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By Maarten Hesselt van Dinter

Maarten Hesselt van Dinter's The World of Tattoo (KIT Publishers) is a visually stunning new book that explores the personal and collective acts of human transformation through the tradition of indelible marking among indigenous peoples and other tattoo communities, past and present. Throughout history, people have applied tattoos to living skin in their attempts to beautify, heal, empower, or carry the body into the afterlife. And as all tattoo bearers are participants in shared pain and recuperation, the skin is the location where individual and collective identity meets.

The author spent the better part of ten years gathering the material for this book visiting dusty archives in Europe, the United States, and Polynesia for rare images and texts that comprise the 300-page World of Tattoo. Peeking at the book's contents page, it seems that van Dinter has left no stone unturned in his encyclopedic quest to document each of the world's tattoo cultures, since he explores the diversity of tattooing on every inhabitable continent known to humankind.

With the popularity of tattooing on the rise, tattoos have gained respectability as a form of fine art. Although the range of motivations for becoming tattooed (e.g., enhanced attractiveness and spirituality, rebellion from society) are as varied as the tattoo styles available, tattooing has become not only a celebration of self and the human body, but also a celebration of the tattoo community. And in this way, The World of Tattoo is a book that celebrates our planet's tattoo cultures, even though tattooing practices, styles, and designs have increasingly moved from one cultural context to another, and tattooing practices have been given new meanings as they have been adopted by various segments of the human population.

For example, since tribal tattooing was first brought to the West from Polynesia and Japan in the 18th century, it has been borrowed many times over by servicemen, carnival entertainers, aristocrats, convicts, members of the working class, bikers, musicians, entertainers, athletes, and seemingly everyone else in between. But what has emerged in the 21st century from this kaleidoscopic mix of traditional and more contemporary forms of tattooing practice is a modern tattoo community that allows people to experiment with new identities and to cross boundaries of gender and cultural difference. Of course, this movement also includes the revitalization of tattooing practices in places such as Polynesia and elsewhere where tribal forms of tattooing were once in danger of disappearing.

Yet in many other parts of the indigenous world, tattooing practices are steadily on the decline. Disease, missionization, colonial administration, forced relocation, and modernity have all paved the way for a relinquishing of ancient tattoo customs; customs that were deeply rooted within the memory of ancestral and everyday life, and that defined local perceptions of identity through a wide array of visual symbolism.

Maarten's fully indexed book not only examines these threads, but also establishes new ways of seeing and reading the messages encoded in ancient and more contemporary forms of tattooing. And whether tattoos were worn as forms of ornament, medicine, or as religious devices, they defined local perceptions of existence that were spelled out on the surfaces of the body.

However, no matter how expansive or visually stunning a work of literary art may be, there are always a few shortcomings. Although van Dinter's book contains a literature section, the text is not rigorously cited with bibliographical references making it less "anthropological" because it is difficult to locate any of the source materials covered. More importantly, the author's primary source materials on indigenous peoples are derived from archives and published texts and not from actual encounters or interviews with living and breathing individuals. Perhaps this fact alone explains why there are several misattributions and misspellings in The World of Tattoo, but these are only minor considerations which should not keep this elegantly designed book from finding a home at your family coffee table, bookshelf, or local tattoo shop.

You can purchase your copy of The World of Tattoo at most local book outlets in North America and Europe or via

For more information on the author of The World of Tattoo, and a listing of his forthcoming literary projects, visit Maarten's website at:

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