Body art is an important element in this society. This art is painted on the skin and applied with magic. They are semi-permanent, only being removed as needed by other magical items. It is not mandatory to wear, but very popular and widely used by men and women. They are gender specific and applied like makeup to enhance characteristics of the individual. However, rather than just being an accessory, it is also meant to tell a story about the person and there place in the world. Common uses include:

  • welcoming in the seasons, a new year, or bountiful harvest
  • celebrations and festivities, religious holidays
  • wealth and prestige
  • accomplishments and successes, number of enemies defeated in battle or children birthed into a clan
  • rites of passage into adulthood, or applied to bodies representing passage into the next life.

These markings are judged by their beauty and intricacy, as well as the story they tell of the individual or the concepts relevant to this culture that they symbolize. A marking may be pretty to look at, but if there is no meaning behind it, it is meaningless and wasted effort. Important clans may even have unique tattoo specific to their family, and are worn with pride to symbolive their place in the community.

EDIT:The society in question is matriarchial, with clan descent traced through the female line. Women often use art to emphasize female traits, such as wisdom, strength, fertility, intuiton, intelligence, and power. Men, in contrast, use it to emphasize male traits, such as courage, bravery, physical prowess and brawn, honor, victories in battle, etc. Body art can be applied to a number of places, including face, chest, and arms.

How can magical body art be used to designate and judge social status among people? What may be some complications that could come of this and how could they be avoided?

  • $\begingroup$ Sure they can, how socially mobile is your society? What kind of ruling class? $\endgroup$
    – Mormacil
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 9:04
  • $\begingroup$ It has been done in real life and in media. A good example of it in media would be the Taurons in Caprica. Throw caprica tauron tattoos in to your favorite image search engine if you want to see examples. $\endgroup$
    – Anketam
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 10:13
  • $\begingroup$ Even after your edit I think you should be even more precise. Because what you describe there sounds more or less like an egalitarian society with tattoos of a more fashion/spiritual nature. Here are some questions: Are your people naked? In what way do tattoos matter? Are the things you describe in some kind of hierarchy, e.g., a tattoo about a new year is more prestigious than a tattoo in bravery? Your question as of right now reads: "Are tattoos possible and does how you present yourself have anything to do with your social status?" which I still think is highly trivial $\endgroup$
    – Raditz_35
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 11:24
  • $\begingroup$ If you wanted to infuse the tattoos with magic - the magic forces the issue. A symbol can be ignored, but if you're compelled to do as the chief says due to his magical status symbol being higher up the chain than yours.... $\endgroup$ Commented May 26, 2017 at 14:24
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    $\begingroup$ Not sure what you are asking. "In my world there is a purely visual way to judge a ton of things tied to social status. Will people in this setting use said thing to judge social status?". Well... yes. $\endgroup$
    – ndnenkov
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 16:04

7 Answers 7


Does tattoos are used to mark a social status? Yes. teardrop The tear is not a sign of a sweat and dedication for hard work.

Traditional Ethiopian tattoos are exactly what you are looking for, they are the letters that tells a story enter image description here

And then you have the "tribal" tattoos, they mean nothing, have no message hidden apart from "I've chosen this from a trendy tattoos coffe book".

Problems may arise when somebody use a picture used in one society without realising it meaning, like a dolphin or a lilly.

Or they are tourist that have a "delivery on Monday" tattooed in foreign language.

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    $\begingroup$ Doesn't the tear mean that the individual spent at least 7 years in prison? $\endgroup$
    – Cloud
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 11:07
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    $\begingroup$ Also, "delivery on Monday" is hilarious. There's a subreddit somewhere with ones like "50% off kung-pow chicken", etc, etc. Mind you, chicken is delicious, so I shouldn't judge. $\endgroup$
    – Cloud
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 11:12
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    $\begingroup$ @DevNull depending on prison culture. In Poland sometimes they have tears near the nose and that represent regret. dots on the outside mean pimp or person who Is willing to stay in prison for a longer time. $\endgroup$ Commented May 26, 2017 at 11:39
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    $\begingroup$ Don't forget the Maori $\endgroup$ Commented May 26, 2017 at 11:42
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    $\begingroup$ @DevNull I've heard one interpretation is that 1 tear = 1 kill. $\endgroup$ Commented May 26, 2017 at 13:33

Māori Tattoos (Ta Moko)

The Māori are the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand. Although the tattoos were mainly facial, the North Auckland warriors included swirling double spirals on both buttocks, often leading down their legs until the knee.

The women were not as extensively tattooed as the men. Their upper lips were outlined, usually in dark blue. The nostrils were also very finely incised. The chin moko was always the most popular, and continued to be practiced even into the 1970s.

Moko patterns and meaning

The Moko is similar to an identity card, or passport. For men, the Moko showed their rank, their status and their ferocity, or virility. The wearer's position of power and authority could be instantly recognized in his Moko. Certain other outward signs, combined with a particular Moko, could instantly define the "identity card" of a person. For example, a chief with Moko and at the same time wearing a dog cloak could be identified as a person of authority, in charge of warriors.

These were undeniable signs of the "identity card". It would be considered a great insult if the person was not recognized as the chief he was, and this could lead to "utu" - vengeance.

The male facial tattoo - Moko - is generally divided into eight sections :

Ngakaipikirau (rank). The center forehead area Ngunga (position). Around the brows Uirere (hapu rank). The eyes and nose area Uma (first or second marriage). The temples Raurau (signature). The area under the nose Taiohou (work). The cheek area Wairua (mana). The chin Taitoto (birth status). The jaw Ancestry is indicated on each side of the face. The left side is generally (but not always, depending on the tribe) the father's side, while the right hand side indicates the mother's ancestry. Descent was a foremost requirement before a Moko could be undertaken.

If one side of a person's ancestry was not of rank, that side of the face would have no Moko design. Likewise if, in the centre forehead area there is no Moko design, this means the wearer either has no rank, or has not inherited rank.

Everyone else has pretty good answers generally. So yeah it can be done and to great effect.


It's not that uncommon, many groups of people choose to have tattos that represent their association with certain group:

Criminal tattoos are a type of tattoos associated with criminals to show gang membership and record the wearer's personal history—such as their skills, specialties, accomplishments, incarceration, world view and/or means of personal expression. Tattoos are strongly empirically associated with deviance, personality disorders, and criminality. Certain tattoo designs have developed recognized coded meanings. The code systems can be quite complex and because of the nature of what they encode, the designs of criminal tattoos are not widely recognized as such to outsiders.

In Southern India, permanent tattoos are called pachakutharathu. It was very common in south India, especially Tamil Nadu, before 1980. In northern India, permanent tattoos are called godna. Tattoos have been used as cultural symbols among many tribal populations, as well as the general Hindu population of India.

In military there are often tattoos that represent if you are from air forces, marines, navy or any other specialized group.

Problem could be that not everybody wants to show their social status or association to any group. Not everyone wants to have a tattoo as well. As tattoos are meant to be permanent they would divide people they couldn't just change tattoos as they want.

  • $\begingroup$ I would add branding as a specific kind of tattoo. In fact it's not a tattoo but it used for marking people from specific social groups (slaves, criminals etc). It was easier to mark and harder to hide than tattoo - that's the difference $\endgroup$
    – ADS
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 10:26
  • $\begingroup$ What's the difference of tattoos that are meant to classify you? They would be visible and unchangeable as well $\endgroup$
    – NoOorZ24
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 10:55

This is an interesting concept. Social status has been represented in cultures using a number of ways, primarily wealth. The rich would wear jewelry, expensive clothes and all the usual indicators. So, it makes sense that those in the higher echelons will have better crafted tattoos. Something to also keep in mind is color. Purple was a rare dye in Europe, so mostly only nobility could afford it. This lead to purple being "royal colours".

It makes sense that certain materials and designs will be off limits to certain people, e.g. clergymen having specific markings to mark their place in the church.

Something to also take into consideration is counterfeiting. Perhaps an assassin murders an ambassador, copies his henna and then impersonates him. This could prove an interesting avenue to explore.

Depending on the cost of the henna, the poor may not be able to afford it, making it an impromptu sign of poverty. Criminals (or similar transgressors) may have tattoos applied to record their deeds


As a fictional example, in FarScape, the Luxan race has tattoos on their chin tenkas (tentacles) to indicate military rank. One of the protagonists, Ka D'Argo, falsely imprints the markings of a general on his chin while only a soldier, so that during capture and interrogation, his injured general would be overlooked; with D'Argo being tortured in his place. Apparently, one adds to the tattoos over time, so that a higher rank is essentially a combination of markings from lower ranks (an OR mask). Pretty neat actually.

enter image description here

  • $\begingroup$ What happens if you fall in rank? $\endgroup$
    – Gryphon
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 16:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Gryphon I'd go with "Incompetence is treason" and administer swift justice. No need for demotion. ;) $\endgroup$ Commented May 26, 2017 at 17:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Gryphon The only canon examples I recall from the show, movie/finale, and comics, was a dishonorable discharge, or the offender being remanded into the custody of the Peacekeepers, which basically meant indefinite jailing and torture. In D'Argo's case, I think he was discharged and left to be a farmer with his family. The Luxans are powerful fighters in the show, second to the Scarrans in terms of individual abilities, and second to the Peacekeepers in term of raw numbers, fleet size, etc. Screw-ups typically mean death for the offender. I don't think they bother with laser tattoo removal. $\endgroup$
    – Cloud
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 17:20

Let's break down social status into possible elements, inspired by what people told me about work by Pierre Bordieu:

Economic Capital What do you actually own? The quality of the skin art itself can tell something about how much you can spend on it. Less subtle, major titles to property that you want to advertise - to land, a house, a corporation - might be inscribed.
Possible complication: If it is expected to wear ownership titels on ones sleeve, this brings about a certain transparency and expectation of transparency. Beeing silent shareholder might be illegal or frowned upon because it does not fit with the norms surrounding the skin art.

Cultural Capital Meaning aquired knowledge and aesthetic sense. In actually exxisiting societies this is displayed by talking (or not talking) about certain subjects, the classicval noveau riche will fail this test. In skin art, cultural capital will be displayed by tasteful execution of the art and a few hints at activity and education that fits.

Role in formal Hierarchies CEO, captain (military or mechant marine), secretary of the local chapter of the centrist party or laborer at the local cardboard box factory - each could have a symbol designed be the organization the role is held in.

Family & relationship status Widows, married folks, preeteen kids etc. could be identified by their specific arts or lack thereof.

Social Capital typically means whom you know and in what standing you are with them. Maybe this society develops a few types of formalized friendships that can be displayed as skin art - which would likely only happen for exceptional close or important friends.

A few complications come to mind:
Such a system might enforce some transparency in matters you would rather keep private, at least some of the time. I would expect things like dresscodes or the Hankie Code to persist, for people who want to disclose one spect of their life some of the time and only to those who understand the code. Or skin art symbols with several meanings are used and only insiders understand all of them.

The second complication revolves around complexity - if the system hopes to describe a few of the facets above, it will be a complex language in itself. LAnguages evolve, split, etc. Don't expect everyone to be 'fluent' in all organizational, regional etc. varieites of the skin art. Expect skin art section in all dictionaries and travel guides, or in the briefings business travellers receive.

Then, changes of social status will only 'count' if they are reflected in the skin art, it will seem not proper to have a strong mismatch for a long time between displayed skin art and role.

How much one wears of the skin art expected of one could be a sign in itself, in several directions: Maybe not everyone can afford extensive skin art & the poor will display only the most important aspects. Or the powerful will display very little because everyone imporant knows them anyway and they don'T care about the others. Or both?


Since you say this art will be applied with magic, that opens up a lot of options that aren't available in real-life examples of cultural tattoos. You could make ones that move, sparkle, emit an aura, make a smell or sound, change with the weather or mood, or dozens of other things. This could make counterfeiting harder and allow for the markings to be a genuine status symbol.

For the children example, a woman could get a magical tattoo symbolizing the number of children she has and as she has more it could automatically update.

And for ones that automatically update, it would make keeping certain secrets impossible.

Also I have read many stories with "soulmate tattoos". It is kind of an overdone trope, but in the right context you could use something like that.

And as in other answers the more complex the tattoo the more expensive it is, the wealthier the person wearing it. Or it could be the opposite. What if everyone was born with them, and the only people who could afford to erase them were the rich and powerful.

None of the other answers focused on the magical aspect, so it seemed good to point out your options in that regard.

Edit: Another thought it utility tattoos. Since they are magical you could make ones that tell time, or can be used to cast a certain spell. For instance in Fullmetal Alchemist, many characters had tattoos that they used to activate a certain power (I know that was meant to be pseudo-scientific).


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