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  HOME | Central America

Tattoos, Piercing and Extensions: Guatemala’s Other Maya Heritage

GUATEMALA CITY – The Lady of Tattoos, with her nose piercing, earlobe extensions and flowers tattooed on her right breast, might well be one of the girls who daily stroll through the historic center of Guatemala City, but instead she’s a figurine more than 1,500 years old.

The Lady dates back to the Classic Period of Mayan civilization around 450 A.D., archaeologist Sofia Paredes told EFE in an interview.

“Mayas of the Classic Period apparently gave considerable importance to ornamenting their bodies with skin painting, extreme physical transformations and a store of gems and decorative clothing,” the expert said.

In fact The Lady of Tattoos, as this statuette is known, has her face marked by cicatrization, another decorative technique that scars the skin in the form of circles, lines and spirals in relief around the eyes and corners of the mouth.

“It’s human nature to want to decorate the skin,” said Paredes, who never hesitates to take her knowledge of the Mayan world to international tattoo conferences to show the relationship of skin decoration old and new.

The Spanish missionary Diego de Landa himself, who became one of the leading chroniclers of the Mayan culture after the conquest, recorded in his texts the ancestral tradition of skin decorated with ink drawings.

In the latter case, Paredes said, as many as 61 different tattoos were recorded, many of them on parts of the body affected with arthritis, from which the therapeutic use of art on the skin might be deduced.

Today tattoos are no longer a part of native culture. “The Indian no longer gets tattooed,” the archaeologist said.

The Spanish conquest and consequent introduction of a European viewpoint in which this practice was associated with prisoners and stigmatized minorities led the heirs of this Mayan tradition to give it up entirely.

Like tattoos, other traditions common among the Mayas like body piercing and ear extension are often to be seen in urban settings but not among today’s Mesoamerican Indians.

“The ancient Mayas painted their bodies, got tattooed and made extreme body transformations by perforating their earlobes and lips, and encrusting their teeth with jade,” says the news bulletin for the exhibition “The Human Body and Pre-Columbian Bodily Decoration.”

The show, made up of 100 pieces from the Route of the Maya Foundation, offers visual examples of these traditions and others, now forgotten, such as flattened heads and the cross-eyed gaze.

All these traditions can be viewed until next Feb. 26, 2017, at the Center of Spanish Collaboration in Ancient Guatemala – it’s a chance to see what people were like 1,500 years ago.


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