The Meaning Behind Facial Tattoos for the Taiwanese Atayal Indigenous

Atayal woman
Atayal woman | © Courtesy of Rainbow Art / Li-Ho Taiwan
Ciaran McEneaney

For many generations, the Atayal, Taiwan’s second largest indigenous group, were the feared headhunters of the island. Thankfully, the tribe no longer partake in the practice. However, one tradition that they are trying to revive is the art of facial tattooing. Unfortunately, very few of the younger generation are eager to keep up the tradition even though it is a significant rite of passage.

Facial tattooing is one of the most important customs of the Atayal tribe, and it is said to date back some 1,400 years. Unlike in some other cultures where facial tattoos have negative connotations, the aboriginal people of Taiwan such as the Saisiyat, Seediq, and Truku view them as a means to differentiate between ethnicities and as an indicator of one’s place within the tribe.

Atayal woman smoking a pipe

In the past, this custom was an incredibly important moment in a tribe member’s life. Boys would earn their tattoos by proving their worth to the tribe in hunting and even headhunting. To be accepted as a man they must be tattooed between the ages of five and 15.

For women, the tasks were a little different but not all that unexpected. Weaving was and still is a vital skill for the many tribes of Taiwan and to earn her tattoos a young woman must prove her skills at the loom. This skill was deemed so important that a woman without facial tattoos was not allowed to marry.

The process was understandably quite painful as traditional inking methods were used with no medical treatment available. Some of the older generations described it as an experience that was worse than death itself. However, the pain was actually part of the ritual as it indicated that a man or woman was strong enough to endure anything that would come their way.

Atayal woman with facial tattoos

The designs themselves are rather interesting as, upon closer inspection, it’s apparent that the women’s tattoos are far more intricate than those of the men. These designs and whorls could take up to 10 hours to complete, and those that had more duties and responsibilities in the tribe would have the most intricate tattoos, indicating their place within the social hierarchy. It was also believed that if a woman died in the process of being tattooed, then she must have been promiscuous.

There are several theories and legends as to how the custom started but perhaps the most popular one is the story of the time when many young Atayal girls died inexplicably. This caused great concern within the tribe, but one young girl dreamed that a spirit or god spoke to her explaining that if she tattooed her face, she would not die. The tribe decided to follow her advice, and soon after, the unusual deaths stopped.

Atayal woman

Whatever the true origins of this custom are, it’s apparent that in today’s modern world, the younger generation feels that they must turn their backs on this ancient tradition in order to work and live happily in Taiwan. However, members of the older generation are pushing hard to revive this custom but are having little success. Today there are very few men and women of the tribe with these intricate facial tattoos, and as the tribe dwindles in numbers and adapts to the modern age, it’s possible that the custom will die with the next generation.

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