Ancient tattoos: getting under the skin of the Scythians
Getting inked isn’t a new thing. In the BP exhibition Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia, you will find skin preserved with ancient tattoos. Dave Mazierski has made it his mission in life to cover his body in the same tattoos that are found on a 2,500-year-old mummy from a Bronze Age Scythian tribe.
St John Simpson (SJ): What does it feel like to be a walking Pazyryk man?
Dave Mazierski (DM): I don’t necessarily think of myself that way. It was not my original intent to ‘be’ the frozen Scythian… I just thought the designs were beautiful and unique. Now that I have acquired all of the tattoos that we know of (I’m still hoping they find the man’s left hand in the forgotten archives of the Hermitage… I’d bet he has a bird tattoo on his left thumb too…), I have sort of ‘become’ him. I’m not against the connection… I just never thought of myself ‘as’ him.
SJ: Can you tell us a little about your tattoos and their design?
DM: Well, as you know, I attempted to copy the designs from Rudenko’s 1970 English language publication The Frozen Tombs of Siberia as accurately as possible, and complete the ‘broken’ designs by filling in missing details based on the style of the other tattoos. I made enlarged photocopies from the line drawings in the book scaled up to fit my body, and over time worked on placing them according to the two drawings that showed the man’s body front and back. The first design we started with is the little four-legged dragon across the upper right arm, and oriented the later designs oriented on its position. The first few tattoos took a few attempts to place, as I had to keep in mind the position of the designs that had to follow.
SJ: What drew you to have these done?
DM: I was attracted to the beautiful and organic designs when they were shown to me by my former teacher and mentor in the Art as Applied to Medicine program at the University of Toronto, Steve Gilbert, who also happened to be a tattoo artist and historian. I told him I was interested in starting a ‘tattoo project’ in which all of the pieces would (eventually) integrate into a greater whole… I was thinking along the lines of a Japanese style ‘body suit’. I was unfamiliar with the Scythian/Pazyryk tattoos at the time, but when Steve showed them to me, I decided that that was the art I wanted.
SJ: What are the differences in time and techniques to execute these tattoos between then and now?
DM: We don’t know how the original tattoos were made… as far as I know, there have not been any tools that could be used to make tattoos (needles, handles, etc.) found in any of the Pazyrk tombs. Rudenko hypothesized that the tattoos may have been made by drawing soot-impregnated threads of sinew though the skin, which sounds painful and technically difficult, considering the details of some of the designs. Most of my tattoos were made with contemporary tattoo machines, although a few were done by ‘hand poking’, in which a block of tattoo needles are chucked in a small hobby knife handle and pushed into the skin in a stippling manner.
SJ: What sorts of responses have you had?
DM: These days, tattoos in society are so prevalent I’m not sure if they register with most people (although I enjoy catching the eye of those who notice!). A few years ago, I took part in a TV documentary on the Hermitage [you can watch footage below] that was shown on Canadian cable TV, and so once in a while someone asks if I was ‘that guy on TV’. If people do comment, they are complimentary, with some trying to guess the origins or meaning of the designs. ‘Celtic?’ ‘Viking?’ ‘Chinese?’ Only people who are familiar with the original ‘frozen Scythian’ correctly guess Siberia as their place of origin.
SJ: Do you have a favourite?
DM: Hmmm… that’s a bit like choosing my favourite child! I have to say I have become very fond of the rooster on my right thumb; I’m hoping that the curators at the Hermitage find the (detached) left hand from the body my tattoos come from in their collection; I’d bet good money that he had a tattoo on his left thumb, too!
You can watch more of Dave’s journey adding the Scythian tattoos to his body in the clip from an episode of the Canadian History Television series Museum Secrets below:
And here’s St John talking about some of the tattooed mummies in the exhibition:
The BP exhibition Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia is on from 14 September 2017 to 14 January 2018.
Supported by BP.