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The role of tattooing in ancient Polynesian society.

As there was no writing in the Polynesian culture, the Polynesians used this art, full of distinctive signs to express their identity and personality.  Tattoos would indicate status in a hierarchy society: sexual maturity, genealogy, and one's rank within society.  Nearly everyone in ancient Polynesian society was tattooed.

The revival of Polynesian lost art:

Shortly after the missionaries arrival (1797), the practice was strictly banned, as the Old Testament forbids it.  In recent years, however, the art of tattooing has enjoyed a renaissance, starting in the early 1980’s.  Polynesians are once again taking pride and interest in their cultural heritage, finding their identity in the revival of many lost arts.  Tattooing with traditional tools was banned in French Polynesia in 1986, by the Ministry of Health due to the difficulty in sterilizing the wooden and bone equipment.

Tahitian art vs Marquesan tattoos:

There are distinctions between ancient Tahitian, and Marquesan tattoos, that is often misunderstood, as explains Tricia Allen, academic in Polynesian culture.  “They were very different in ancient times.  Today few know, or realize the difference.  Very few know anything about the Tahitian tradition -- even in Tahiti!  In fact, in 13 trips to Tahiti, I have yet to meet anyone wearing Tahitian designs!  Except one mark on Raymond Graff's torso.” (Raymond Graffe is a “tahua”, a Tahitian shaman.)

1595: European explorers discover Polynesian tattooing.

Tattooed warrior, the early Spanish explorer Mendaña ,“discovered” the Fenua Enana Islands in 1595, and baptized this archipelago Marquises Islands.

But the first descriptions of Polynesian tattooing, were written almost 2 centuries later by English Captain Samuel Wallis, French explorer Bougainville and English Captain Cook.

In 1767, Wallis had noticed that it was a “universal custom among men and women, to get their buttocks and the back of their thighs painted, with thin black lines representing different figures”.

The next year (1768), Bougainville reported in that "the women of Tahiti dye their loins and buttocks a deep blue”.

Height year later (1774), Captain Cook returning from his trip to the Marquises Islands, wrote in his diary “they print signs on people’s body and call this tattow”.

Ma’i (called by the English Omai), the first Tahitian to travel to Europe (with Captain Cook), became rapidly famous partly because of his tattoos.

Traditional tattooing tools.

Traditional tattooing tools consist of a comb with needles, carved from bone or tortoiseshell, fixed to a wooden handle.  The needles are dipped into a pigment, made from the soot of burnt candlenut, mixed with water or oil.

The needles are then placed on the skin, and the handle is tapped with a second wooden stick, causing the comb to pierce the skin and insert the pigment.  The name tatau comes from the sound of this tapping.

Sacred art performed by shamans.

Tattooed man According to the mythology, the 2 sons of the God of Creation Ta’aroa, taught the art of tattooing to humans.  It was a tapu, or sacred art form.  It was performed by shamans, (tahua), who were highly trained in the religious ritual, the meaning of the designs, and technical aspects of the art.

The designs and their location on the body, were determined by one's genealogy, position within the society and personal achievements.

In preparation for the tattooing, one would have to undergo a period of cleansing.  This generally involved fasting for a specified length of time, and abstaining from sexual intercourse or contact with women.

Dr. Rollin (surgeon aboard the frigate "La Boussole", commanded by La Pérouse), described the art of tattooing the following way: “The patient was immobilized most frequently in a sort of vise composed of two trunks of banana trees between which he was attached and held tight. The tattooer, accompanied by his assistants, sang a sort of chant of the occasion syncopated to the rhythm of the tapping of his little mallet. Each drop of blood was rapidly wiped up with a scrap of tapa, so that none be allowed to fall to the ground”. (Note: the tapa is a piece of cloth made out of the bark of a tree beaten with a heavy stick).

Traditional tattoo designs.

The traditional tattoo designs, which disappeared after their ban by the first missionaries, reappeared recently thanks to the notes and sketches of over 400 drawings made by missionary Karl Von Steinen!  Traditional designs used to represent one’s life history, island of origin, social level, work and activities.  These motives were also related to seduction.  A fisherman for example could have symbols protecting him from sharks, or a warrior against his enemies.

Mystic symbols represented past ancestors - chiefs and shamans - and the gods (Tiki).  These symbols would confer honor amongst the tribe, and protection from gods (against natural dangers and evil spirits).  These mystic symbols are closely related to the mana – the spiritual force.  The mana was inherited from ancestors but the people were supposed to develop and master this power.

Designs meanings and the symbolism of specific body parts, are explained in details in the Dictionary of Polynesian tattoo symbols.

Tattooing indicated status

Tattooing was begun at adolescence.  Teenagers (around 12 years), were tattooed to mark the passage between childhood and adulthood.  Different tattoos were added with the passing of years.  The more a man was tattooed, the more prestige he had.

Tattooing was not only a sign of wealth, but also a sign of strength and power.  Therefore chiefs and warriors generally had the most elaborate tattoos.  Men without any tattoo were despised, whereas those whose bodies were completely tattooed – the to’oata – were greatly admired.

The tattooing of women.

Women with tattooed hands, a females right hand was tattooed by the age of twelve.  Only after that were they allowed to prepare the meals and to participate in the rubbing of dead bodies with coconut oil.

The tattoos of women were less extensive than the tattoos seen on men; generally being limited to the hand, arms, feet, ears and lips.  Women of rank or wealth may have their legs tattooed as well.


Polynesian Tattoo today.

Today, you will find hundreds of places to get tattooed in Polynesian style all over the world (see the list of tattooists).

The most popular and appreciated designs are the tiki, the turtle, the gecko, the ray, the shark, the dolphin, as well as many abstracts symbolic designs.

Some artists focus on the aesthetic side, others on the symbolism; the best ones excel in both areas.

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