In the last century, tattooing in the arctic has been a disappearing artform. However, previously the artform had been practiced for the last 3,500 years.
Inuit (also known incorrectly as Eskimos) regarded the living body as having multiple souls, each contained within a joint. They regarded disease as nothing more than the loss of a soul. As such, tattoos on joints were a big part of funerary rights, given as protection to the pallbearer. These tattoos consisted of dots on various joints. These tattoos protected the pallbearer from spiritual attack, as this person was thought to be at risk for spiritual attack from the deceased.
Additionally tattoos were given for those that killed a polar bear, seal, or harpooned a whale for the first time. This was done to protect against the vengeful spirit of the dead animal. Like those of the pallbearer these tattoos consisted of small dots on various joints. Hunters also often got tattoos on the face, consisting of a fluke tail on either side of the lips; these were to ensure the wearer luck in the future with hunting.
Tattoos were given on the forehead, as a connection to ancestors; these consisted of lines and pictographic images. These were thought to be a conduit for a visiting spiritual entity, as a sort of spirit helper. These spiritual magnets were used in conjunction with ceremonial attire. In Chukotka killers often got tattoos on the soldiers as a way to appropriate the spirit of their victim, transforming them into an assistant.
Inuit women often had tattooed chin stripes. These stripes served as protection. During raiders, rival tribesman would spare women; stripes made it easier to distinguish them as such in the dark, thus sparing their lives. On many islands in the arctic, this was also seen as a sign of being able to withstand great pain, men looked for this when choosing a wife. Few other widespread designs existed among cultures in the arctic.
Finally, arctic tattooing was often used for medicinal purposes. When a biological disorder become life threatening and preventative medicine didn’t work Shamans were counted upon to restore health. Disorders were generally regarded as a spiritual attack. These tattoos were often disease specific; mark on the sternum for heart trouble, marks over each eye for eye trouble. In northwest Alaska, tattoos were often accompanied by ritual bloodletting. The Shamans tattoos also was used in a similar way to Chinese Acupuncture. These tattoos were given on joints, to block spiritual pathways from bad spirits; they also may have served as a form of pain relief.
These arctic tattoos had variations among specific culture. However they all served similar purposes, for medicine, spiritual protection, luck, protection, and connection to ancestors.