Facial Tattoos: The Tribal Female Rite in Papua New Guinea

Facial Tattoos: The Tribal Female Rite in Papua New Guinea

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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.

“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 […]