ASPEN, Colo.—Tattooing, when you think about it, is like smiling: Nearly every culture does it, but not always for the same reason.
In a given society, the motivation for covering oneself in paint, ink, or even scars speaks to what the civilization as a whole holds dear.
Chris Rainier, a photographer for National Geographic and other publications, has traveled the world in search of cultures he describes as having "one foot in the Garden of Eden." (He was also Ansel Adams’s last assistant). Speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is organized jointly by The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute, he explained how "many cultures around the world believe that the body is a canvas waiting for a story to be told."
From New Zealand's Maori people to Angeleno gangsters, most cultures incorporate some form of tattooing. But "where the skin is too dark to tattoo, there is scarification," Rainier said. When he would visit African societies that practice scarification, and he would ask locals who they thought was the most beautiful woman or the most handsome man, they would inevitably point to the most scarred. (Note: Rainier's images are copyrighted, but you can view them at his website.)
Often, body modifications go beyond vanity, reflecting a necessary part of the transition to adulthood. He photographed one group of Papua New Guineans who believe all of mankind originated from crocodiles, and therefore have their young initiates scar their skin to resemble the scales of a reptile.