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Marking Time

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Body marking ” tattooing and scarring ” is a ritual employed by humankind for at least 2,500 years. The practice is as widespread as it is enduring: mummified bodies from Siberia to Egypt to the Tyrolean Alps have also been found to have been marked with tattoos, scars or both.

Chris Rainier has observed the extent of body-marking across the world. A photographer who has traveled the world, covering wars from Somalia to Bosnia, and indigenous cultures such as the tribes of Papua New Guinea, Rainier has seen tattoos and scars used for a variety of purposes.

Not until he was working on his 1996 book “Where Masks Still Dance: New Guinea,” a photographic examination of the primitive tribes of the island off of Australia’s northeast coast, did Rainier realize what a global phenomenon body-marking was. “Where Masks Still Dance” was 10 years in the making, and when Rainier would end his months-long visits to return to the United States, he noticed that body-marking was thriving as much in the modern world as in the primitive one.



“I’d come back and see the absolute explosion of tattooing in the country,” said Rainier, who lived in Aspen from 1987 until a year ago, when he moved to the Washington, D.C., area to take a full-time job with National Geographic. “I saw an interesting trend there, and came to an idea to explore it.”

Rainier has explored body-marking with the same kind of expansive focus he brought to “Where Masks Still Dance,” which required eight two- to three-month-long trips to Papua New Guinea, and his first book, 1993’s “Keepers of the Spirit,” which documented sacred places around the planet. Rainier has been at work on the body-marking project for some seven years. In that time, he has traveled to 30 countries on six continents, from Africa to California to the South Pacific.




Rainier’s “Ancient Marks: Tattoos and Body Markings Around the Globe,” a book of some 110 black-and-white photographs and two essays, was originally due out around now. The publication date has been pushed back to the fall of 2004, so that it can include additional images and undergo design work. The book is to be published by California’s Media 27.

Aspenites, however, will get an advance look at the imagery. “Ancient Marks,” an exhibit of some 18 pieces, opens today, Friday, Nov. 28, at the David Floria Gallery, with a reception for Rainier from 6-8 p.m.

Rainier has found that body-marking is thriving in places as diverse as Polynesia and Los Angeles, among the Ikuza, Japan’s mafia, and Ethiopian tribes. Polynesia has a particularly strong tradition. Tattooing had pretty much died out in Europe until Captain Cook , amazed by what he had seen in his travels to Polynesia, brought the practice back to Europe. The word “tattoo” is derived from the Polynesia “tatau,” a word which mimics the sound of an instrument tapping on the skin.

In every location he has shot, Rainier has seen one thread of common purpose in the practice of marking.

“Whether you go to Burning Man [a gathering in the Nevada desert] or the modern primitive movement in San Francisco that appropriates Polynesian designs, or to an L.A. street gang, all have one thing in common ” it allows them to be connected to a group, and allows them to be part of a tradition,” said Rainier, a native of Canada who lived in Australia as a child and worked as an assistant to Ansel Adams in Carmel, Calif., from 1980-85. “It makes a statement about who they are and what they believe. It shows they belong to a group.

Often, the act of getting a mark on the body is itself a rite of passage. “It’s a form of initiation,” said Rainier. “In most tribal cultures, children go through a series of initiations to become a member of the tribe, to prove that they belong. It involves pain, and eventually prestige: ‘Ah, they’ve gone through the rites.'”

Rainier says that the vast resurgence in body-marking is a reaction to the modernization of the world. Tattooing and scarring reconnect tribal people to their traditions and offer a way for citizens of advanced societies to exercise a little tribalism.

“There’s a real renaissance of indigenous cultures going on,” said Rainier, who now heads National Geographic’s program on documenting the world’s tribal cultures, including a program to allow cultures to tell their own stories. “Tribal people are seeing their elders die off, and they want to capture that dying culture. So there’s been a resurgence of traditional ways.

“When a Polynesian walks down the street with a tattoo, it’s a sign of their beliefs, their identity, that they embrace the culture. It’s so important to keep our identities and accept traditions that are not our own.”

In documenting those traditions, Rainier has seen some freaky goings-on. African with massive lip plates is only the beginning; at Burning Man, Rainier has photographed the people who scar their bodies by hanging from meat hooks. In the Philippines each Easter, he has documented the three people who are crucified for several hours, to give their bodies scars that are a mark of prestige.

As for Rainier’s own body, it is much as Mother Nature made it. For the moment.

“I’d like to get one,” he said. “Once I finish the project I’ll cast an eye over my shoulder and think, which of these traditions has meant the most to me?”


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