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Traditional Polynesian Tattooing


Most of us know people who have a tattoo or two; they have more or less become an accepted part of fashion and culture. However, in the Pacific areas of Polynesia tattoos are much more meaningful and have a long and interesting history. Publishing next week in the UK is The Pacific Arts of Polynesia and Micronesia (part of the Oxford History of Art series) by Adrienne L. Kaeppler. Adrienne is the Curator of Oceanic Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC. Here she tells us more about the traditional tattoos found in Polynesia.

Unlike contemporary tattoo, which is often an individualized statement of modernity, traditional tattoo in Polynesia not only enhanced the beauty of the human body, but marked social status, conveyed symbolic hidden meanings, and proclaimed its maker’s artistic ability. The Polynesian term, tatu/tatau, is the origin of the English word tattoo. It was carried to its Polynesian high points in the Marquesas Islands, where high-status men were completely tattooed, and among the New Zealand Maori, although considerable portions of the body were also tattooed in Samoa, Tahiti, Hawai`i, Easter Island, and elsewhere. Many Polynesian tattoo designs are descendants of designs found on archaeological pottery, and its antiquity in Polynesia is unquestioned.

Except for Maori facial tattoo, which appears to have been done more like chiseled woodcarving, Polynesian tattoo was done by dipping into a black dye a prepared tattooing implement – made of bone, turtleshell, or seashell hafted to a stick somewhat like an adze. The tattoo artist placed the instrument on the skin and struck it with a mallet. This broke the skin and implanted the dye. It also caused the blood to flow, giving considerable pain.

kaeppler-polynesian.jpgIn the Marquesas, tattoo seems to have been intimately associated with gender, wealth, and status, marking social identity, ability to pay, and the ability to endure pain. Tattoo marked one’s association with a particular group of warriors, graded associations, “chief’s banqueting societies,” and groups of entertainers called ka`ioi. Acquisition of tattoo in honor of special events such as chiefly rites of passage, victories in battle, or participation in feasts, commemorated the event and symbolically represented it. Women were tattooed on the hands, arms, wrists, feet, ears and lips. In organizing the tattoo designs, the body was divided into zones which were then divided into smaller spaces. Patterns, often named, were fitted into these spaces. There was an overall symmetry in the zoned composition on each side of the body, but within the zones the designs were often asymmetrical.

Maori tattoo (moko) has fascinated outsiders since the voyages of Captain James Cook, when Cook’s artists depicted several. Men’s body tattoo was between the waist and the knees, but facial tattoo was especially sacred for high-born men of chiefly rank. Maori designs were divided into zones and these further divided, giving an overall symmetry. The design elements and their organization within the zones was often asymmetrical, giving it an autographic quality and Maori chiefs drew their facial tattoos as signatures to sign documents during the 19th century. Tattooing styles varied from tribe to tribe and region to region, as well as over time. Although the classical curvilinear style of tattoo predominated during the nineteenth century, both vertical and horizontal parallel lines were also found, sometimes overlaid with curvilinear designs. Women’s tattoo was limited to the lips and the chin.

The association of Maori tattoo with carved figures can be seen in the carved houseposts of meeting houses, where the buttocks of the ancestral figures have tattoo designs, echoing the tattooed buttocks of important men. The tattoo of this area of men’s bodies is also found in Samoa, where tattoo generally extends from above the waist to the thighs. Tattoo is publicly exhibited when a man accompanies a high-ranking female dancer – tucking up his wrap-around skirt to show the tattoo above and below it. In Tahiti, tattoo was applied to the buttocks of both men and women, sometimes blackening the buttocks completely. This emphasized the underarching crescent shape of the lower buttocks, and other crescent designs were placed above the blackened areas. In both Samoa and Tahiti tattooing was associated with puberty – it was universal in Tahiti, but was found in Samoa only on men of certain status.

In Hawai`i tattooing was decidedly asymmetrical. The term for the technique was kakau i ka uhi, literally, “to strike on the black,” and the organization of the designs had names. A tattoo that made the right side of the body solid black was pahupahu. The Maui chief Kahekili, descendant of the thunder god Kanehekili, had this tattoo as did his warrior chiefs and household companions. In addition, Kahekili’s head was shaved on both sides of the central hair crest and tattooed with hoaka, crescent designs. Elaborate tattoos were applied to one arm or one leg. Women were tattooed on the back of the hands, sometimes on an arm or leg, and occasionally the chest. Tattooing the most tender parts of the body, for example the tongue, was practiced to commemorate the death of an important chief. It is likely that Hawaiian tattooing was a protective device, applied in conjunction with chanted prayers, capturing the prayer in the tattoo, thus offering permanent protection. The right arm especially needed sacred protection and help, as it was this bare arm – raised in a crescent – that threw spears. Tattooing a row of dots around an ankle was a “charm” against sharks. In pre-European times, tattoos were protective genealogical devices. In post-European times, at least some of them became decorative and symmetrical, and included introduced motifs – hunting horns, goats, and lettering.

Recent Comments

  1. Liv

    Very helful info for my school project.


  2. alia

    Info really helped with my school project!!

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