Izhovaka (, lit. "death mark") are traditional Vespian tattoos. Boasting what can only be described as one of the most advanced forms of tattoo culture on the planet, izhovaka have been a vital part of Vespian civilization for thousands of years, having been elevated to one of the high arts of Vespia. Izhovaka play an integral role in Vespian culture and society, defining the lives of individual Vespians from the very beginning of their adulthood, and effecting their social status throughout their life and well into death. Though considered one of the most fundamental aspects of the Vespian visual arts, izhovaka are not considered mere artwork in the eyes of the Vespians themselves, who instead hold the tattoos with an almost reverential degree of veneration.
The term Vespian izhovaka, translated literally, means "death mark", hearkening back to the ancient Vespian ritual of having members of the vakoranin detail the means by which they would die in battle. The term īxon means "death" or "silence", while vaka means "sign", "insignia", or "standard". In many ways, izhovaka functioned as both a means of inuring Vespian warriors to the concept of death, as well as aiding them and immediately denoting their rank and intentions on the field of battle. The dual meaning for īxon being "silence" can also be understood to mean the unique role of the tattoos within Vespian culture, that of a "silent sign" displayed to all around the bearer of the tattoos. As one grows in age and deeds, they accumulate several additional tattoos which highlight their accomplishments, silently yet loudly displaying them in public, and thereby allowing the tattoos to speak on behalf of the individual as to their credentials.
The earliest records available to modern Vespian historians, indicate that the first izhovaka were initially adopted by the vakoranin warrior caste some five thousand years ago as a part of their initiation rites. They would meditate on the concept of death during their initiation ceremonies, mentally preparing themselves for the future life as a warrior that awaited them. Knowing full well that they would likely perish in battle or in some other act as a direct consequence of their occupation, vakoranin would expected to gird themselves for this eventuality and face it head on with courage. So as to aid them in removing the fear and stigma of death, a vakoran would be asked prior to their initiation into the caste to foretell how they would perish in the execution of their duties as a warrior. This simple request required that before they could even be allowed into the caste they spent years preparing and testing to join, their final task would be to predict their own death and the manner in which they would die.
Though ancient records state that the idea was initially outputting for some, for others, the request was taken with a high measure of seriousness. It was understood from the letters of the vakoranin that the fear of death was a major concern for many young warriors who were at the time of their joining the caste, never exposed to the grim realities of war and life on the field of battle. By mentally placing them at the seen of their deaths in battle, and requiring them to describe how they died in that battle, the warriors were forced to explore the true nature of a warrior's life and the necessary risks that came with the life they choose. As such, some warriors envisioned themselves dying under a hail of arrows, while others saw themselves engulfed in the fires of battle. Yet others contemplated their death at the hands of wild animals, and others still crushed under the hooves of warhorses in the middle of the desert.
Before long, the images of heavily-tattooed Vespian warriors would enter into the annuals of human history as one of the most defining traits of Vespian civilization. The prominent role of the vakoranin within Vespian culture and society would ultimately see their prominent izhovaka slowly bleed into the wider Vespian population as a method of distinguishing one's rank, role, and personal accomplishments to the surrounding public. Over a period of several centuries, the izhovaka evolved into an extremely elaborate display of skill, harnessed by tens of thousands of ionakin priests, who could breath into their works vibrant tales of conquests, triumphs, defeats, personal heroism, and deeds known only to the gods of the Vespians. By the middle of the Iron period, Vespian tattooing methods had far exceeded anything documented in the cultures of the non-vespoid world.
Within the izhovaka markings of a Vespian individual laid their personal story; where they were born, who they were, what their successes or failures had been, where they had gone and what they did, and what their life experiences had accumulated into by the end of their lives. So important were these markings in the lives of ancient Vespians, that many of their wars had been fought explicitly for the goal of aiding many of their people to obtain for themselves a physical record of their many accomplishments during said wars, whether they be civil or military in nature. As time progressed, the role of izhovaka within the Zheaniic faith would grow into prominence, with the extent of one's markings playing a role in their eventual status in the afterlife once presented before Zhautan for a full account of their actions in life. In such a way, a Vespian without izhovaka would be viewed as a newborn infant who had yet to accomplish or experience anything in their lives, having failed their gods in an irredeemable manner.
Today, izhovaka display everything about a Vespian's heritage, ranging from their house of origin, their home city, their rank and caste; barring their religion and perhaps their own evolution, the izhovaka serves as the important reminder of one's Vespian heritage and identity. Naturally, due the extensive size and history of Vespian society, the izhovaka tattoos vary in terms of design and regional styles. However, there is a remarkable level of uniformity across Vespian households regarding the tattoos themselves, with all houses recognizing certain marks and patterns as representing a particular concept, blessing, or curse regardless of the origins of the bearer and their artist. Due to this key fact, the izhovaka serves as a sort of cultural bonding agent, which helps to bring the Vespians together on a cultural level. The ji-zhovak, the actual event in which one receives their death tattoo, in an extraordinarily important coming-of-age ceremony surrounded by a degree of sacredness only matched by one's baptism into the Zheaniic faith. It is during the ji-zhovak that one's identity is formally established within the Vespian community, marking them as a citizen of the state and a member of the Vespian nation for all time.
Within modern-day Vespia, the tattoos of a Vespian may be more or less covered depending upon their location and occupation. Within the military, all warriors have two ranks by default, their standard soldier's rank and their division rank. However, one's true status within the military is defined by their death tattoo, which receives precedence within the circles of the warriors as well as the high-ranking members of the military. In civilian life, certain honors and promotions are received based on the extent of one's izhovaka markings, as well as the types of marks they have received over their lifetime. The izhovaka is the more important possession in a Vespian's life, as it truly defines the life they will have access to anywhere within the vespoid world. Of note, however, is that while the izhovaka is important in a Vespian's life, the degree of importance has recently been subjected to change. Within nations such as the Eastern Reaches and Iokuma, one's izhovaka though lauded, no longer carries the same weight as it would in more traditional states such as Vespia, Ankura, and Zhamara, where one's entire career is dependent upon their death tattoo.
All tattoos have a purpose, and are placed strategically in specific locations of the body, with more important tattoos typically located on the face, chest, and shoulders. Regardless, even in the more liberal vespoid states of the modern world, no bearer of the mark has the right to add to or remove certain parts of their death tattoo. One certainly can have a say in the manner of styling and design as afforded to them based on their house of origin for the sake of uniformity and loyalty to their people, but they can never add one without having earned the right to do so first. Indeed, all tattoos earned over the course of one's life are meticulously documented by the priesthood with the cooperation of the state, and to break with this tradition and to bestow upon one's self a tattoo they are unworthy of, is a grave crime everywhere in the Vespian world. Such offenders are typically quickly found out and punished severely by the judicial system for their lack of fidelity to tradition. Consequently, those Vespians heavily-tattooed as a result of their overall experiences and accomplishments, are widely respected throughout Vespian society and culture, and afforded many more opportunities to advance within their nation's social strata.
Due to the nature of the human immune system, the body will automatically recognize the inks used to create a tattoo as foreign and attempt to remove the ink particles from the skin. This ultimately causes the tattoo to fade over a period of several years, which when combined with the naturally dark brown skin of the Vespians, makes the tattoo itself nearly invisible in certain types of light and angles. To prevent this, the Vespians developed a chemical mixture several thousand years ago which successfully tricks the immune into believing the ink particles to be benign objects native to the body, causing the white blood cells to ignore the ink. This ensures that the tattoo remains as bold as it was one the first day well into the twilight years of its bearer. The exact composition of the chemical material is a closely guarded secret of the ionakin priestly division responsible for administering the marks to the recipients. It is believed that in more recent decades, the ionakin have developed more sophisticated methods of retaining the boldness of the tattoos over time that no longer rely upon natural ingredients found throughout modern Vespia. Whether or not this is the case has yet to be determined, as the priesthood has adamantly refused to part with its knowledge on the process. This secretive behavior is crucial however, as so-called "counterfeit" izhovaka can be exposed due to the fading of the tattoos, something that will not take place with a genuine izhovaka tattoo.
The preparation one goes through prior to receiving their izhovaka takes weeks or even months, as several steps must be completed before the izhovaka can be applied to one's body. Shortly after completing the dukorin, a Vespian will undergo a series of interviews with a member of the caste they have chosen to join, and must answer multiple questions as determined by the interviewer on the subject of the youth's decision. Decisions made by the youth during their four-year training period in the dukorin, as well as other actions taken by them during their childhood, will all be examined by the interviewers who will interrogate the Vespian in great detail to ascertain the personality and character of the individual before them. After discussing the information gained from the youth among themselves for days or weeks, the council of priests, warriors, and elders will come to a decision on the izhovaka mark that best exemplifies the qualities or negative traits of the youth. The Vespian receiving the marks will never be informed of the decision, only being told that they have been approved for their death mark and the date at which they are to receive it. Once this step has been completed, the Vespians from throughout the surrounding region will gather as a group for the marking ceremony, which can be performed in any location where there are qualified members of the priesthood to carry out the marking. Ther exist several sacred locations throughout the world where the tattooing can be executed, though many Vespians will often seek to have the ceremony completed in locations such as the holy city of Ravaza, or holy sites throughout Vespia such as geographical locations or areas of interest to their household, such as along the Zhona, in a canyon, or the public square of an ancestral city.
The actual process of receiving an izhovaka is known as the ji-zhovak, or "the inking", which will take place with all members of the recipient's family and friends attending, as well as including all other Vespians scheduled to receive their marks during the same ceremony. The process takes place in three steps. The first is the declaration of the names of all those who have been approved to be marked by the priesthood for entry into the Vespian nation as fellow citizens and children of Zhautan. All those who are to receive their death tattoo silently take their places before the crowd as their names are called out by the leading priest for the ceremony, remaining nude and unmarked as a sign of their preparation to join their people as equals. Once all of the recipients have taken their place, the priests will usually open with a prayer and a song that all adults in the crowd will be permitted to sing with them, seeking to obtain the blessings of their gods and invite their attention to the event soon to take place. At the close of the song, the priests will begin the process of marking their wards in the ceremony, preparing the chemical mixtures the recipients must drink to ensure that their tattoos will not fade overtime as with lesser tattoos in other parts of the globe.
Once the mixture has been consumed, the priests will begin tattooing the faces of the Vespian youths with the marks assigned to them by those who interviewed them before the ceremony. The tattooing takes place within pins covered by curtains set up by the priests to ensure that the marks themselves are not revealed before the others have been completed. During the tattooing itself, those assembled for the ceremony are free to talk among themselves for the duration of the tattooing; no particular subject is required to be discussed, and the family and friends usually spend this time to catch up with one another. Once the tattoos have been completed, the head priest will inspect all of the recipients in their pins and give their approval on the tattoo, after-which they will call crowd back to their assigned places. The head priest will give a short sermon on the importance of the izhovaka and its accompanying ceremony, at the end of which the priests will come out of the pins and await the command to reveal the youth and their marks to the crowd. Once the command has been given, the curtains will be removed by the priests, revealing to all the new facial tattoos the youth have received.
It is customary to cheer for the youth regardless of the type of izhovaka they have been given, as though some marks are greater or lesser than others, all have been deemed worthy of being submitted into their community as recognized citizens of the Godrealm. The head priest and the accompanying priests will lead the assembled families, friends, and participants in a song of thanks to their gods, after which the head priest will give a final sermon and prayer. Once the prayer has been given, the youth will return to their families and dress in the baptismal robes prepared for them during their youth for the ceremony, and depart for their homes to celebrate or to mourn the new marks they have been given by the priesthood. At this point, the ji-zhovak ceremony will be deemed a success, and concluded by the ionakin in attendance.
As is already widely known, tattooing is a generally permanent process, the reversal of which is often difficult, expensive, and painful. However, there are many times during a Vespian's life where the removal of a tattoo is mandatory, either to add a new one or as punishment for some serious infraction within their society. The Vespians have thus developed numerous methods by which to the removal of a tattoo could be accomplished. However, many of these range widely depending upon the type of tattoo being removed, where it is being removed from, and why it is being removed. Naturally, given the very brutal culture of the Vespians, tattoos being removed for criminal violations are often removed using the most painful methods available, such as acid washing or skin removal. This process leaves highly visible scars on the body which are at times painful to the touch, and forever mark a Vespian as having been dishonored and stripped of their very identity and outcast. Some Vespians are known to go through with this process willingly as a sign of the emotional investment made during events such as switching castes or abandoning one household for another. However, for the majority of tattoos being removed, highly efficient laser-based tattoo removal devices have been developed by the Vespians specifically for the purpose of altering izhovaka marks on the body. Regardless of the reason behind the removal of a tattoo, such decisions are never made lightly, and they can only be made by those members of the state or the ionakin priesthood invested with the authority to do so.