At their most basic level, jagua and henna are inks. For some reason, the subject keeps coming up in conversations with unlikely people, so these exchanges have served to remind me of a section in my book, Jagua: A Journey into Body Art from the Amazon, which speaks to ink having stemmed from a desire for us to communicate on a physical level—with our minds and our bodies. Here is a reprint of that excerpt from the book.
Jagua: A Journey into Body Art from the Amazon
by Carine Fabius
The popularity of permanent and temporary tattoos speaks to the propensity of human beings to turn their bodies into art, transforming their skin into the equivalent of canvas, paper, wood and stone—all mediums of communication. After researching the impulses behind tattoos, it occurred to me that there is another element which must be considered when discussing jagua and its place in the body art conversation. Before the Chinese invented ink five thousand years ago, messages were cut into stone or wet clay. Carrying stone tablets around took strength and determination even as it afforded that missive’s transportation from place to place—an impossible feat with the interior of caves! Ink revolutionized the way that people transmitted ideas, feelings and information, and facilitated transference of knowledge in a way oral histories never could.
Why am I bringing up ink? Because people have an innate need to communicate. Before paper was invented (again by the Chinese in 105 AD), when there was no other surface available, and long before ink came along, people found ways to talk with their bodies. Back then, and today in prisons, where ink is not easily obtained, people used whatever they could to achieve permanent statements: silt, soot, charcoal, ash from burned brown paper bags or black plastic garbage bags mixed with water, urine, whatever, inserted into the skin with safety pins, guitar strings, brush wire, sticks, razors, bones—any sharp object. Ink is the medium that brought full circle early man’s desire for social, (and sexual) intercourse via messages transmitted on the body [or any other surface] in a safer, easier way. In addition to words, ink facilitated the conveyance of things not easily articulated; the transmission of subliminal, subconscious or conscious messages in a forceful way. Which brings me to the subject at hand, namely, the relevance of temporary tattoos created with henna and jagua because these, too, are inks.
Mother Earth is rife with natural pigments and organic dyes from berries, fruits, plants and trees, like indigo, saffron, achiote, bloodroot, beets, cocoa, pomegranate and scores more. Precious inks, these can stain paper and other surfaces, and if applied under the skin, would take care of the job at hand, no problem. However, they all wash right off the body. To my knowledge, only henna and jagua stain the top layer of skin for extended periods, going through the complete exfoliation cycle (one to two weeks, depending on the person). The magical thing about these two body inks is that they provide us with the ability to change the message. Throughout civilization, body adornment has been used by humans to advertise their wares—look at me, I’m sexy! Animals do it, too; think no further than the peacock. But he only walks around spreading his fan when in courting mode, not all the time. I know men are supposed to spend something like two and a half hours a day thinking about sex and ways to get it, but that still leaves another twenty-one and a half when they’d rather be hunting, killing, or watching the football game! (Sorry guys, I’m just trying to make a point.) Which leads me to conclude that these two natural inks are very powerful tools of communication because, in addition to functioning as permanent dyes—the Matsés use jagua under the skin, too—they serve the all-important and very valuable additional service of also being temporary. And that’s significant, especially because if nature provided the possibility, that means it foresaw a need.
From sharp bones to bamboo stems to quill pens made with feathers and dipped in ink wells, to fountain pens that carried their own ink (first patented in 1884 by Lewis Waterman), none had the effect of the ballpoint pen. Though patented in 1888 and improved by many others over the years, the ballpoint did not become truly famous until a French baron called Marcel Bich secured an earlier patent, perfected it and introduced the Bic pen throughout the world. Bic, a shortened version of Bich, became and is still a household word today.
I swear, I feel like Mr. Bic (without his money!). I can almost imagine what he and his forebears went through to get the ink to flow through that instrument and create a stain that did not smear, which dried on contact, had a shelf life, and—even as it provided a priceless way to improve communication—was nonetheless affordable to the masses. We had to go through much the same process within our own little art and communication niche. So, if in addition to providing people with a way to adorn their bodies, we also expand the age-old tradition of speaking out(!) in one of the most creative ways possible, then that’s a good thing.
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