All of the major forms of body art known today appear in the ancient world, and there is no evidence indicating a single place of origin for particular techniques. Like people today, ancient peoples used body art to express identification with certain people and distinction from others. Through body art, members of a group could define the ideal person and highlight differences between individuals and groups. In the past, as today, body art may have been a way of communicating ideas about the afterlife and about the place of the individual in the universe.
A variety of objects demonstrate the use of body art in ancient times including an Egyptian fish-shaped make-up palette from 3650 BC to 3300 BC; a painted Greek vase from the fifth century BC depicting tattooed Thracian women; a ceramic spout bottle depicting the pierced face of a Moche warrior of Peru from AD 100-700; and ceramics of painted Nayarit women from 300 BC to 300 AD.
As people from one culture encounter people from another, the diversity of body art can be a source of inspiration, admiration, and imitation. Yet since body art can so clearly signal cultural differences, it can also be a way for people from one culture to ostracize others.
Body art links the individual to a social group as an insider, by asserting a shared body art language. Or it distinguishes outsiders, by proclaiming a separate identity. This concept is explored in Identities, which includes exhibits on tattooing in Japan, New Zealand, the Marquesan Islands, and the contemporary U.S, as well as African and Western piercing.
Body art practices can change rapidly, reflecting larger shifts in society. Tattooing virtually disappeared in Polynesia, partly due to Western influence, but it is now being revived as an assertion of ethnic identity. Western body art, including everything from piercing to shoe styles, also indicates a person’s social identity.
In a complex and diverse society, when certain types of body art are shunned by some, they can become signs of rebellion for others. But as unfashionable body art practices become the norm, they lose their power to define group membership and instead express individual choices and life experiences.
Body painting can transform a person into a spirit, a work of art, another gender or even a map of a sacred place. It can emphasize visual appeal, express allegiance or provide a protective and empowering coating. Protective body paints often feature in initiation rituals, weddings and funerals — all occasions of transition and of spiritual danger. People everywhere adorn the living, and some also treat the dead, with body paint. To make body paint, pigments composed of plant extracts or mineral clays and powders can be mixed with vegetable oil or animal fat. Throughout history, the substances used for body paint have been important trade items. Ochre, camwood, cinnebar, and kaolin were traded throughout Asia, Africa and Europe.
Henna, used as a temporary skin dye, was widely traded in the Muslim world along with patterns and designs used to apply it. Commercially manufactured body paints, now available in a wider palette, may be adopted for their visual appeal but they rarely take on the symbolic significance of natural paints and dyes.