The Art of Skin: Tattoos of Polynesia

“Your necklace may break, the fau tree may burst, but my tattooing is indestructible. It is an everlasting gem that you will take into your grave.” A verse from a traditional tattoo artist’s song

I was 19 when I got my first tattoo. I walked into a local shop, pointed to a design on a wall of renderings and unbuttoned my jeans. I wasn’t ready to show the world (let alone my parents) my skin art, so it was imperative to conceal my act of rebellion.

It was a different time then. You would be hard-pressed to see a single tattoo on an athlete or an actor, let alone murals of ink across an entire arm or leg that are so prevalent today. Yet, there was something that compelled me to mark my body to make me different than the people around me.

This isn’t a new notion. Ancient cultures have tattooed their bodies for centuries. What is most fascinating is that this practice was not born in one particular place and then spread across the world. Indigenous people who had no way of ever meeting each other, from Japan to India to the Arctic, all developed their own style and meanings behind their markings. But, with the rise of Christendom across Europe, however, tattooing had been unseen for generations until explorers returned with tales of faraway lands.

Most famously, Captain James Cook recorded of his exploration of the Polynesian triangle, “Both sexes paint their bodies. Tattow, as it is called in their language.”

Tattoo Taboo

The word tattoo comes from the Tahitian word tautau (or tattow as Cook wrote), an onomatopoeia for the sound made by tattooing, “tat-tat.” The main tool was a comb sharp needles carved from bone, shell or shark’s teeth. The second tool is a wooden stick that would be used to tap over the comb, causing the skin to puncture thus inserting the pigment. The process would also take two artists, one to stretch the skin of the initiate and the other who does the tapping.

Historically there was no writing in Polynesian culture, so tattoos would indicate status in a hierarchical society as well as sexual maturity, genealogy and ones rank within the society, which is why nearly everyone in ancient Polynesian society was tattooed. But almost as quickly as Europeans uncovered Pacific tattooing, they began erasing it. When colonizers took control of these islands, they banned traditional tattooing.

Return of Tradition

The revival of the art and practice of tattooing across Polynesia in recent years is to the credit of Samoan tattoo artists who maintained their traditional ways and continued to pass down this art to future generations despite the bans and spread of Christian religious beliefs that deemed tattooing as a desecration of the body across Polynesia. By doing so, they developed the Polynesian tattoo as a highly refined art and they later were able to reteach the lost art to their Tahitian neighbors and beyond.

And thanks to the efforts of scholars, researchers, early travelers, and visual artists who preserved and catalogued drawings, as well as shed light on their meaning and importance, much of the original look and stylizing of these traditional tattoos can be recreated today.

Artfully Meaningful

No matter where you find yourself across the islands of the South Pacific, from New Zealand to Easter Island, you will most likely meet locals who proudly display their traditional tattoos on their bodies and faces. It’s important to note that the ink designs themselves are considered highly sacred, because the tattoo tradition was handed down by cultural and ancestral heroes it’s as if those entities live on in the art. Plus certain designs are believed to preserve one’s mana, or divine essence.

In Samoa… Typical Samoan tattoos include elements like geometric patterns and simplistic representations of people and animals, like the gogo, the seagull and centipede. You many even see a few examples of the Samoan warrior’s tattoo that begins at the waist and extends to just below the knee.

In Tonga… Similarly, Tongan warriors were tattooed form the waist to the knees with a series of geometrical patterns, mostly consisting of repeated triangle motifs, bands and also areas of solid black.

In Tahiti… All symbols in Tahitian tattoos are based on the four basic elements (Water, Earth, Wind, Fire). While in ancient Tahitian society, tattoos represented one’s genealogy and social rank, today, Tahitian tattoos signify one’s ancestors and interests.

In the Marquesas… Marquesan tattoo designs are generally regarded as the most elaborate in all of Polynesia as they traditionally cover the whole body, head to toe.

Permanent Marks

That tribal sun that I had done so many years ago still shines over my pelvic bone. To some the notion of this symbol on a 40+-year-old woman may seem silly, but it still brings me joy. Although it did not have a spiritual meaning, honored my ancestors or was done in the name of protection, it marked an important moment in my life: My entrée into adulthood and the realization that every decision I made – no matter how tacky – was mine alone.

A version of the article was published in Explore Magazine. Illustration and cover photo (obviously not the one above) are courtesy of the magazine.

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