Facial Tattoos in Taiwan: A Columbus Connection

I just met Nick Wolnak who is a friend of a friend of mine. He’s one of those totally cool guys who happens to be a world traveler that life has brought to Columbus, Ohio. It’s not rocket science to figure out why I might find him interesting. Nick just got back from Sierra Leone on a trip that was focused on visiting his friend who was finishing up a gig with Doctors without Borders. Nick’s official role was observer but, as he rediscovered, merely observing doesn’t exist in some parts of the world. There he was, the owner of two hip Columbus establishments, High Five Bar & Grill and Evolved–a tattoo and body piercing parlor, helping to deliver a baby during a difficult birth, and after that, spending a lot of his time feeding malnourished kids.

After he recounted his Sierra Leone experience, we wandered off into other travel talk and Taiwan came up. Nick’s been there three times. Even though I lived in Taiwan for two years and traveled extensively around the island and I knew about the indigenous groups, I didn’t know specifics about the Atayal who have a cultural heritage of facial tattooing. If I did know at one time, I’ve forgotten. Nick filled in the blanks. He is an expert about the Atayals. From what he said, that not many folks in Taiwan knew about this group either–even the tattoo artists in Taipei. Here’s why. When the Japanese occupied Taiwan, they outlawed tattoos. Eventually, those with tattoos dwindled in number and were thought to be barbaric. And since they mostly lived in the remote regions of the country like in the mountains near Hualien, after awhile most people didn’t even know these folks existed.

Nick found out these details through his research trails and travels that started with his own interest in tattoo art. Eventually, through a lot of information digging, Nick was able to locate and interview two people with these tattoos. One of them, a woman had only one tattoo in the middle of her forehead. This is the first tattoo the Atayals were given when they were four or five. She was five when the Japanese first occupied the country so that’s why she doesn’t have the tattoos that were given at a later age. Today she is considered a National Treasure.

Here’s an article about the Atayal that appeared in the Taipei Journal after Nick’s visit. And here is a web site about Taiwan’s ten indigenous groups. The photo posted by tangent on Flickr is from a photo exhibit on the indigenous people of Taiwan that was at the Scott Laurent Galleries in Winter Park, Florida last year. He also wrote this article about the exhibit. If you click here, you’ll see a larger version of the Atayal woman who is in the picture in the top row on the right.