Today, tattoos seem to be everywhere. As one of the most inked countries in the world, surveys estimate that between 14 and 25 percent of American adults have at least one tattoo. With more young people celebrating adulthood with a trip to a tattoo shop, that number is only going to grow in the next decade.
Whether or not it’s a great idea to get a tattoo on a trip to Vegas, Sin City has the country’s second highest number of tattoo shops per capita (Miami takes the first place honors). Between the endless tourist cycle, and ample weather opportunities for locals to show off their skin, it’s no surprise that Las Vegas is one of the most ink-friendly cities.
But the desert’s relationship with tattoos stretches far back in time, before Bugsy Siegel, casinos, and big neon lights came to the area. Many ancient cultures practiced tattooing for ritual purposes or as marks of status, including the Mojave people, after which the desert was named. Our ATV desert tour guide knows more about the native people and will share if you ask.
In popular culture, many people know of Mojave tattooing because of a woman named Olive Oatman, an American woman of European descent who spent five years living among the Mojave people. After her family was killed, Olive and her sister were taken captive by one group of Native Americans, but were eventually traded to a group of Mojave, and Oatman spent five years living among them. When she left the Mojave to be reunited with her brother, Olive had a Mojave tattoo of patterned lines on her chin.
This type of chin tattoo was worn by both Mojave men and women, usually received sometime after puberty, and was said to ensure one’s passage into the afterlife. The process of being tattooed wasn’t quick, and usually involved several days of ceremony, performed by a specially designated member of the community. Long before the electric tattoo guns used in most modern shops, Mojave methods relied on sharp instruments like thorns or tools made of bone or rock to scratch the skin, and then dark pigments derived from plants were applied to the area.
When Olive left the Mojave people to be reunited with her surviving brother, her story became a news sensation (quite an impressive feat in the time before TV or Internet). Some reports claimed that Olive’s tattoo marked her as a slave, but this theory was most likely born out of lack of understanding of what tattoos meant to the Mojave people, and fear of a custom that was so foreign to the non-Native people.
While tattoos are a fairly common sight in modern day America, their meanings are varied, and some people continue to fear them. The story of Olive Oatman and her experience with the Mojave people is a great reminder of how physical expression can mean many things, and not to judge a book by its tattooed cover.