Among the many tribes and cultures that practiced tattooing centuries before the Age of Discovery, some of the oldest and most well-preserved prehistoric tattoos we have access to come from modern-day Central and South America. The tattoo is an important part of Latin American culture, and while most of ancient Mesoamerica was destroyed in the conquest of the Spaniards, with little left to pour over, there is evidence that suggests that tattooing was a central part of many early Mesoamerican cultures.

Ancient Mayan, Aztec, Olmec, and other designs continue to be popular themes in tattoos today, blending in with other, younger cultural elements from modern-day Central and South American countries, and growing popularity within the tattoo-tolerant USA. While tattooing has evolved in meaning and intent for the descendants of these ancient tribes, the primal sentiment remains much the same – to tell a story through the skin, to show devotion to God(s), and to experience something more through the pain and ritual of getting inked.

The Tattoo in Ancient Mesoamerica

By way of decades of careful anthropological research and archeology, we know that many cultures in ancient Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador practiced tattooing, and preserved individuals were found buried millennia ago, with cactus spines, bone tools, wooden implements, and various other inking tools. The oldest of these was a preserved figure discovered in modern-day Peru, belonging to the ancient Chinchorro culture, which dates to 7,000 – 1,500 BC. Olmec clay figurines depicting complex body art were unearthed, much like those found in ancient Japan , suggesting facial tattoos and complex patterns.

Beyond ink, the ancient Mesoamericans also practiced other forms of body modification, the most famous being the elongated skull. Other examples included piercings (through the lip), limb stretching, teeth filing, and other more painful modifications. Among the Mayans, tattooing was a form of pigmented scarification, where a painted image would be carved into the flesh with a sharp implement, allowing the paint to seep into the scar.

Despite being seen as barbarians and savages by invading European forces, these ancient cultures have grown over centuries, and had a strong grasp of astronomy, mathematics, and philosophy. Their dedication to the Gods and rituals of human sacrifice and even cannibalism were not out of a lack of civility, but a completely different kind of societal structure to the one we understand in the West. Part of that society was enduring the pain of a tattoo and bearing it proudly.

Tattoos as a Ritual Tool

Among many tribes and cultures that existed in Mesoamerica at the time, the culture with arguably the most advanced designs was the Aztecs. For the Aztec, tattoos carried several meanings, particularly as ritual markings meant to initiate a person into devotion towards a certain god.

One of the biggest challenges in deciphering how Aztec tattoo culture grew is the lack of surviving evidence of extensive tattoo work, as well as the fact that, to this day, many Aztec symbols are not entirely understood. As such, many designs unearthed over the years cannot be fully understood, although the language itself (Nahuatl) survived.

One thing that is known about Central and South American cultures before the conquistadors is that they shared a common history of warfare and violence. Bloodshed was common, and each culture had unique traditions for training and honoring their warriors. Among the Aztec, it was especially important for a would-be warrior to capture human sacrifices, and the more the warrior could capture, the more they would be honored.

Warriors who were defeated in battle would subsequently submit themselves to be sacrificed, as per tradition. In Aztec culture, human sacrifice was a crucial element of worship, dating back centuries to the days of the Olmec. This, historians believe, was a continuous element throughout Mesoamerican culture because of the unique worldview of Mesoamerican mythology: that the universe exists due to the continuous and painful sacrifices made by the gods, and that man must honor these sacrifices by offering sustenance to the gods through blood. It was, essentially, a debt being paid.

More practically, these rituals also served to intimidate rivalling capitals and warriors. The manner in which humans were sacrificed was important to the Aztecs. They would deliberately extract the heart, believed to be a fragment of the sun, and had distinct and varied sacrificial rituals for different occasions, some involving cannibalism, and some involving other forms of execution.

Tattoos can be linked directly to these worshipping rituals, as they marked accomplished warriors, and depicted complex art of various gods in honor of that god, as well as undecipherable writing that may have been used to commemorate certain events, make a memorial of fallen comrades, or further worship.

Like other cultures, the Aztecs also looked towards animals as symbols of power and prowess and would adorn themselves in depictions of various different creatures in order to embody the qualities that these animals possess. Among warriors, the two most common animals to embody were the eagle and the jaguar. However, to earn the right to wear or depict these animals, warriors would have to provide captors for sacrifice, and only those able to do so would become part of the Aztec warrior elite.

Common Mesoamerican Motifs

Animals are a common motif across Aztec and Mayan tattoos alike, from spiders (in Peru) to jaguars, eagles, lizards, tortoise, and monkeys.

Mythical creatures, including phoenix and depictions of gods were also common, and even children would be tattooed with images of the gods, to signify their devotion. Geometric designs, writing, and depictions of the Aztec calendar were also common motifs.

Among men, a common theme would be to bear a tattoo of the Aztec god of war, Huitzilopochtli – a dark skinned figure with feathered armor in the style of a hummingbird, armed with a shield and a serpent, signifying lightning.  Celestial bodies such as the sun, and symbols depicting it were very important to the Aztecs as well. The degree to which the Aztecs were tattooed is not known, although some contend that even those in lower classes would tattoo themselves, and the higher up a person was in the social strata, the more they would modify their bodies.

After the Spanish

When the Spanish first arrived upon Mesoamerican soil, it spelled doom for the native population. Battles were fought, and blood was lost on both sides, but the real danger was the disease the Spaniards brought with them. Inoculated due to exposure, the Europeans who embarked upon the New World likely had no idea that the natives would fall in such a way – and over the next several years, over 15 million native Mesoamericans (an estimated 80 percent of their population) died to disease believed to be similar to typhoid.

A combination of war and pestilence saw an end to much of ancient Mesoamerican culture, and centuries (if not thousands of years) of tattoo art slowly vanished, even from the minds of many surviving natives and their descendants. Thankfully, while little remains of what life was like then, we have enough to piece together a picture.

Latin American Tattoos Today

South American and Central American tattoo culture is alive and well, flourishing in part due to prison culture and the proliferation of the “black and grey” style, revived in the 20th century. While some countries in Latin America strongly associate heavy tattoos with criminality, and some tattoos are tied to gangs, plenty of countries and regions have a far more lax attitude towards tattoos and what they could mean, including Brazil, Mexico, Cuba, and southern states in the US. Nevertheless, there are stories of tattoos leading to a wrongful indictment of a person’s character.

Today’s “Chicano” tattoo culture started within the Pachuco gang in the 1940s, with outfits in California, and later Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. However, tattoos are becoming more common outside of any criminal element. They’re often a way to memorialize lost loved ones, celebrate Mexican culture and local folklore, or honor Santa Muerte. Many of today’s most successful Chicano artists have rediscovered their Mesoamerican roots and have incorporated Aztec art into their work. Many focus on the black-and-grey realism of Chicano art.

While tattooing was a big part of pre-Columbian South America, it has only recently resurfaced in this part of the world, aside from exceptions where secluded tribes (such as the Guarani) continued the ancient traditions of tribal body art.