind facial tattooing and what these cultural treasures symbolize. “I finally began to realize why thousands of people passed down these tattoos, their meaning, and their spirit. Number one – tribal recognition. If I have tattoos, you know that I am Paiwan. I am Amis. I am Truku. I am Atayal.”

The second reason Kimi discusses is beauty. Atayal facial tattoos are made up of intricate designs that in some cases can take up to ten hours to complete. Facial tattoos can also symbolize maturity, kindness, and ancestral protection against evil spirits.

“What is the most important purpose of these tattoos? The ancestors will markedly protect me. Everyone will pass away eventually. Then, your soul can go to the afterlife. If the ancestors see that you have tattoos, your soul will be accepted. If you don’t have tattoos, you may not enter.”

Although the meanings behind these facial tattoos are representative of honor and high achievement, with the advent of colonization, they have often been falsely interpreted. As Kimi’s son discovered at school, It’s common for groups that practice facial tattooing to be falsely marked as barbaric, uncivilized, and criminal.

“As long as we are here, no matter what we do, we are not treated fairly on this earth. There is no mutual respect,” said Kimi. “My ancestors came to this land first, and all others came later. Those people [the Han] are writing our culture. They are writing our language. But what they write is in the eyes and interpretation of the government. They can write whatever they want, but today I am doing this honorable work because the ones that have these tattoos are my own ancestors.”

Through his work documenting the lives of Atayal elders, Kimi’s legacy will remain for many years to come. Although not likely to be revived, the art of facial tattooing will live on through his photography and videography.

“I believe that this new generation doesn’t need tattoos. There are now many nationalities mixed together. If you have tattoos, you will surely be asked why. So now the most important thing is to record these tattoos. Record their image, the voices of those who have them. Let the next generation know that what their ancestors have on their faces represents bravery and capability. This is the most important thing.”

Sylvia Dean is a visiting scholar from Iowa City, Iowa, U.S.A. On a Fulbright grant, she works in Hualien’s elementary schools teaching English and is also working as a journalist for ATAYAL, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of indigenous cultures.

Read more articles from the COT here