Painted Ladies

Facial Tattoos: The Tribal Female Rite in Papua New Guinea

Move over, Mike Tyson. The tribes of Papua New Guinea’s Tufi region don’t mess around when it comes to body ink. But here in Tufi, it’s a rite reserved solely for women.

David Gray / Reuters

“I love a woman with a good tattoo. You know, there are ‘boobs men,’ ‘legs men,’ but me—I’m a tattoo man,” Oswald chortles, his toothy smile stained by the blood-red betel nut. “You should meet my wife, she has the most beautiful tattoo in our tribe,” adds Daius, calmly leaning back, quietly interjecting with confidence.

Both Oswald and Daius are members of the Korafe tribe, one of roughly eight sects occupying the fjord-ridden region of Tufi in Papua New Guinea’s easterly Oro province. And at 65 and 47 years old respectively, they grapple with finding room for their people’s time-honored traditions in a rapidly globalizing world.

The Korafe, along with the neighboring Tufians, are known throughout the country for one of the most extreme tribal traditions on the planet: facial tattoos. A rite of passage solely reserved for adolescent girls, the painful custom is believed to be as old as the local creation myth.

Like most rituals in Papua New Guinea, facial tattooing borrows from the mating rituals of a bird; the Raggiana bird of paradise in particular, which presents its vivid plumage upon reaching maturity. A bright tattoo—the tribal interpretation of brilliant feathers—adorns a young woman’s face when she comes of age between 14 and 18 years old.

It’s difficult, however, to find the equivalent of a Tufian facial tattoo in Western culture. Unlike selective rhinoplasty, which yields a smaller and more feminine nose shape, or breast augmentation, which enhances the womanly figure, these permanent markings aren’t meant to embellish any female attributes in the name of sex appeal. They are instead somewhat akin to ear piercing—it’s ornamentation, or Tufian art, and it’s appreciated as a new and separate attribute of the body by men and women alike.

It goes without saying that the process of adorning one’s face with stripes and swirls is an act of beautification that is much more arduous than sliding a needle through one’s ear.

When a young woman’s elders decide she’s ready for the rite, they deliver her to one of the tribe’s tattoo mavens; a older woman who is well versed in the elaborate custom of ink art creation. Her responsibilities are twofold: While preserving the generational custom and executing an array of designs on the delicate canvas, she must also care for the young woman in question during the painful procedure, which can take up to two months to complete.

From beginning to end, the process of acquiring a facial tattoo is shrouded in mystery known only to the women of the Tufian tribes. The rite of passage is performed with great secrecy, usually when the cool breezes of the dry season blow through (between May and September) so that the rite bearers can hide comfortably inside the tattoo maven’s hut, as they are forbidden to be seen by others until the artwork is complete.

The first few days of the ritual are dedicated to perfecting the pattern of sea-green ribbons that will eventually adorn the face forever. Some of the markings are tribal, showing the provenance of the young woman (some clans draw down the neck, some stop at the jawbone), while others are purely aesthetic, matching and accentuating the facial shape and physique.

Several designs are painted on with bits of finely burned charcoal, or in some cases squid ink, until the artist and the young woman’s family decide upon a veritable blueprint. And then the “tapping’ process begins.

The traditional form of tattooing in Tufi is loosely called “tapping” because of the rat-tat-tat action that takes place when the artist literally taps the charcoal design into the face of the young recipient. Using what’s locally referred to as a boare tifá, a makeshift stylus constructed from a sharp thorn dipped in a variety of ceremonial antiseptics, the tattoo maven pricks the face for roughly 20 minutes at both the beginning and end of the day. During the rest of the day the young woman relaxes and heals, waiting for the swelling on her face to subside.

The practice is long and arduous, and after the entire face has been tapped, the process is repeated twice more to ensure that the design stays on the face without too much fading.

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Beyond the mental acuity needed to focus through the pain, the young woman must also abide by a strict diet. While living in the tattoo maven’s hut, she is expected to participate in a type of modified fasting meant to speed the healing process and increase one’s pain threshold during the unpleasant sessions of “tapping.” Only hot water can be consumed, and the minimal amounts of food acceptable must never be cooked in a clay pot.

Failure to follow the fasting regimen often results in scarring and sickness from the repeated tattooing when the scabs don’t cleanly fall off of the face. From a male perspective, this often puts into question a young woman’s ability to be a good mother; if she can’t feed herself properly, how will she care for her children?

When the young woman is ready to emerge from her weeks in hiding, she attends a ceremony marking her ascent into true womanhood. And from that point on she must ritualistically bathe her face in coconut oil to keep the luster of the markings intact for the rest of her life.

Oswald and Daius reflect on the special days when the young women in the tribe would emerge from the tattoo maven’s hut at the unveiling; “the brightness of their tattoos was captivating—like the feathers of a bird. We remember it well.”

Thirty years ago, it was unheard of not to earn your stripes, so to speak. “Adult women without tattoos were considered used up,” according to Oswald, meaning that an unadorned woman had implicitly sought out sexual partners before reaching the age of appropriate maturity—the inverse of a scarlet letter, if you will.

Today, however, with Western conventions like advanced education, many girls leave their tribes to attend high school in the provincial capitals and never complete their rites of adulthood. Never mind the overt shift in attire from tree bark to T-shirts, the act of tattooing one’s face no longer feels like a necessity to the young women adopting Western conventions of beauty.

To encourage the continuation of the Tufian tradition, it is said that if a young woman goes through the onerous rite, she’s allowed to take the husband of her choosing. Oswald may have a tattoo fetish, but it’s doubtful that the girls have a thing for betel nut-stained teeth.