The roots amd revival of Polynesian Tattoos
TATTOOING APPEARS TO HAVE ALWAYS BEEN PRESENT IN THE CULTURES THAT MAKE UP WHAT IS KNOWN TODAY AS THE POLYNESIAN TRIANGLE: FRENCH POLYNESIA, NEW ZEALAND, HAWAII, SAMOA, EASTER ISLAND AND THE COOK ISLANDS. UNIQUE FORMS ARE FOUND THROUGHOUT THE ARCHIPELAGOS OF FRENCH POLYNESIA WITH THE EXCEPTION OF SOME ISLANDS IN THE SOUTH OF THE AUSTRALS AND IN THE EAST OF THE TUAMOTU. IF TATTOOING WAS PRACTICED ON A GRAND SCALE IN ANCIENT TIMES, THE ORIGINS ARE HAZY AND ARE LODGED SOMEWHERE DEEP IN THE DEPTHS
OF THE TIMES OF THE MYTHIC POLYNESIAN GENESIS.
THE WORD TATTOO COMES FROM THE TAHITIAN TATAU WHICH MEANS TO STRIKE OR TO HIT. IN THE MARQUESAS, TATTOOlNG IS CALLED, MORE DESCRIPTIVELY E PATU TIKI WHICH MEANS, “TO
STRIKE IMAGES”. IT WAS HERE, IN THE MARQUESAS WHERE THE GREATEST RICHNESS OF ELABORATE DESIGNS ARE FOUND.
The function of tattoos
In traditional Polynesian society tattoos were at once a decoration, a language, a symbol of power and a mark of glory. Through tattoos Polynesians could distinguish themselves, show their social importance, rank, geographic origin, family lineage, courage and power. All of this information was innscribed into the skin and acted as a sort of identity card for each Individual. Marie-Noelle Ottino-Garangen an ethnologist specialazing in Marquesan culture tells us :”Besides being a privilege, tattoos were also an obligation. By respecting this sacred contract, Marquesans were united with their ancestors and their entire universe”.
The sacred nature of tattooing was fundamental in Polynesia. Inherited from God, tattoos had supematural powers. Some designs were for protecting people from loosing their mana, the divine force responsible for health, balance and fertility as well as for fighting off evil forces. And it was in this spiritual plain where tattooing was its most essential, un-erasable and eternal.
Karl Von Den Steinen, a German doctor who scrupulously catalogued the diversity of the Marquesan arts from 1897 to 1898 said : “This unalterable art, inked on their skin later will show that person’s origin, rank and heroic feats in comparison to their ancestors - the legendary Gods of the country of Hawaiki”.
In sum, the images within Polynesian tattoos worked as a sort of memory bank as well as a social passport that acted as a barricade against evil forces and allowed the wearer to journey in the world that point.
Symbols of the designs
In the Marquesas islands human bodies and faces could be entirely covered in tattoos. The Marquesan style was particularly geometric with the tiki, the first human to become a deified ancestor playing a major role. Numerous tiki styles and forms existed. For a novice, It would often be impossible to recognize a design as being a tiki because the form was stylized in so many different ways. The same was true for the very geometric plant and animal pattems. Turtles, lizards, rays, eels, fish heads, bamboo, banyan tree roots, coconut palm fronds and more were all painted out on the skin for fellow Marquesans to read. What distinguishes Marquesan tattoos from those found on Tahiti and the Leeward islands is that outside of the Marquesas it appears that the face was never tattooed.
The most popular designs were abstract and geometric (circles, crosses and rectangles) as well as figurative (animals and plant) pattems on the arms. legs and shoulders. The buttocks could also be entirely covered, often with the passage from adolescence to adulthood.
A hereditary knowledge and a severe ritual
Tattoo artists, called, tahua’a tatau, in the Society islands and tuhuka (or tuhuna) patu tiki in the Marquesas, held very high status in their society. It was their job to mark, in every sense of the term, each individual of the community through every stage of his or her lives. This craft was often passed down from father to son and the artists had to be capable of transmitting their knowledge of religious rituals with great dexterity. The instruments they used were sharp combs made from bone, oyster shell or teeth and a mallet with which they would encrust the skin with candlenut resln mixed with water or coconut oil.
The number of prongs on the comb were dependent on the amount of surface area to be covered. There could be anywhere from two to 12 points but some people report having seen up to 36. The artist would draw the design on the body with a charcoal stick and then use his ink.
The tattooing ceremony was a serious ritual played out to the beat of drums, the melody of flutes and conch horns. Karl Von Den Steinen said that the songs “brought out perseverance and promised a soft reward”. At the same time, tattooing was very expensive for families. The tuhuka were paid with pigs, war mallets, tapa (painted bark cloth) and whatever else the family had to offer. This Is why many people on the lower end of the social scale weren’t able to afford many tattoos.
Today it’s particularly difficult to revive the significations that tattooing had in yesteryear because the ritual aspect has not been practiced in over a century and a half. In 1819 the Pomare code (proclaimed by the first king to embrace Catholicism) forbid the art tattooing throughout the Islands. The skin baring aspect and sexual connotations made tattoos completely unacceptable in the eyes of the missionarles who inspired Pomare‘s proclamation.
It wasn’t until the 1980s thaat tattooing made a come back in French Polynesla. Thanks to a tattooing exposition by Samoan artists at the Tiurai festlval (now called the Heiva) in 1982 and the enthusiasm of aficionados like Tavana Salmon, tattooing was able no break back into the culture.
By delving back into this previously lost craft, tattoo artists opened up a passage way to forgotten customs and for the last fifteen years there has been incredible resurgence in tattooing. But nowadays, apart from the esthetic aspects, the motivations for Polynesians to tattoo themselves has changed. The religious and sacred motivations have become blurred but the more profound symbolic force rernains : to mark the skin permanently with a story, a memory or an experience. And more than ever, Polynesian tattoos are a way to claim an identity and to show an adherence to the Polynesian culture.