Column: Exploring the Art of Polynesian Tattoos

Editors Column: Exploring the cultural and personal beauty of tattoos

Dorian Neighbors is the Arts & Entertainment editor for Ethic News.

April 2019



Ancient tribes in Polynesia did not have a written language, so their style of tattoos was symbolic of events or situations that defined a person. According to Roberto Gemori, nearly everyone was tattooed within this society, and it was used to represent things such as a person’s place in the hierarchy. The most elaborate style comes from the Marquesan tribes, which featured complex designs that embellished the entire body. Unfortunately, a glaring issue presents itself when researching the art of Polynesian tattoos. The majority of designs were lost when Captain James Cook discovered the art of tattooing. He penned the name “tattaw,” which is “derived from the Tahitian word ‘tatau’, meaning to mark.” Shortly after Cook returned with the reports of tattooed men and women, Missionaries descended upon the Pacific in 1797 and claimed tattooing was a “sinful process.” While the art form was completely destroyed within certain tribes, such as the Tongo, it was kept alive with the Samoan people. Tattoos were seen as a necessary process within the culture and often took days to complete. The process would last from dusk to dawn or until the one being tattooed could not take the pain anymore, in which case the process would begin the next day. If one could not finish the process due to the pain, they would be left to wear their unfinished work for the rest of their life as a mark of shame. According to Skin Stories, those who did not begin or finish the process of tattooing were ostracized by their tribe and were marked as a coward. The art of tattooing was passed down and was a lifelong commitment. In order to become a tattoo artist, an apprentice would be taken up at a very young age and trained by the master, called “tufuga.” Due to the rudimentary tools used, a deathly infection was a strong possibility and a great fear of many, but abandoning the process was a lifelong shameful act. The Samoan people used tools made of “sharpened boars teeth fastened together with a portion of the turtle shell and to a wooden handle.” The healing process was long and painful and often took over a year to heal entirely. The tattoo was washed with salt water, and members of the tribe would aid with the recovery; however, infections and permanent scarring were menacing threats to anyone partaking in their art. The tattoos for these Polynesian tribes were a unifying force among their people; it was a lifelong badge of honor that not only told a story but also the story of the tribe. An individual’s life and beliefs were forever etched into their skin, and, for the tribes, it was a vital part of being human. This art brought people who may have never met together through common practice, creating an unbreakable bond through both pain and art.

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