This paper explores the complex story of a particular style of rock art in western Arnhem Land known as ‘Painted Hands’. Using new evidence from recent fieldwork, we present a definition for their style, distribution and place in the stylistic chronologies of this region. We argue these motifs played an important cultural role in Aboriginal society during the period of European settlement in the region. We explore the complex messages embedded in the design features of the Painted Hands, arguing that they are more than simply hand stencils or markers of individuality. We suggest that these figures represent stylized and intensely encoded motifs with the power to communicate a high level of personal, clan and ceremonial identity at a time when all aspects of Aboriginal cultural identity were under threat.