Aborigines are the native, indigenous people of Australia. For thousands of years, the different tribes and groups developed cultures in complete isolation from the outside world, and often from each other. Art is an enormous part of their culture, having both traditional, personal, and religious significance.
Aboriginal artwork is used in traditional ceremonies and rituals. Dreams and nature are very important in Aboriginal culture. Symbols of these important aspects, as well as many others, are passed down from ancestor to ancestor and are very significant to the individual group that uses them. Furthermore, in some tribes, designs and symbols are inherited by a single artist, and only that artist, the sole owner, is allowed to draw it and use it.
Aboriginal art is traditionally drawn or painted on trees, on stone, on bark, in the sand, and on people. Most likely, body painting is the oldest form of art among the Aborigines and continues today. Body painting, like tattooing, uses designs and symbols to decorate the human form. Aboriginal designs are often elaborate and complex, using lines, cross-hatching, and dots to create beautiful patterns and images. These designs use few colors, due to limitations of natural supplies like blood, clay, and ash. Bark painting is the more recent medium for Aboriginal art and probably developed from body painting. Some modern Aboriginal artists use canvases and synthetic paints, too.
Because nature and dreams are so important to their culture, Aboriginal clans often use these images in their artwork. Landscapes are frequently used to tell stories, or dreams, and are often depicted in aerial views. Another artistic tradition is to show the insides of animals within an outline of its shape. Land animals, birds, and fish are often drawn with a visible skeleton and organs. Likewise, human females are sometimes depicted with visible wombs.
Artists sometimes use their hands as stencils to form the outline of another image, like a hand print drawn to look like a bird. This illustrates the connection between nature and themselves, which is important in Aboriginal culture. In Aboriginal artwork, humans are habitually shown connected to nature, occasionally even morphing into nature.
A large part of Aboriginal artwork is private, known only to the specific clan that creates it. Because of this, Aboriginal artwork has two meanings. The first is the general knowledge of symbols known both within and outside of the culture. Sometimes these symbols are obvious, while other times the group has explained them, sharing this aspect of their culture with outsiders.
The second, the private meaning is known only to the specific tribe it comes from and is not shared with outside people, including other Aborigines. This meaning is personal and religious, meant only for members of the specific group and is kept secret. In order to preserve these secrets, art historians believe the artists incorporated more dots, a distinctive trait of Aboriginal art, as a way to hide and conceal the artwork's true significance and not just as a decorative aspect. Others believe the dots are important, in and of themselves, and are not used to camouflage cultural secrets but have their own hidden meaning. The Aborigines do not indicate either belief to be correct, and modern Aboriginal artists continue to incorporate these distinctive dots into their work.
Modern Aboriginal tattoo designs are based upon these historical techniques. Although most traditional Aborigines do not have tattoos as part of their customs, some tribes use scarification, or ritualistic cutting, to decorate their bodies more permanently. Non-Aboriginal people continue to practice scarification, tattoos are the most popular method for achieving these Aboriginal looks.
People get the body art of Aborigines to express their personal beliefs about the connection between nature and man, which are shared by Aboriginal cultures. Moreover, people of Aboriginal descent may wish to explore their heritage in a manner more suitable to their lifestyles. Scarification is still taboo in many modern cultures while tattooing is much more acceptable.