Arts & Entertainment

Lars Krutak brings ancient tattoo knowledge to KU

By Heather Gursky
Arts and Entertainment Editor

Tattoo anthropologist and author Lars Krutak spoke in Boehm Hall on March 21. Krutak shared his knowledge and experience with the traditions of indigenous tattooing. Within his presentation Krutak talked about medicinal and protection tattoos, both hands stitched and stick-and-poked. 

Krutak told the story about how he got involved with studying tattoos and their traditions. This started while he was a graduate student studying at the University of Fairbanks in Alaska. There, he met a woman who had three lines tattooed down her chin. Traditionally, women marked themselves with three lines to mark life achievements such as having a baby, however, the woman had tattooed herself in homage to her ancestors.

He said she hand stitched herself using a needle and thread. Using this method, a person takes a tiny needle, sticks it through the skin and pulls it out. As the needle passes through the skin the pigment-soaked thread leaves a small trace of ink behind.

He also found traditional whaling tattoos on Saint Lawrence Island, Alaska. Although it is not a common practice today, whalers on the island would receive a tally for each kill—whether it be a line or a dot—stretching from the opening of their nostrils to the beginnings of their ears. He added that the placement of these tattoos had to do with the protection of the openings that lead to the spirit, especially since the men were working around the dead.

Throughout his presentation, Krutak mentioned the Kalinga tribe whom he has been working with for over 10 years. Whang-Od and her daughter Grace were amongst the members of the tribe who left a great impression on the anthropologist — literally. While visiting her town, both women tattooed Krutak. He notes that it is unusual for women in the tribe to be tattoo artists. 

“If Kalinga tattooing will stop, we will lose an important part of our culture and tradition that has been handed down,”  Whang-Od said. For women, they increase fertility and, for men, they represent killing a person in hand-to-hand combat.

 After providing information about himself and tribal traditions, Krutak also shared his experience being a part of the filming crew for “The Tattoo Hunter,” which aired on the Discovery Channel nine years ago.

One memorable story was of the last tattoo master named Maung who was on his deathbed. At the time, Krutak was traveling with Maung’s younger relatives who were both “tattooists in their own right.” Breaking off from the show’s crew, Krutak ventured to Maung’s longhouse where he learned about the master’s unique style.

 Maung’s tattoo ink consisted of a carbon-based pigment, but “he had a magical charm that he dipped into every batch of tattooing pigment he’s made for these men to render them invincible and protect them from danger.” That night there was an electric storm that passed through suddenly, and, the next day, it was announced Maung was dead. Krutak believes the two have relevance.

 You can watch Krutak’s most recent show, “Explained,” featured on Netflix. In each 19-minute episode, Krutak goes over the history of tattoos.

His recent publication, “Ancient Ink: The Archeology of Tattooing,” is now available on his website,, as well as Amazon and Barnes and Noble.


Categories: Arts & Entertainment