An examination of Aztec body art for decorative, religious & military purposes, including the role of tattoos, body paint & the makeup used by Aztec women.
Aztec body art existed in a variety of forms, from purely decorative works to those of a military and religious significance. However, while tattooing and body painting were commonplace throughout pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, the Aztec civilization appears to have used body art to a lesser extent than many of its neighbors and rivals.
Aztec Tattoo Art
According to historian J. Eric Thompson, “Direct evidence for tattooing does not exist among the Aztecs, although there are vague references to the custom.” More concrete evidence exists for tattooing among the Maya, a notable example being that of Gonzalo Guerrero, a Spaniard who became shipwrecked in Mayan territory before the Spanish Conquest.
When contacted by Hernán Cortés, who urged him to return to the Spanish fold, Guerrero refused. Bernal Díaz, Conquistador and chronicler, wrote that Guerrero’s refusal was due to his new family and his distinctly native appearance: “my face is tattooed and my ears are pierced. What would the Spaniards say if they saw me like this?”
Tattooing was also commonplace among both the Huaxtec and Otomi tribes, neighbors of the Aztecs. Huaxtec and Otomi warriors were often elaborately decorated with permanent tattoos and Otomi women would tattoo their arms and breasts (something that Aztec women did not do). When compared to contemporaneous Mesoamerican civilizations, therefore, the Aztecs appear to have refrained from, or perhaps even disdained, permanent tattooing.
Aztec War Paint
There is not enough evidence to suggest that permanent tattooing was a significant part of Aztec daily life or ritual ceremony. Body painting appears to have been more commonplace, particularly among the priesthood and the Aztec warrior classes, but even this is open to some debate.
The use of war paint by Aztec warriors is “a thorny subject” according to military historian Ian Heath. Heath states that the Aztec codices contain very few representations of warriors sporting war paint: “Only a few warriors occur with painted faces in Aztec pictorial sources.” The elite Cuahchicqueh warrior class, men who are shown with their heads painted black (or half blue and half yellow), are instantly recognizable among other Aztec warriors in the codices, largely due to their distinct painted faces.
Warriors from frontier tribes are frequently portrayed in the codices wearing body paint, once again setting them apart from the Aztecs. Aztec warriors more commonly displayed their status by the styling of their hair and through Aztec piercings such as lip and ear plugs. On the battlefield, war suits further flaunted a warriors status (such as the distinctive Eagle and Jaguar Warrior suits).
Religious Aztec Body Painting
Body painting can be seen to a greater extent among the Aztec priesthood. According to Manuel Aguilar-Moreno in the Handbook to Life in the Aztec World, “Priests and the male telpochcalli instructors wore black body paint from the soot of resinous wood.” Aztec priests also painted their faces with their own blood, applying red smears in front of each ear. The instructors in the telpochcalli and calmecac schools, the so-called Masters of Youth, wore lighter tones of black face faint around the eyes, nose, and mouth.
Women & Aztec Makeup
Aztec women generally abstained from decorative body paint and extravagant forms of makeup. However, Aguilar-Moreno states that “A yellow clay called tecozahuitl and a yellow-tinted body makeup known as axin were used to cover the limbs and face of Aztec women.”
Staining of the lips and the application of rouge existed among Aztec women, but only among those of ill repute. Prostitutes stained their teeth red with cochineal, a deep crimson dye extracted from the cochineal insect. Among respectable women, staining the teeth in this manner was strictly prohibited. The mouth was highly eroticized in Aztec culture, and drawing attention to it was regarded as gratuitous and vulgar.
- J. Eric Thompson – Mexico Before Cortez: An Account of the Daily Life, Religion and Ritual of the Aztecs and Kindred People, The Scribner Press, 1933.
- Bernal Diaz – The Conquest of New Spain, Penguin Classics, 1963, ISBN 9780140441239.
- Ian Heath – Armies of the 16th Century (Vol 2), Foundry Books, 1999, ISBN 190154303X.
- Manuel Aguilar-Moreno – Handbook to Life in the Aztec World, Oxford University Press, 2007, ISBN 9780195338030.