The Tattoos of Polynesia
Not one great country can be named, from the polar regions in the north to New Zealand in the south, in which the aborigines do not tattoo themselves. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man.
There is an old Iban proverb that reads “A man without tattoos is invisible to the Gods.”
An anonymous quote says “Your body is a temple.....tattoos are your stained glass windows.”
Jack London said “Show me a man with tattoos and I’ll show you a man with an interesting past.”
Between 1766 and 1779, Captain James Cook made three
voyages to the South Pacific, the last trip ending with Cook's death in Hawaii
in February, 1779. When Cook and his men returned home to Europe from their
voyages to Polynesia, they told tales of the 'tattooed savages' they had
The Maori ta moko, the Samoan tattoo that never fell into disuse or the Marquesan tattoo that has been exhaustively studied are the best known in the Polynesian Islands, to the detriment of tattoos from the Society, Austral, Tuamotu and Gambier Islands – each having their own identity.
In the Society Islands, men and women wore tattoos on their shoulders, arms and legs but never on the face. Their buttocks, uniformly blue, were enhanced from the lower back to the hips by several rows of designs. The z-shaped broken line was the most commonly used sign, worn by women on each joint of their fingers and toes. More stylised designs based on human, vegetable or animal shapes were also used.
The Austral Islands marked their difference by the use of hand-width tattooed bands below the armpits. In the Tuamotu, tattooing was widespread in the west but much less practiced in the east. The men of Rangiroa could be tattooed from head to toe with irregular designs such as curved lines, concentric circles, or with checkerboard designs.
In Mangareva (Gambier Islands) tattoos were compulsory. The special mark of the archipelago was a circle tattooed under the armpits of teenagers. Divided into four parts, it was progressively ‘inked’ during the young man’s life.
The art of tattoo was at its most refined in the Marquesas. Men were often covered from head to foot, including the skull, which was kept shaved, as well as more sensitive parts such the eyelids and the tongue. Wide parallel bands could also be tattooed on the face. The tattoos on women were more restricted. The most frequently chosen body parts were the earlobes, the space behind the ears, the lower back, legs and arms. Designs were very diverse, more than four hundred have been recorded: ipu, enata, etua, niho peata, mata........... But the main source of inspiration is the tiki, representing both divinity and the original human. In the Marquesan language, tattooing is patu’I te tiki, literally meaning “hitting the Tiki”. Marquesean tattoos can be recognised by 'trademark symbols', such as geckos, centipedes, Ti'i's, the Marquesan Cross and other geometric designs. Marquesean designs distinguish themselves through the use of symbols and consistent artistic renderings of lines, arches and circles, which are uniquely attributed and linked through history to the South Pacific Islands.
In Samoa, the tradition of applying tattoo, or ‘tatau’, by hand, has long been defined by rank and title, with chiefs and their assistants, descending from notable families in the proper birth order. The tattooing ceremonies for young chiefs, typically conducted at the onset of puberty, were elaborate affairs and were a key part of their ascendance to a leadership role. The permanent marks left by the tattoo artists would forever celebrate their endurance and dedication to cultural traditions. The first Europeans who set foot on Samoan soil were members of a 1787 French expedition. They got a closer look at the natives and reported that “the men have their thighs painted or tattooed in such a way that one would think them clothed, although they are almost naked”. The mythological origins of Samoan tattooing and the extraordinary cross-cultural history of tatau has been transported to the migrant communities of New Zealand, and later disseminated into various international subcultures from Auckland to the Netherlands. The Hawaiian people had their traditional tattoo art, known as ‘kakau’, it served them not only for ornamentation and distinction, but to guard their health and spiritual well-being. Intricate patterns, mimicking woven reeds or other natural forms, graced men's arms, legs, torso and face. Women were generally tattooed on the hand, fingers, wrists and sometimes on their tongue.
“The men also are wont to gird their arms and legs with bands or fillets pricked in black, and it is done thus; they take five needles joined together, and with these they prick the flesh till the blood comes, and then they rub in a certain black colouring stuff, and this is perfectly indelible. It is considered a piece of elegance and the sign of gentility to have this black band.”
“Many come hither from Upper India to have their bodies painted with the needle in the way we have elsewhere described, there being many adepts at this craft in the city [the city and great haven of Zayton].”
Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo, Volume 2.
Teiva – our Tahitian tour guide
Origins: We know for certain that the oldest remains found bearing “ink” are dated from about 2,500 B.C and many Egyptian mummies bear intricate designs of the permanent kind. While a precise geographical origin cannot be found, it is thought that tattoos originate from South-East Asia and that its dissemination followed the path of Pacific settlement. It became Polynesian after absorbing the lapita designs that can be found in all decorative arts, parallel lines, chevrons, circles, triangles, shark teeth etc.
Meaning: For ancient Polynesians, tattooing originated with the gods. The two sons of god Ta’aroa were the first ones to use it, to seduce their sister and men imitated them. The mythological meaning is one of aesthetic value and sexual attractiveness, beyond the decorative aspect tattoos speak of the passage from childhood to adulthood. In the Marquesas it was also a mark of identification, a protective barrier against evil influences and of belonging to a group (taken to the enth degree in modern times by the mobs and cons).
Sacred power: Tahitians believed that the process of tattooing the body served to contain its sacred power. The Polynesian view of the body differed from that of the Europeans. Polynesians believed that there were two worlds: the world of light and ordinary life (ao) and the world of darkness and gods (po). Humans came from po at birth and returned there at death. This gave the body a potentially dangerous primal power, which would overcome the present world if it was not contained. A number of rites from infancy onwards were designed to restrain this power by lessening the body's sacredness. In Tahiti, these rites culminated in the act of tattooing the body around the time of puberty in order to 'seal off' its power. Teiva (above) had his right foot tattooed by his father at the age of twelve, in the traditional way and asked if it hurt, pulled a grimace and said “excruciating.”
In Pacific cultures tattooing has a huge historic significance. polynesian tattooing is considered the most intricate and skillful tattooing of the ancient world. Polynesian peoples believe that a person's mana, their spiritual power or life force, is displayed through their tattoo. The vast majority of what we know today about these ancient arts has been passed down through legends, songs and ritual ceremonies. Elaborate geometrical designs which were often added to, renewed and embellished throughout the life of the individual until they covered the entire body.
History: Robertson a crew member of Captain Samuel Wallis, wrote in his 1767 logbook – “the very peculiar custom of this country, at sixteen they paint in black the thighs of all men, and a little later draw strange designs on their legs and arms”.
The word “tattow” or “Tattooing” that was first used by Captain Cook was the phonetic transcription of the Tahitian word Tatau, in which the prefix means “to hit”.
Some of the Endeavour’s crew decided to get tattoos, perhaps starting the tradition of the tattooed sailor. One of the first included Robert Stainsby, aged 27, an able seaman originally from Darlington in the North East of England:
"Mr Stainsby, myself, and some others of our company, underwent the operation, and had our arms marked.” (Sydney Parkinson’s Journal , 13th July 1769).
Cook also brought a Tahitian named Ma’i to Europe and since then tattoo started to become rapidly famous because of the tattoos of Ma’i.
Winston Churchill’s mother, Lady Randolph Churchill - Jennie, had a snake tattooed on her wrist, ladies of the time thought they would be guarded from blood born diseases as well as the risqué fashion statement. It became fashionable in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for aristocrats, including women, to be tattooed. At the time it was very expensive and people paid large sums for their designs. Later, as costs were reduced, tattooing was adopted by the lower classes and the practise fell out of favour with the social elite.
The strategic positioning of Lady Churchill’s tattoo meant that she could choose not to display it by wearing a bracelet or gloves to cover it. We are all for “shirt sleeve” order with the easy choice to keep “your ink” covered, except now we are surrounded by very pretty, subtle patterns on feet, shoulders, wrists and arms and have got quite used to seeing them.
Banning: Having arrived in Tahiti in 1797, the LMS (London Missionary Society) quickly intimidated the local rulers of the island and got themselves into a position of power. Although this enabled them to abolish such habits as infanticide, cannibalism and tribal wars, it also enabled them to introduce the idea of sin, which was an unknown concept until then. The joy of dancing so embedded into the Polynesian way of life came under threat and was the first to be axed. Religious interdictions and the famous Pomare Code of 1819 declared upa’upa and in the same sentence tattooing to be bad and immoral habitudes, severely to be opposed. The Leeward Islands soon followed suit but dancing continued in secret. This reason is often cited as the only cause for the disappearance of the tattoo. This is very over-simplified excuse as it can also be said that western clothing caused the rapid and almost complete decline in the art. Deprived of its erotic aspect, the body, now hidden, lost its role in social distinction. The rebirth of this ancient business is alive and well today in the islands.
This is a line from a traditional Polynesian song – “Your necklace may break, the fau tree may burst, but my tattooing is indestructible. It is an everlasting gem that you will take to your grave.”
Technique: In ancient times the pigment was made from the soot of a burned candle nut ti’a’iri, thinned in water. The mixture was then introduced into the dermis by way of a comb ta, a kind of adze with sharp teeth on one end carved from fish teeth or bird bones. A mallet struck the adze’s handle and the pigment penetrated the skin (we are told this is a very painful business). Today for obvious hygeine reasons, the ancient techniques are rarely used. Tattoo artists over time adapted an electric razor into todays purpose built stylus. Being part of the EU most Polynesians tattooists use single use needles.
This is the method I am happy to partake in. I stood on a stool for an hour whilst my chap was drawn freestyle, was placed in many a pose to be inked and by lunchtime I was nearly ready to show the world. (Foot still covered in ink), ............. I present .......... my new chap.
Bear has named him Gregory. Thank you and hugs to Bruno.
In Polynesian culture, geckos are regarded as a form of appearance of the gods by people, with the name moko (which is also the name of facial tattooing in Maori culture). Geckos are a very important part in Polynesian beliefs, because they are symbolization of Polynesian gods, and also regarded as ancestors of Polynesian people, so they look quite similar to “enata”, the symbol of man. They are kind of creature who can talk to gods and watch the hidden world, bringing fortune to a person who has it in his tattoo and delivering death enemies. In Maori branch of Polynesian culture, geckos are used for guarding evils and illness. In Australian Aboriginal culture, he is a symbol of regrowth and surviving disasters.
Gecko symbols are subtly embedded in many Polynesian designs, in fact, that is what makes a local tattoo so very personal. Embedded in mine (just behind Gregory’s back legs) is a tiny manta ray which means graceful strength.
ALL IN ALL LOVE THEM OR HATE THEM
THERE’S NO MIDDLE GROUND