Tattoos and Their Relationship to Polynesian Culture

“They print signs on people’s body and call this tattow”- James Cook (Losch, 2003). What might his first thoughts have been upon anchoring at one of the Polynesian islands, seeing natives covered in markings? What did the markings and designs mean? Could he have wondered what the significance was, who did this to them, and what was used to place those markings on them. Although tattoos were ultimately banned, there was an impact on the Polynesian culture; one could determine ones rank, status, and origin based on the tattoos.
Tattoos have existed on the Polynesian islands for over 2000 years, Samoa being the oldest island in the Polynesian chain and Aotearoa-slash-Te Waipounamu being the youngest of the islands that practiced tattooing. Although the Spaniards were the first to discover tattoos in Polynesia in 1595, the first written descriptions regarding tattoos did not appear for almost two centuries (Tahiti Tatou, 2007). Though there were differences between the Polynesian islands that made each island unique there were also similarities that were shared between all the islands.
One of the primary differences between the tattoos on Polynesian islands was the traditional names that were used for tattooing. For example, many of the islands used traditional names for tattooing such as Moko from the island Maori, Tatatu from the island of Tonga, and Tatau from the island of Samoa. In fact the term tattoo originated from the Polynesian word “ta” which means to strike something and the Tahitian word “tatau” which means to mark something (Designbloom, 2000-2009). There were two basic design styles that were shared amongst all the Polynesian islands.

The first design style was known as Etua and the second style was known as Enata (Hastings, 2009). The designs associated with Etua were of a strong spiritual nature, had a religious connotation, and were looked upon as magical symbols that would provide protection by the gods. The designs associated with Enata were based on natural designs which could be used to determine a native’s status, role, genealogy, occupation, and identity. The following are some examples of symbols based on Polynesian design and their meanings (Hastings 2009). Shark’s Teeth- Shark’s teeth tattoos are for protection Turtles- A turtle symbol represents long life and fertility Tiki- The god Tiki is often shown with eyes closed. This is because Tiki is able to smell trouble before it is seen. Although Enata and Etua were distinct styles, the patterns and designs used by the various islands, and the tribes of each island were distinct enough to set them apart from one another. The following was noted, “Within the islands currently known as French Polynesia (the Society, Tuamotu, Austral, Gambier and Marquesas groups), the individual island groups or even individual islands had unique designs.
Thus, it was possible to identify a person’s origins based on their tattoos” (Losch, 2003). An example of the ability to identify natives based on their island of origin was the spiral motif used by the Maori natives of Aotearoa-slash-Te Waipounamu. Not only was it possible to identify the island of origin it was also possible to determine the status that one held within the tribe. The ritual of receiving a tattoo normally began as one reached teenage years; this was looked upon as a rite of passage into adulthood. Additional tattoos were added over time; the more a man was tattooed the more prestige he had (Opusmang, 2008).
Tattoos played an important role in determining how one was looked upon within the tribe, tattoos were associated with wealth, strength, and power. Consequently, it was not uncommon for the chief, and the warriors to have the most detailed, and extensive tattoos. Additionally, Tattoos were so important in the culture that those men, who were completely tattooed, known as to’oata, were admired; however, those men who were not tattooed were despised by their tribe (Tahiti Tatou, 2007). Tattoos on men were far more extensive then on women and included intricate designs.
The tattoos on Samoan men’s thighs were so extensive that it almost appeared as though they were clothed. Additionally Samoan men had a tattoo that was referred to as a “pe’a” which covered their thighs, buttock, lower back, and concluded with a piece around their naval. Unlike the design of the female referred to as “malu”, which was a lace webbing design, the design of the “pe’a” was a solid pattern. As opposed to males, the tattoos on females were generally located on the hands, feet, arms, ears, and lips (Tahiti Tatou, 2007).
Women of wealth were allowed to have their legs tattooed if they chose to do so. There were additional differences that related to men and women when it came to tattoos. One such difference related to Tahitian women, it was common practice for them to have a deep blue hue on their loins and buttocks. Another common practice occurred when a young girl reached the age of 12, her right hand was tattooed, at which point she was allowed to prepare food, and join in the ritual of rubbing coconut oil on deceased members of the tribe (Tahiti Tatou, 2007).
Traditionally males were the most decorated members of the tribe; however this was not the case on Fiji and Tahiti. As a matter of fact it was the exact opposite; the females were required to have tattoos. The first tattoos that a young girl received were marks on the inside of her arms, she was then deemed free of food taboos, and was then allowed accept food from others (Opusmang, 2008). The island of Samoa could very well have ended up with the same tradition as Fiji and Tahiti if not for two Samoan sisters who received their training in Fiji.
Upon their return trip from Fiji the Samoan sisters, who were credited with bringing the art and ritual of tattooing to Samoa, somehow managed to reverse the tradition (Losch, 2003). Thus it appears a new tradition was started quite by accident, which resulted in the extensive and intricate tattooing of the male natives on Samoa. This new tradition was adopted by many of the Polynesian islands. Tattooing was considered a ritual that was preceded by a ceremony. The preparation that led up to the ceremony was quite elaborate, a period of cleansing was required; one was expected to fast and abstain from contact with women during this period.
The art of tattooing was described by Dr. ROLLIN in this manner: “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” (Tahiti Tatou, 2007). The ritual was very painful and could go on for several days or weeks.
Specific tools and dye were created to perform the ritual act of tattooing. The tools were created out of either bone or tortoise shell. The implement was shaped into a comb with needles on the end, which was attached to a handle. The dye was created from the soot of burnt candlenut which was mixed with water or oil (Tahiti Tatou, 2007). The tool was dipped into the dye; the needles were placed on the person’s body and tapped with a mallet, which transferred the dye. This process was repeated numerous time until either the individual could no longer take the pain or the sun went down.
Nevertheless, it was continued the following day, and many days thereafter until the design was complete. Performing the act of tattooing members of one’s tribe was considered a sacred act which was performed by a master or a shaman. In most instances it was the master or shaman that determined the type of design, who would receive the tattoo, and when (Losch, 2003). In fact they were highly trained, aware of the meanings of the designs, and highly proficient in the technical art that was involved. As a result, the master or shaman was held in high esteem by all members of the tribe.
The practice of tattooing tribe members went on for many years until the arrival of missionaries in 1797. Soon after their arrival tattooing was banned by the missionaries, it was deemed to go against the Old Testament and was forbidden by Christian churches. Consequently tattooing remained on the fringes of society, in other cases the art of tattooing completely died out, as occurred on the islands of Tonga and Rapanui. As a result many of the original designs were thought to be lost when missionaries banned tattoos after their arrival in the in 1797.
Ironically traditional Polynesian tattoo designs are reappearing due to over 400 notes and drawings that were done by a missionary named Karl Von Steinen (Tahiti Tatou, 2007). Prior to the banning of tattoos by missionaries in 1797 tattoos played an important role in the Polynesian culture. Tattoos had a direct impact on tribal hierarchy. In fact it was possible to determine the island of origin and the status one held in the tribe based on the design of the tattoos, the locations of the tattoos, and the number of tattoos that covered the body.
There were, in fact, differences between male and female members of the tribe when it came to determining the location of the tattoos, the designs of the tattoos, and the quantity of tattoos. The fact that individuals were willing to endure such pain over many days or even weeks is an indication of how important tattooing was to the Polynesian culture. Try to imagine the pain associated with being tattooed, the only choices available are to proceed with the tattoo or risk being shunned, ostracized, and despised by the tribe.

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