Body markings are widely used throughout the World of Avatar and are applied for a variety of purposes. Some, such as makeup and other cosmetics, are used for statements of beauty or fashion and are not unique to any one group. Other markings serve purposes of identification—usually with a specific group or nation—and carry a deeper level of cultural symbolism.
Airbending master tattoos
Upon reaching the level of master, airbenders are tattooed with five light blue arrows: one extending from the base of the spine to the forehead, one for each arm pointing to the hands, and likewise for the legs and feet. This pattern is an emulation of the flying bison's natural markings, as they were the first airbenders. Unlike most master airbenders who gain their status later in life, Avatar Aang received his tattoos when he was only twelve, following his invention of the air scooter. This made him the youngest known airbending master until his granddaughter Jinora received her tattoos at the age of eleven in 171 AG.
The dishonored, renegade nun Jesa notably tattooed serpents over her arrows to distance herself from the Air Nomads after she began a criminal lifestyle and founded the daofei society of the Flying Opera Company.
The earliest known ancestors of the Air Nomads lived on top of the air lion turtle during the era of Raava and had similar tattoos along their bodies, though the ends bore an upside down "T" with a dot beneath it and they were applied even to children. As these people only received the power to control air while out of the city, the tattoo was not associated with airbending mastery.
Mark of the Brave
The Mark of the Brave is a crescent-shaped mark that resembles the moon and is given for "inspirational displays of courage." During Sokka's rite of passage, Katara held the position of bravery as she needed to secure the boat's mainsail and thus prevail against the brutal winds. Following her successful completion of the ritual, Bato bestowed the Mark of the Brave upon her.
Mark of the Trusted
The Mark of the Trusted is a horizontal, concave arc given to outsiders who are able to prove themselves worthy of the Water Tribe's trust. For example, while ice dodging, Aang controlled the jib of his group's cutter to successfully navigate the rocky waters; this position related to trust, as without a steady hand, the whole crew would go down.
Mark of the Wise
The Mark of the Wise is an arc identical to the Mark of the Trusted though with the addition of a dot centered below it. It is given for deft decision-making and the ability to maintain leadership under pressure. This mark was received by Hakoda and, years later, by his son, Sokka, for his achievement in successfully steering a cutter sailing ship, leading Aang and Katara, through rough waters.
Water Tribe Warriors, elite nonbending fighters of both the Northern and Southern Water Tribes, wear full-face war paint when going into battle, colored black, gray, and white. In addition to intimidating opponents, this disguise helps the warriors blend into the icy landscape of their polar homes. In the Northern Water Tribe, it is also customary for the chief to ceremonially apply three red markings to the forehead of chosen warriors departing on a dangerous mission.
Earth Rumble VI
During Earth Rumble VI, certain fighters were tattooed or wore body paint or make-up in the arena: The Boulder possessed a tattoo of a badgermole on his back, a self-proclamation of his earthbending prowess, and Headhunter's face was painted as part of his fighting persona.
Flying Opera Company
Hark of the Flying Opera Company wore theater facepaint, consisting of white foundation with red accents. The entire company used facepaints used for classical opera as they disguised themselves as a theater troupe while traveling around the Earth Kingdom. According to Wong, white symbolized treachery, a sinister nature, suspicion of others, and the willingness to visit evil deeds on others, while red symbolized honor, loyalty and heroism. Hark's daughter Kyoshi came to incorporate the facepaint into her signature appearance as the Avatar, and her Kyoshi Warriors later adopted the same makeup.
The all-female Kyoshi Warriors have a strict garb which is worn both in battle and during training. A key feature of this uniform is facial paint, consisting of a white foundation with accents in red and black, meant to strike fear into the hearts of the warriors' opponents. Along with the armor and weapons of the uniform, this paint was designed to resemble the attire of Avatar Kyoshi.
The Sun Warriors are an ancient firebending civilization that predate the modern-day Fire Nation. All members of this society bear red markings, often in pairs, on their faces. The design of these markings varies slightly from person to person but typically consist of pointed lines that stretch across the cheeks, foreheads, noses, and various other spots on the face. The Sun Warrior chief bore a more elaborate marking as a sign of his status and position: He wore red war paint around his entire eye area, up into his forehead, which was bordered by a stripe of white face paint below the eyes and across the bridge of his nose.
Combustionbenders, firebenders with the rare ability to shoot an explosive beam of energy from their forehead, have a tattoo of an eye on the spot from where their attack is released. Although this tattoo marks the bender's point of power, it also marks their weak spot; by striking this spot or continuously blocking it, the bender's flow of chi can be interrupted, preventing them from using their abilities.
Although the main feature of this tattoo is a red eye positioned vertically, other features of the design can vary; while Combustion Man and P'Li both had three pinkish, horizontal lines surrounding their third eye, his were thick and straight, while hers were more refined and curvilinear.
The elite marksmen of the Yuyan Archers bear dark red tattoos that run as a strip across their eyes, the ends of which flare out over the forehead and cheeks while the center narrows over the bridge of the nose. The placement of their tattoos symbolizes the importance of sight in their deadly skill. Similar in principle to the tattoos of master airbenders, the tattoos of the Yuyan Archers identify them as part of an elite group.
Official Avatar Aang Fan Club
In the Yu Dao chapter of the Official Avatar Aang Fan Club, the girls took mastering a kind of faux airbending very seriously and even began tattooing themselves in a way similar to master airbenders. However, Avatar Aang saw the tattoos as disgracing his culture, so as he began to teach the club members about his culture and renamed the fan club the "Air Acolytes", the practice of tattooing was discontinued.
Other groups and individuals throughout the four nations also bear tattoos. For the most part, these appear to be purely ornamental and do not carry any significant meaning. The bounty hunter June, for instance, had a red tattoo depicting a coiled snake on each shoulder.
While not an official designation of their lifestyle, tattoos are common among criminals or people who participate in otherwise less-than-legal activities. The pirates that attacked Aang, and later Zuko, as well as the criminals imprisoned in Chin Village, sported tattoos. One of the prisoners in Chin Village even noted that tattoos would help one fit in among other criminals. Certain prisoners in the Boiling Rock had tattoos, as did Ghazan, a member of the Red Lotus.
Classical opera actors wear patterns of makeup that correspond with stock characters. The trickster character of the tiger-monkey spirit has a black cleft running down his orange face, while purple signifies sophistication and culture and is often used for wise-mentor types.
- The makeup worn by the Flying Opera Company, and later by Avatar Kyoshi and her followers, resembles that worn in traditional Chinese opera, including the symbolism of each color, which is consistent with their adopting it through Hark's theater lineage.
- The design of the combustionbenders' tattoos was inspired by Shiva, one of the three principal gods of Hinduism, who is often depicted with a third eye in the middle of his forehead.