Introduction to Polynesia

The Pacific Ocean covers one-third of the planet and washes the shores of numerous island chains, including Polynesia that literally means “many islands.” Roughly speaking, the geographical area of Polynesia forms a nearly perfect triangle defined by Hawaii at the northern tip supported by its two bases: New Zealand at the western edge and Easter Island at the eastern boundary.

When the first Europeans arrived on the beaches of Polynesia in the late 16th century, the islands were home to some 500,000 people descended from the great seafaring Lapitas who reached Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa by at least 1100 B.C., if not earlier. Down through the millennia, these “Vikings of the Pacific” made the ocean realm of what is the Pacific their own. The Lapitas traveled immense distances, sometimes over two thousand miles of ocean without landfall, navigating by the stars and without the aid of instruments. For their new lives among the coral atolls and volcanic peaks, they transported seeds, domesticated animals, and agricultural implements. They told stories about the descent of chiefs from gods, the voyages of ancestral heroes, and myths of creation, and they also left behind tattooing tools and pottery fragments that broadly resemble tattooing designs. However, it would be another eight hundred years before their descendants colonized other parts of Oceania, including the Marquesas (100 B.C.), Easter Island (400 A.D.), Hawaii (500 A.D.), Tahiti (600 A.D.), and New Zealand (900 A.D.). Over time, the inhabitants of Polynesia not only became farmers, fishermen, seafaring merchants, and artisans; they also developed complex political and religious institutions where obedience to chiefs, royal families, priests, ancestors, and the gods was part of everyday existence.

Samoan pe'a tattooing, ca. 1900.
Samoan pe’a tattooing, ca. 1900.


From a religious perspective, Polynesian peoples shared a widespread belief that the universe was governed by invisible forces that could determine, influence, and control the events of life and human destiny itself. This mystical relationship was forged by the actions of a large number of patron deities that held sway over daily activities, such as agriculture, fishing, navigation, warfare, and the creation of art forms including tattoo, while more “personal” gods watched over individuals, families, and local communities. All of these entities were propitiated with offerings and sacrifices and they were ritually honored in temples and other sacred locations to keep their favor close to the living.

Although priests had the power to directly communicate with these important divinities, so too did expert artisans – albeit in a different way. Properly apprenticed craftsmen like tattoo artists not only worked under the protection of one or more patron deities, but they also had the ability to control the supernatural force of mana that was distributed in natural objects and substances as well as in subjects, like their human clients. Mana was believed to have had an influence on all the achievements and abilities of humans, but it embodied living bodies differentially – some individuals possessed more than others.

Mana could be acquired through inheritance, or it could be accumulated through ritual performances and proper patterns of behavior. It could also be transmitted through vehicles like tattoos, but manacould also be lost out of ignorance or even death at the hands of an enemy.

Obviously, the more mana an individual artisan possessed, the more powerful he was, and tattoo artists were no exception to this rule. The most accomplished skin artists endured a long apprenticeship to a practicing craftsman, and they could demonstrate a genealogical relationship to a former master. Tattooists also maintained a vast repertoire of rituals, chants, and mythological stories. These were employed as he laid down tattoo designs on his client’s skin to give them their initial layer of mana. As he spent more time executing the bold and intricate designs, additional layers of mana permeated the markings with his words and actions, in turn fortifying the tattoo recipient.

Mana was recognized in individuals by their position, genealogy, skills, reputation, and influence. Some individuals were almost godlike because they possessed so much mana. But there was a necessary compliment to mana, a force called tapu that held it in oppositional check. Tapu consisted of a series of restrictions and taboos, as well as customary behaviors and actions, that were to be approached with extreme caution or completely avoided in order to protect one’s mana. Great personages such as chiefs and his offspring, priests, and tattoo artists could possess a great amount of tapu because of their shared identity (or proximity) with the divine, but this depleting energy of “contagious sacredness” was also manifest in other people, animals, and especially substances like blood and food that either flowed out of or entered the body.

Framework of Samoan tattooing patterns for the back, ca. 1900.
Framework of Samoan tattooing patterns for the back, ca. 1900.

Polynesians viewed the human body as a kind of ritual container that was composed of a suite of substances derived from the po, an indigenous concept symbolically related to darkness, death, fertility, and the realm of the gods. It was surrounded by the ao: the world of the living and light. Because po was believed to exist within the body, the body’s orifices and natural substances like blood were considered to be potential passageways into this sacred realm.

By virtue of their profession, tattooists across Polynesia were constantly confronted with tapu. On one level, the act of artistic creation was considered sacred and tapu itself because of the bloodletting that ensued. Furthermore, as tattooists called upon their patron deities during their work, they summoned them from their homes in the world of darkness (po); in turn, they rendered their activities, immediate surroundings, and patients tapu. Moreover, tattooists did not usually tattoo just any man or woman. Tattooing was an expensive undertaking typically reserved for chiefs, warriors, and other nobles who could afford it. And because these individuals possessed the greatest concentration of mana in the community, the tattoo artist was exposed to their tapu whenever he plied his instruments. Of course, if a tattooist or anyone else ignored the ritual restrictions or came into personal contact with a tabooed subject, place, or object without tapu removal, they risked severe injury and even death.

Notwithstanding such ritual constraints and dangers, the elaborate and sophisticated designs produced by Polynesian tattoo masters are some of the most incredible artistic endeavors to be created in any medium worldwide. Aside from such visual and aesthetic considerations, however, most of our knowledge of Polynesian tattoo culture as it existed in the pre-contact and early historical periods is based on the observations of Westerners who, for a variety of reasons, sought to understand and abolish it (e.g., missionaries) at the same time. Although this documentary evidence is necessarily shaped by the imperfect perspectives and biases of non-indigenous foreigners, their testimony offers one of the only windows into this largely vanished world; a world that I will attempt to uncover in the following pages of this article.

Maori Tā Moko or Tattooing

Before the 20th century, traditional Maori tattoo artists in New Zealand were called tohunga tā moko or “tattoo specialists” and were men. These “experts” were often craftsmen in other skills like wood carving, and their knowledge was transmitted through family lines – from grandfathers, mother’s brothers, or fathers – although some artisans had natural abilities that were cultivated.

Maori tattoo scene, ca. 1910. Collection of the author.
Maori tattoo scene, ca. 1910. Collection of the author.

Tohunga used a range of uhi (chisels) made from albatross or whale bone, which were attached to a wooden handle, and struck with a mallet. The Maori technique was more distinct than other Polynesian forms of hand-tapped tattooing because the designs created looked like grooves carved into the skin. Thus, it is more appropriate to call Maori tattooing “skin-carving.”

Maori tattoo chisels, 1890.
Maori tattoo chisels, 1890.

Tattoo pigments for the face were typically created from the soot of burnt kauri gum mixed with pigeon fat, but for body tattooing colors made from  awheto (caterpillar fungus) were used. Pigments were stored in small ornately carved vessels called oko that were often buried when not in use.Oko were handed down in the family because ownership of the pigment was an important factor, as it was believed that the mana of the owner could be transferred to the next generation. Accordingly, many sons requested that they be tattooed with pigment belonging to their fathers. Oko are extremely rare and only six are known to exist in the world today. 

Postcard of Maori whakatehe, 1905. Collection of the author.
Postcard of Maori whakatehe, 1905. Collection of the author.

Among the Maori, tattooing (tā moko) was also called “the fire (or oven) of tattooing.” This terminology referred to the intricate facial tattooing received by men called moko that, when chiseled into the epidermis, made the skin feel as if it was literally “on fire.”

Tattooing was one of the great Maori arts, and many parts of the bodies of chiefs and warriors, especially their faces, were fully decorated. Women’s tattoos were more commonly confined to the lips and chin and served as fertility markings called whakatehe, from “tehe” or “the penis in an erect state.”

Tattoo artists required that “perfect” work must be paid for accordingly, as in the following song that was chanted by the tattooist:

He who pays well let him be beautifully ornamented; But he who forgets the operator let him be done carelessly. Be the lines far apart, E hiki Tangaroa E hiki Tangaroa? Strike that, the chisel as it cuts along may sound. O Hiki Tangaroa? Men do not know the skill of the operator in driving his sounding chisel along, E hiki Tangaroa?”

Postcard of Maori moko, 1905. Collection of the author.
Postcard of Maori moko, 1905. Collection of the author.

This song was performed to not only remind the tattoo client of the divine origins of the art form (e.g., it was believed to have originated with the God Tangaroa), but that it was also the tattoo recipient’s duty to pay the tattooist well. The tattoo client was expected to not only feed the tattooist with the best food available, but to also gift him with presents. When the operator suspected he would not be compensated appropriately, he frequently became careless in his work. Thus, some mokos were very coarsely done, while others were completed with an artistic touch.

Obtaining Maori facial tattoos was a long and painful operation, especially for chiefs and other members of aristocratic families. After the lips had been tattooed and the patient was recuperating, it was taboo for anyone to touch their skin. The head was regarded as having great tapu(holiness or sacredness), and cooked food had the property of removing or diminishing the tapu. Thus, if any food touched the lips of a great chief after he had been tattooed, this action would remove the tapu from the artwork and cause it “to fail.” Funnels were therefore used to feed semi-liquid food to such chiefs during and after the tattoo process. The funnels were the chiefs’ personal property and through continued use gained their own measure of tapu themselves.

At the same time, the tattoo artist was not allowed to touch food with his hands because they weretapu from the spilled blood. In turn, tohunga were fed pieces of food on sticks by their assistant(s).

(left) Oko pigment container carved with stone tools, 18th century. Wood, haliotis (paua) shell. (right) Bowl shaped Maori feeding funnel (koropata) used in tattooing and carved with stone tools, late 18th century. Wood, haliotis (paua) shell.
(left) Oko pigment container carved with stone tools, 18th century. Wood, haliotis (paua) shell. (right) Bowl shaped Maori feeding funnel (koropata) used in tattooing and carved with stone tools, late 18th century. Wood, haliotis (paua) shell.

Most of these feeding tubes were of conical shape, but others resembled bowls with carved faces inlaid with haliotis (paua) shell. The outer surfaces were covered with a series of contorted facial forms and bodies, and the familiar double-spiral and chevron motifs that comprise many Maori tattoo patterns were also carved into these sacred implements.

First published image of Samoan tatau, 1840.
First published image of Samoan tatau, 1840.

Samoa

Samoa is a major island group skirting the western boundary of Polynesia. Tattooing was highly valued here especially amongst individuals of high rank, and according to traditional Samoan tattoo artist Su’a Sulu’ape Petelo, only chiefs (matai) and their sons and daughters were originally allowed to be tattooed. The overall corpus of designs consisted of a series of bounded zones that were composed within a framework of abstract motifs derived from highly stylized designs taken from nature, like millipedes, shells, birds, and the flying fox or fruit bat. Some of these animals were held to be sacred by some families because they embodied ancestral spirits, and when worn as tattoos they enveloped the body in a sacred cloak of protection.

According to mythology, the office of tattooing was originally presided over by two twin female patron deities – Tilafainga and Taema – who were also responsible for bringing the art form from Fiji as the following legend relates:

Once there were two sisters who swam from Fiji to Samoa. All the while on their journey they sang songs of the art of tattoo and how it only beautified women in their homeland. They carried with them the tools– the various bone combs and the requisite knowledge. When they neared Samoa they spied an oyster in the depths of the turquoise water and together they dove for it. When they rose to the surface, their songs had become confused: instead of tattoo beautifying women, they chanted that it would beautify men. And so male tattooing came to Samoa.

Another Samoan legend is believed by some writers to be the origin of the pe’a (“flying fox”) tattoo design, a motif that is at the very heart of Samoan male tattoo culture. Nafanua, a mythical ancestress of the chiefly house of Tonumaipe’a of Savai’i, was the daughter of the ruler of the underworld and her mother was Tilafainga who brought tattooing to Samoa. She was also the goddess of war. Once, when she was fleeing from a military expedition in Tonga, she became stranded on an inhospitable island. Here she was saved by flying foxes, whom the Tonumaipe’a honored by naming themselves after these revered animals (e.g., Tonumaipe’a translates to “those who are saved by a flying fox”). To this day, the flesh of the flying fox is tapu to everyone except for members of the highest rank. And according to Samoan tattooist Su’a Sulu’ape Petelo, the pe’aitself resembles a flying fox naturalistically hanging from a tree with its wings surrounding its body – the head being the male genitals.

What this symbolism may perhaps reveal is that the pe’a originally stood for protection, since the flying fox also envelopes itself in a natural layer of skin while at rest. Combined with the fact that Nafanua offered her lineage with protective power as the goddess of war, such associations may have given rise to the Samoan concept of wrapping (pulupulu) the human body with a pe’a as a kind of protective shield. A shield that not only embodied mythological and divine power, but also mana.

Samoan elements of early 20th century male tattoo.
Samoan elements of early 20th century male tattoo.

Tattooing Practitioners and Process

Samoan tattoo artists are called tufuga ta tau (ta tau,“correct, artfully done”), and tattooists with great manawere recognized by the symmetrical designs and finely balanced compositions and linework they executed for their clients. According to contemporary Samoan tattoo masters Su’a Sulu’ape Petelo and Sua Sulu’ape Paulo II, Samoan tattooing was many things to many people. Lines referred to genealogies, adventures, and accomplishments. Curved lines (‘aso faaifo) encircled your being, and served as a visual testament to an individual’s commitment to permanently incorporate their family’s lineage into his or her life. As a rite of initiation, ta tau not only transformed the self into a mature adult, but it also allowed a person to pay homage to their elders while also showing deference to them. In turn, the ta tau served as an emblem of inspiration for all of those who remain unmarked.

In some districts, the profession of tufuga ta tau was hereditary, but in others it was apparently not. The artist worked with a set of six or more mallets. The handles were typically constructed of bamboo or another light wood, to which were lashed heads of tortoise-shell. These heads were attached to flat combs or rakes (au) of sharpened pig’s teeth or human bone that pierced the skin with indelible designs. Tattoo pigment was derived from the lama nut (Aleurites triloba) mixed with water.

Boys and girls were decorated between their fourteenth and eighteenth year. The father built a special shed in which the work was performed and after the tattooing had been completed the highlytapu structure was burned. The father housed and feasted the tufuga and his assistants with pork, taro, bananas, and fish during the lengthy operation – about two to three months on average – and paid the master in fine mats, waist garments (lavalava), and other articles of local value. The man, if he could afford it, also allowed his son or daughter to invite friends to come and share the skill of the practitioner.

The father’s child, for whom the artist was hired, set the pace for the work, indicating when, because of pain, the work must stop and the length of the rest periods. Usually the tufuga worked on the client during three periods over the course of a week and continued for as many weeks as was necessary to complete the bold designs.

As noted, tattooists employed assistants. Usually these young men were relatives of the tufuga and they served as apprentices to the master until they displayed the requisite promise and aptitude to become a professional. Part of an assistant’s tattoo education included a long and thorough study of traditional designs, ritual chants, as well as extensive practice in wielding the tattooing instruments of his teacher.

Eventually, and if the apprentice proved his ability, he was provided the opportunity of tattooing a client of his master’s choosing. If he was successful, he became a candidate for admission into the guild of tufuga ta tau to which his master belonged. Artists who were members of this island-wide organization came from near and far to attend the initiation of the neophyte. If, in the opinion of these professionals, he was qualified to become a tattoo practitioner, he began inking his own clients and developing his personal style. For it is said that those versed in the art can, upon seeing a pattern, name the artist who executed it.

master normally had up to six assistants (‘autufuga). Each one had a particular responsibility, but overlap was certainly encouraged since acquired proficiency in each skill was mandatory for becoming a tattoo master. One apprentice mixed the pigments, another wiped the blood, and another kept the tool black with pigment. One assistant ensured that the ta tau combs remained sharp, another stretched the client’s skin, and another uttered chants to instill the necessary courage in the patient so that he would endure the sacred designs of his fellow men and ancestors.

Of course, women could also hold the position of an assistant. Oftentimes they consoled the man who was being tattooed because it was disgraceful and unmanly to show pain during the lengthy ritual. In the case of the son of a chief, several women would pin down the patient and sing the following song to distract him from the violent hammering of the tattooing tool upon the skin:

Friend, stop your wailing and moaning, that is not the pain of a sick person; That is the pain of a novice! Relax your body like giving up, Give in, o chief!

Soon you will receive your pretty chains of adornment; As yet they are separate and not joined; The necklace is still in pieces and not quite finished. Give in, o chief!

But soon in the evening You will look at your tattoo; Comparable to a fresh ti leaf. Give in, o chief!

Ah, if it were a burden I would carry it for you in my love. O be quiet and give in, I will withdraw when the blows have fallen. Give in, o chief!

The stylet and hammer strike, The color is applied so that it may adhere. Give in, o chief!

Like water flows your blood; Ah, I feel pity for your condition. Give in, o chief!

But this is the custom ages old, You constantly moan, but I sing. Women must bear children, Man must be tattooed.
And the tattooer will be struck by the trade wind. Give in, o chief!

The necklace may break, the string may break, But your tattoo will not break. This necklace of yours is permanent. And will go into the grave with you. Give in, o chief!

Ah, you suffer beneath the blows, Ah, till you fall asleep, And you are not tired nor weary of it!

The process of tattooing began when the small of the back was tattooed with bold designs calledtapulu (“to wrap up or cover”). Eventually the buttocks, scrotum, thigh and abdomen were marked. And because so much of the epidermis was covered, the skin became raw and simple bodily movements like walking or reclining were nearly impossible to perform without assistance.

The tattooing ceremony culminated in the piercing of the navel with color. This symbolic act was important, because it consummated the closure of the body and replaced the last physical trace of natural birth. Afterwards, a ceremony called the “sprinkling of the tattooed” was performed with coconut oil to remove the tapu state of the newly marked and return them to ordinary life.

Tongan tattoo comb, 18th century.
Tongan tattoo comb, 18th century.

Tonga

The documentary record of tattooing in Tonga is far less extensive than that available for Samoa. Missionaries established themselves here at an early date, and after King Siaosi Tupou I began devising laws around 1840 that would eventually outlaw and eradicate traditional Tongan tattooing altogether, the traditional context of established design forms and original symbolism was lost. In fact, less than five illustrations of “true” Tongan tattooing are known to exist in the world today.

For such reasons, the practice of tattooing in Tonga rapidly vanished in the mid-19th century, compelling chiefs, nobles, and other affluent personages to travel to Samoa to get tattooed; a pattern, I might add, that was nothing new to the Samoan elite (see below). Although Samoa was missionized to some degree, Christianity’s grip there was often tenuous and tattooing continued to be practiced as it always had on islands like Savai’i. According to oral history, Savai’i became very rich due to the influx on Tongans in search of body art.

Prior to the arrival of proselytizing Christians, however, tattooing was widespread in Tonga and Cook describes numerous men “punctured” with patterns in the late 18th century that were similar in placement and form to those of Samoa. On Tonga, tattooing seems to have been an initiation rite since one early account revealed that “Every male Tongan on arriving at manhood was tatued.” Another writer reported: “It is considered very unmanly not to be tattowed…The men would think it very indecent not to be tattowed, because though in battle they wear nothing but the mahi[undergarment]. Even the glans penis and the verge of the anus does escape [the tattooing].”

George Vason, an early 19th century missionary who left behind the church and married a local woman, was himself tattooed because he could no longer stand the shame and ridicule he faced amongst his male bathing companions. Vason wrote:

While going from place to place on these triumphant excursions of pleasure, I was frequently exposed to the reflections and sarcasms of the young people, especially in the hour of bathing, which generally recurred three times a day, for being destitute of the cuticle vesture, which modesty has taught the South Sea Islanders to throw around them as an excellent initiation and substitute for garments, I mean the tattoo. On these occasions, they would raise a shout of merriment and call me by opprobrious epithets.

Tattoo Process, Terminology, and Design

Most of the terminology related to practitioners and tools was closely related to words used in Samoa. According to contemporary Tongan tattooist Rodney “Ni” Powell, the Tongan word for tattooing is ta tatau, meaning “to strike repeatedly.” Powell continues, “In its poetic or aesthetic form, ta refers to time or [the] status of time, and tatau can invoke a sense of complete symmetry or both sides being equal inside and out. In this thought, ta tatau [can] also be interpreted as the state of complete balance in all things.”

Tattoo artists were called tufunga, but the profession was not typically a hereditary one as it was in some regions of Samoa and other parts of Polynesia. For example, informants interviewed about 1880 reported: “The office of Ta Tatu was not hereditary, as so many trades were among the Tongans; any man of the lower orders might take to it, and those who acquired a reputation received large fees for their services.”

Although well paid for their work, tufunga were not allowed to tattoo members of the Tongan elite, because as “commoners” they were tabooed from even touching chiefs or other nobles. This aspect of ceremonial protocol did not necessarily present a problem for high status individuals, however, because for centuries the rulers of Tonga sailed to Samoa for their cherished tattoos.

In Tonga, however, some chiefs and nobles were tattooed by Samoans known as matapule who served as their ceremonial and court attendants. Because matapule were foreigners, they were immune from the rigid taboos surrounding physical contact and they could tattoo Tongan chiefs, cut their hair (the head of a Tongan chief is extremely tapu), and also prepare their bodies for burial.

Like their brethren back home in Samoa, tattooing matapule employed methods of hand-tapping to create their bold designs. In Tonga, these tools were called hau and took various forms. William Mariner, a teenage ship’s clerk who was a captive of Ha’apai island chief Fīnau ʻUlukālala between 1806-1810, observed the “operation of ta tattow” and described it as follows.

The instrument used for the purpose of this operation somewhat resembles a small tooth-comb; they have several kinds of different degrees of breadth, from six up to fifty or sixty teeth; they are made of the bone of the wing of the wild duck. Being dipped in a mixture of soot and water, the outline of the tattow is first marked off before the operator begins to puncture, which he afterwards does by striking in the points of the instrument with a small stick made of a green branch of the cocoanut tree; when the skin begins to bleed, which it quickly does, the operator occasionally washed off the blood with cold water, and repeatedly goes over the same places; as this is a very painful process, but a small portion of it is done at once, giving the patient (who may justly be called) intervals of three or four days’ rest, so that it is frequently two months before it is completely finished. This operation causes that portion of the skin on which it is performed to remain permanently thicker.

The late 19th century colonial administrator Basil Thompson also described the process of tattooing. But his local informants suggested that another kind of tool was employed to mark the designs:

The design was roughly marked on the skin first. The operation was performed with an instrument, or rather a number of instruments consisting of shark’s teeth lashed to a wooden handle, the number of teeth varying with the intricacy of the portion of the design being struck. The patient lay down and the teeth were struck with a light mallet, the operator wiping away the blood with a piece of gnatu [barkcloth], and smearing the wound with a mixture of charcoal and candlenut oil. It was a matter of honour to endure the pain without a murmur, but the operation was so painful, particularly on the inner part of the thighs, that only a small portion could be done at a time, and the process, therefore, occupied many days.

Perhaps the best and most accurate depiction of Tongan tattooing was published by D’Urville after his visit to the archipelago in 1827. The Frenchmen published a side view of the tattooing on the lower trunk and thigh of a man which shows an arrangement of horizontal panels: one of which on the upper thigh is inset with rows of triangles. Two of the patterns shown in this illustration closely resemble Samoan designs: the parallel serrated lines on the abdomen, which appear to be quite similar to the Samoan fa’aifo; and sets of several parallel lines on the upper thigh. In addition to these, the irregular shape imprinted across the small of the back above the main panels somewhat resembles the Samoan tua, which was placed in the same location. But upon closer inspection, it would seem that Tongan tattoo patterns were much thicker overall.

D'Urville's illustration of the Tongan peka tattoo, 1827. Apparently, Tongan women were only lightly tattooed with small marks on their hands, fingers, legs, and feet. No significance has been attached to the designs outside of ornamentation itself.
D’Urville’s illustration of the Tongan peka tattoo, 1827. Apparently, Tongan women were only lightly tattooed with small marks on their hands, fingers, legs, and feet. No significance has been attached to the designs outside of ornamentation itself.

Like those in Samoa, the principal tattooing patterns were named and they were applied in a definite sequence. Sadly, however, only a handful of these names survive: a design across the small of the back called peka (“flying fox”); and one on the front of the leg named pulu (“to wrap”). As a man increased in age, additional tattoo patterns could be applied to his arms and the upper torso. The latter design is only understood from its description because there are no drawings that survive to illustrate it. This motif was called matahema and consisted of a stripe that emerged from the lower spine. It then bifurcated into branching lines which ran upwards under the arms and eventually curved inwards toward the nipples.

Contemporary Movements

Today, contemporary versions of traditional Tongan designs continue to mark the bodies of Tongan men through the work of several Polynesians, including Tongan tufunga Rodney Powell and Aisea Toetu’u. These motifs are derived from decorative elements found in other Tongan art forms like wood carving, mat weaving, and barkcloth ornamentation. Other patterns refer to cultural and mythological elements and have evolved from such traditions to become tattoo symbols themselves. Rodney Powell writes, “Lomipeau, Tonga’s Legendary vaka [sailing canoe] of the Tu’i Tonga, sits across the back; the three Tongan dynasties are also represented in the Ngatu ‘uli across the thighs; the ‘Ulumotu’a and Fahu – symbolic matriarch and patriarch of Tongan families – is also acknowledged.  Other designs include the Kafa and the ‘Otu Kakala, representing Tonga’s love with nature.  The designs continue until a whole picture of Tongan society is created and firmly wrapped around the wearer’s body, much like our traditional Ta’ovala [dress].”

Of course, the revitalization movement of Tongan ta tatau has also been made possible in large part by Samoan master Su’a Sulu’ape Petelo. In 2003, he created the first peka tattoo in over one-hundred and sixty years based on his experiential knowledge of Samoan designs, D’Urville’s illustration, and other Tongan decorative forms. Confirming once and for all that the art of Tongan ta tatau appears to be alive and well after so many years of artificial separation from its deeply-rooted Polynesian past.

Tahiti

As in Tonga, the disintegration of traditional tattooing culture in Tahiti was the result of missionization and the banning of the practice as early as 1819 in some of the islands. The British missionary Ellis, writing in the 1830s, reported: “the simple act of tatuing or marking the skin, was in itself no breach of the peace, but it was connected with their former idolatry, and always attended with the practices of abominable vices, and on this account was prohibited.”

Tattooed Inhabitants of Tahiti, 1823.
Tattooed Inhabitants of Tahiti, 1823.

He continued: “On account of the immoral practices invariably connected with the process of tatauing, the [Christian] chiefs prohibited it altogether, and, excepting a few foreign seamen, who often evinced as great a desire to have some figure tatued on their arms or hands, as the natives themselves, there had not been an individual marked for some years.”

Missionaries enforced the tattooing ban with extreme acts like forcibly tattooing “criminal” marks upon the hands and faces of men and women who continued their ancestral customs, and in extreme cases they even flayed or skinned native Tahitians (Moahi) to remove their indelible markings.

Apart from such horrid and unthinkable forms of punishment, some tattoo practitioners were also forced into solitary confinement: “[O]n the island of Raiatea, two deep pits were once dug on the side of a hill; each was about fifteen feet deep, and was smaller at the top than at the bottom, so that it appeared impossible to climb up the sides. A woman who had run away from her husband and got herself tattooed, was put in one of these pits, and the man who tattooed her in the other.”

Evidently, the missionaries’ influence had a profound effect on Tahitian tattooing tradition, and by the 1850s published reports proclaimed that “The art is much lost, for the missionaries have discouraged it; but there are a few even now that are not marked, though all knowledge of the mysterious arrangement of it and of the different sorts, to each class, is now lost.” Writing in 1853, the Frenchman Berchon echoed a similar sentiment when he observed, “We had much difficulty in finding the tatu arches printed on the buttocks, loins and sides of the abdomen up to the false ribs, which made the women of Tahiti so proud in the time of Cook.” Of course, these developments also had a negative impact on the visual record of Tahitian tattooing itself, since there are fewer than twenty known illustrations of authentic Moahi tattoos today.

First Encounters

The naturalist Joseph Banks, who traveled with Cook on his first voyage to the South Pacific, provides perhaps the earliest (1769) account of Tahitian tattooing:

every one is marked thus in different parts of his body according may be to his humour or different circumstances of his life. Some have ill designd figures of men, birds or dogs, but they more generaly have this figure Z either simply, as the women are generaly markd with it, on every joint of their fingers and toes and often round the outside of their feet, or in different figures and toes and often round the outside of their feet, or in different figures of it as square, circles, crescents &c. which both sexes have on their arms and leggs; in short they have an infinite diversity of figures in which they place this mark and some of them we were told had significations but this we never learnt to our satisfaction. Their faces are in general left without marks, I did not see more than one instance to the contrary.

Although Banks and his contemporaries did not completely understand the significance and symbolism of such designs, he continued his account with more important information:

all the Islanders I have seen agree in having all their buttocks coverd with a deep black; over this most have arches drawn one over another as high as their short ribbs; which are often 1/4 of an inch broad and neatly workd on their edges with indentations &c. These arches are their great pride: both men and women shew them with great pleasure whether as a beauty or a proof of their perseverance and resolution in bearing pain I can not tell.

The illustrator Sydney Parkinson, who received a tattoo during his three month stay in Tahiti with the Cook expedition, created a sketch of these “arches.” This drawing (1769) is significant because it is the first European image of Polynesian tattooing itself.

Tahitian tattoos sketched by Sydney Parkinson, 1769.
Tahitian tattoos sketched by Sydney Parkinson, 1769.

Banks, however, also detailed the actual process of tattooing upon the skin of a young Tahitian girl. He recorded the local term for the custom (tatau or tattow), a word that has been borrowed many times over to describe the contemporary art form that is ultimately derived from tribal Polynesian origins.

This morn I saw the operation of Tattowing the buttocks performd upon a girl of about 12 years old, it provd as I have always suspected a most painfull one. It was done with a large instrument about 2 inches long containing about 30 teeth, every stroke of this hundreds of which were made in a minute drew blood. The patient bore this for about 1/4 of an hour with most stoical resolution; by that time however the pain began to operate too stron[g]ly to be peacably endurd, she began to complain and soon burst out into loud lamentations…The arches upon the loins upon which they value themselves much were not yet done, the doing of which they told causd more pain than what I had seen.

Georg Forster, an ethnologist who traveled with Cook to Tahiti during his second voyage, provided still more details, including local terms that allow us to partially reconstruct the symbolism that these designs were probably meant to convey.

he arches which they design on their buttocks obtain the name of avaree; the parts on which are one mass of black on the buttocks are named toumarro [girdle of spears], and the arches which are thus designed on the buttocks of their females, and are honourable marks of their puberty are called toto-hoowa.

Symbolic Meanings

From the Tahitian terms provided by Forster, several symbolic distinctions can be made. But before these are explored in more detail, one must remember that Polynesian art is polysemous or marked by a multiplicity of layered meanings. These layers are usually veiled in a system of interrelationships between symbolic opposites (e.g., life and death, darkness and light, impermanence and permanence, etc.) that both accounted for and regulated the positive and negative forces held responsible for the origins of the Polynesian universe and the act of human creation, among other things.

In Tahiti, for example, newborns were characterized by a certain amount of tapu or contagious dangerousness because they emerged from the darkness of the mother’s womb which was associated with the po, or the realm of the divine. Owing to their inherited godliness of recently being given life by the divine, infants were highly tapu and their contagiousness had to be diffused in order for others to interact safely with them. In fact, everything that came into contact with the newborn, including its parents’ food, was also tapu, and if the proper ceremonial protocols were not initiated divine retribution was certain.

To remove this state of taboo, a series of rituals called amo’a or “head-releasing” rites were set into motion. These ceremonies took place periodically until the child had matured, and were initiated with the removal of blood from the infant’s head. This body part was significant in Polynesian culture because the head was considered to be the most tapu part of the body: it was the primary seat and site of a person’s mana.

The blood was removed with a shark’s tooth attached to a special stick, and was wielded by the parents and relatives of the tabooed child. It was collected and mixed with sugarcane and placed on a leaf of miro or rosewood (used in contexts of communication with the gods) or on a tapa cloth. The sacred mixture was offered first to the child, and then to the gods. This ceremonial action ensured the desanctification of the newborn to the extent that objects touched by it were no longer dangerous to other people. It also allowed the infant’s parents to feed themselves too.

The Englishman John Rutherford with Tahitian torso designs, 1828.
The Englishman John Rutherford with Tahitian torso designs, 1828.

As the child matured and eventually reached the final stage of the amo’a cycle, s/he received a small tattoo on the inside of each arm, just above the elbow, to “seal off” the body from its tabooed state. This tattoo signaled to all that the rites of amo’ahad been completed, and that the child had achieved a level of “ritual immunity” from its previous condition. This act of “enclosure” with tattoo also moved the child one step closer to its bodily and spiritual “completion,” because the mark transported it closer to full adult membership. But as Forster noted, additional tattoos would come to be applied to the body including beautiful arch-like tattoos that covered the buttocks of men and women. Apparently, women and men were compelled to receive these marks at a very early age and according to Morrison, one of the Bounty mutineers under Fletcher Christian (1789), girls could “never” join the company of the adult women “till they have their Tatoowing done.”

This statement, amongst other supporting evidence, seems to indicate that a residual level of tapu continued to accompany young Moahi women, and probably men too, and that another layer of tattooing was necessary to permanently diminish the dangerous sacredness of the body and protect others from this malevolent influence. The logic of this conclusion is based on the word that Forster recorded for the “arch” tattoos of Moahi women and men. Avaree  means to “raise or lift a taboo,” meaning that Moahi who were thus marked could fully interact with adult members of society.

The dense patches of black that adjoined the arch tattoos also seem to have added other protective qualities, or at least enhanced the spiritual power of the adorned. These patterns were called toumarro (“girdle of spears”) and probably conveyed the idea of status and accumulated power. This is because across Polynesia the act of wrapping or binding an object or human body with barkcloth or other encapsulating mediums like feathered capes, transported it from an ordinary state (noa) to one with mana. In Tonga and Samoa, for example, wrapping oneself in barkcloth or even weapons like spears with tapa symbolizes this ideological movement.

Tattoo Rebellions

Because the Moahi art of tattoo was so central to individual and collective concepts of identity, status, maturity and well-being, Tahitians in the face of missionary suppression staged a series of what have been called “tattoo rebellions” in the early to mid-19th century to assert their sovereignty and ancestral ties to the old religion. The leaders of this campaign were comprised of an elite social group of bards, poets, tribal historians, and priests known as the ario’i who possessed extensive socio-political and religious influence because of their dedication to the important deity ‘Oro, the god of war.

Tahitian tattooing tools.
Tahitian tattooing tools.

The ario’i existed as an itinerant society that travelled around the Tahitian archipelago extracting offerings from the local population for the purpose of mounting large festivals in honor of their patron deity ‘Oro. The ario’i were infamous locally not only for their promiscuously flamboyant and bacchanalian pursuits, but also for their rigid adherence to traditional practices like tattooing that served to distinguish particular grades within the organization itself. These grades and accompanying tattoos are as follows:

I. Avae Parai (“blotted legs” or “black legs”). This was the highest grade of the society. Each local branch of the ario’i was headed by a pair of ario’i leaders or “chiefs”, one male and one female, who were tattooed in solid black from the foot to the groin.

II. Harotea (light-colored haro tattoo mark). Bars running crosswise on both sides of the body from the armpits downwards towards the front.

III. Taputu or ha’aputu. This design consisted of a series of curved lines and curves radiating upwards towards the sides of the torso from the lower end of the spinal column to the middle of the back.

IV. Oti’ore (“unfinished”). Light marks on the knuckles and wrists, and heavier ones on the arms and shoulders.

V. Hu’a (“small”). Two or three light marks on the shoulders.

VI. Atoro. One stripe down the left side.

VII. Ohe mara (“seasoned bamboo”). A circle tattooed around the ankle.

VIII. Tara tutu (“pointed thorn”). Small marks in the hollow behind the knees.

But to the Christian missionaries operating in the islands, the ario’i were nothing more than parasites feeding off of the hard work of the Moahi commoners. This fact, combined with the ario’i‘s penchant for sexual misconduct and refusal to abandon the “pagan” (and recently outlawed) practice of tattoo, solidified the Church’s position that these “heathens” presented nothing less than a radical obstacle in their attempts to “civilize” the population.

The missionary John Davies wrote:

many of the young people shewed a strong inclination to return to their former divisions, and marking their bodies with the tatau according to former practice, and tho’ this at first took place among those that were not baptized or brought under the discipline of those more immediately under the inspection of the [missionaries], the defection by degrees reached further, and many of the baptized began to associate with those that had returned to those vain and sinful practices.

After the French claimed title and official control of Tahiti in 1842, resistance continued but the subsequent conversion of many chiefs and other indigenous authorities to Christianity, combined with the threat of forced exile to other French colonies, certainly had an effect on pushing the practice underground for many decades to come. In fact, it was not until 1981 that the official Moahi tataurevival began with the assistance of a Samoan tufuga who brought the ancient art back to life.

Marquesas

The Marquesan archipelago consists of six inhabitable islands and other islets located approximately nine-hundred miles northeast of Tahiti. The island nation is divided into a northwestern group (Nukuhiva, ‘Ua Pou, and ‘Ua Huka) and a south-eastern group (Hiva Oa, Tahuata, and Fatuhiva) where dialectical differences and tattooing styles evolved since the region was settled by ancient mariners about 100 B.C.

Marquesan tattooing scene, 1804.
Marquesan tattooing scene, 1804.

The German explorer and ethnologist Karl von den Steinen, who visited the isles in 1891, listed over one hundred and seventy individually named tattooing motifs, which is remarkable since the tradition was “banned” by French officials approximately fifty years before that time.

Unlike other regions of Polynesia where descent and genealogical heritage from gods were the primary avenues for status and political control, the sociopolitical milieu of the Marquesas was more relaxed, devolved, and egalitarian. For example, rather than a rigid, stratified society controlled by ruling chiefs, the Marquesan world was sufficiently modified to the extent that property owners (‘akatia), warriors (toa), political leaders, and even female shamans (etua) could also achieve great influence and power. In fact, on Fatuhiva – one of the most “democratic” of all the isles – a missionary that sought to know who was king was told: “You are king, I am king, we are all kings.”

Due to the nature of indigenous political organization in the Marquesas, tattooing was not confined to certain ranks, classes, or the sexes. In fact, certain sacred chiefs of the highest rank were not tattooed at all. However, fine work was widely enjoyed by other chiefs, their warriors, and wealthy individuals who could afford to employ the best artists. Furthermore, only they could withstand the attendant expenses associated with feeding the tattoo artist and his assistants as well as other individuals (ka’ioi) who built the special tattooing house (oho’au) for the occasion.

Not surprisingly, these facts did not escape the attention of early writers who were fascinated by such customs, and today our knowledge of Marquesan tattooing is largely confined to observations revolving around the heavy marking of the male elite.

Marking the Opou

In the case of a chief’s first born son (opou), the chief prepared long in advance for paying and feeding his local tahuna. He raised pigs and had paper mulberry trees planted from which tapacloth garments could be later made and gifted. Payment also took the form of ornaments, war clubs, and, after European contact, guns. While the tuhuna was paid generously for work on an opou, because nothing other than perfection was to be expected, no payment was asked of the ka’ioi or the chief’s younger sons and daughters, who provided food during the lengthy ritual. Instead, they were free to have designs punctured upon them gratis when the opportunity presented itself, usually when the opou was resting or recuperating from the effects of the painful operation.

Tattooing of the opou.
Tattooing of the opou.

Several days before the operation commenced, the father announced that the tattooing house was to be built. About one o’clock in the morning on the day of its construction, two great drums and two smaller ones were struck to announce the forthcoming tapu period and summon the ka’ioi. These individuals, usually from forty to eighty in number, immediately gathered and together proceeded, under the direction of the tuhuna, to raid the domicile of the opou‘s father. Here, they demolished his houses and those of his relatives, with the exception of the sleeping houses. They did this to seize material for the building of the oho’au and raw materials for making tapa. Enough pigs and other food, sufficient to last for the entire period of the operation, were also taken for the feeding of theka’ioituhuna, and all those who were to stay in the oho’au.

Before the tuhuna arrived at the newly constructed oho’au itself, the father of the opou had prepared the tattooing pigment (hinu). The preparation was a very tapu operation, and it is said that a virgin assisted him in this delicate work. The shells of the candlenut were heated so that they would open easily, and then the kernels were placed over a fire in a pocket of stones which allowed the smoke to ascend through a small passageway in order to collect on a smooth stone. Upon this stone a constant tapping was kept up while the soot collected to the depth of about an inch. The soot-covered stone was then placed on a banana leaf and left in the sun to dry, being kept this way until the tuhuna arrived for his work. Then the father mixed the soot with plain water in a small coconut shell and gave it to the artist.

The chief then proclaimed that all relationships with women were taboo to attending males during the period that was about to commence, and those men who entered the oho’auwere compelled to hide if women were even sighted at a distance.

Warrior tattooing, 1900.
Warrior tattooing, 1900.

The tuhuna, or more appropriately the tuhuna patu tiki (“one who strikes or marks designs”), worked under the protection of a patron deity whose contagious power also enveloped those who came into contact with him while he worked. One early writer stated that the office of tuhunawas hereditary, and that each great family had its own stable of tattooists that were trained from generation to generation.

The tuhuna carried his instruments in a bamboo case that measured seven or eight inches long. He laid out his tools on a piece of tapa spread on the ground and prepared himself for work. These instruments were generally known as ta (“to strike”). Like in other parts of Polynesia, there was always an assortment of these tools and the combs varied in fineness depending on the grade of work (linework, fill) that was to be performed. The flat instruments for straight lines and gradual curves were of human bone, sometimes acquired from the corpses of sacrificed enemies. Each were about three inches long, flat and slightly wedge-shaped, and toothed or comb-like at the end. Tools for the smaller curves were made from the leg or wingbones of a booby or another species of unidentified bird.

The tuhuna was aided in his work by four or five assistants called ou’a (“pupils” or “disciples”). Like their counterparts elsewhere in Polynesia, each had a particular duty. Two or more ou’a held the arms and legs of the patient, while another stretched the skin to make a smooth surface upon which to work. Other ou’a fanned the flies from the bleeding wounds or filled-in the outlined designs.

The opou consulted the tuhuna regarding the choice of designs, although he was free to select his patterns. The tattooist outlined the designs upon the body with a piece of charcoal. The patient, clad only in a girdle, was simply laid on the floor. When a design had been sketched in charcoal upon the body, the tuhuna, or an assistant, held in his left hand the toothed hammer and a piece of tapa, with which by a dexterous twist of his hand he wiped away the blood as it flowed from the punctures made in the skin. As he worked, he kept a sufficient supply of pigment upon the teeth of the comb by dipping two fingers of his right hand into the ink and rubbing them upon the comb. While the tapping continued, the tuhuna chanted the following verse in rhythm to his strokes upon the opou‘s skin to console him:

Male facial patterns, 1920.
Male facial patterns, 1920.

It is struck, it is struck, it is struck, It is struck, your design, Tap-tapping your design, The brother of the mother, The sister of the mother, My design.

At other times, chants were uttered to empower the agonizing patient, because it was said that a woman would not marry an unmarked man and a man was not respected even by children if he had not received a tattoo.

We tap, yes we tap you a little, yes?

Who knows who will come look at the ta-tu of this fellow? A Beautiful maiden will come, yes! To look at the ta-tu of this fellow, who knows?

The tattooing house itself was very tapu to outsiders and insiders alike. The tuhuna‘s assistants were especially tapu and could only eat special food. The opou and ka’ioi who were tattooed also observed food taboos, and for several days they were forbidden from eating pig meat and consuming kava beverages. These restrictions were intended to reduce the flowing of the blood and to diminish the inflammation that ensued from the wounds of the tattooing tool.

The duration of the operation depended largely upon the fortitude and health of the opou. A Nukuhiva man is reported to have been completely covered in three days; the legs and back of one man of Hiva Oa were done in seven days. But as a rule the designs were applied in a more leisurely fashion, a section of the body being covered at a sitting. In between each tattoo session were three-day rest periods called “days of blood.”

After each sitting, there were from eight to twelve days of local inflammation, followed by fever and sometimes swellings, which were at times fatal. The juice of the banana stem was used as an ointment to hasten healing. Sometimes, an emollient of hibiscus leaves or the healing fruits of thenoni (Indian mulberry) were used to relieve the inflammation. Typically speaking, the entire process of tattooing lasted two weeks to four months.

As the tattooing drew to its necessary completion, the tahuna was paid, and when the tapu was lifted the sacred tattooing house was burned. All of those who participated were at last allowed to bathe and they traveled to the sea and then to a river. This accomplished, they covered themselves with a fragrant ointment, which turned the skin yellow so that their bold patterns showed brilliantly. Meanwhile, relatives had prepared ornaments like tortoise shell crowns, girdles of tapa, feathered head ornaments, earrings, and other articles to be used in a public celebration honoring the newly marked. One very old account states that it was also at this time that a human victim was sacrificed and eaten. Presumably the bones of the deceased were used at this time to create new tattooing implements.

Warrior tattooing, 1920.
Warrior tattooing, 1920.

A Warrior’s Body

After an opou had recovered from his first encounter with the tattoo artist, he would continue to receive additional designs over his lifetime until his body was nearly black with tattooing. This pattern was equally characteristic of men of the warrior class who acquired fame and riches fighting for chiefs who controlled local valleys.

Each of the deeply carved volcanic valleys of the Marquesas was typically home to a single autonomous group composed of both chiefs (haka’iki) and commoners and known collectively as a mata’eina’a. Named after a specific ancestor, themata’eina’a was ruled by one or more haka’iki whose political power and influence did not typically extend beyond the valley itself. In most cases, relationships between adjoiningmata’eina’a were hostile, and the inhabitants of each valley were oftentimes engaged in a continuous, though small-scale, armed struggle with their neighbors.

Because tribal unity was atypical of the region, the meanings and terms used to describe and define tattooing symbols varied from valley to valley, and even between individual tattoo masters themselves. However, there was a body of primary designs that were known regionally, including symbols derived from nature and images of animals (lizards, turtles, sharks) or anthropomorphic humans (tiki) and derivative forms which played an important role in Marquesan mythology. Several of these motifs were also revered as protective spiritual guardians or genealogical symbols derived from deified ancestors who also offered some level of supernatural assistance to their living descendants. Of course, most of these tattoo designs were worn by warriors who literally covered themselves with a form of tattooed armor.

As in many indigenous cultures throughout the world, the identity and social standing of most men were largely determined by their achievements as warriors on the field of battle. Although war parties were dispatched by the haka’iki, the actual fighting was performed almost exclusively by thetoa, a class of semiprofessional warriors second only to chiefs and shamans (tua) in power.

Tattooed chief of Nukuhiva with mata komoe pattern tattooed on his thighs.
Tattooed chief of Nukuhiva with mata komoe pattern tattooed on his thighs.

For the Marquesan warrior, tattoos were employed as a form of psychological warfare to inspire fear and awe in their enemies. After every battle, a man added fresh marks to his body to commemorate his achievements. Even if he was completely tattooed, another layer of marks were soon laid upon his skin.

Over the course of a lifetime, no part of the human canvas went unmarked. All regions of the body were tattooed, including the eyelids, inside of the nostrils, tongue, ear lobes, and the gums. The underarm patterns of a warrior made a fine showing when he lifted his war club to crush the skull of an opposing enemy. And indeed, any man who appeared to be lightly marked on the battlefield was certainly a primary target for a veteran toa.

Battle hardened men also possessed spirals over their eyes. Spirals on the cheeks and hips called kokoata indicated warrior chiefs, as did tiny pin-like marks placed on the inside of the left ankle. After a battle, the priest of a victorious army searched the slain for these ankle marks to determine whether a chief had been killed and a “great” battle fought. Other motifs were placed on the skin of warriors when an enemy had been killed or eaten.

Warriors also accentuated their menacing countenances with regalia, including feathered headdresses and dense embellishments of human hair worn about the shoulders, waist, and limbs. As the toa ran into battle, this equipment undulated wildly, creating the impression of great ferocity and speed, while also disorienting the enemy. One writer reported:

I had seen several of their warriors since I had arrived, many of them highly ornamented with plumes, formed of the feathers of cocks and man-o-war [frigate] birds, and with the long tail feathers of the tropic bird; large tufts of hair were tied around their waists, their an[k]les, and their loins: a cloak, sometimes of red cloth, but more frequently of white paper [tapa] cloth…thrown not inelegantly over the shoulders, with large round or oval ornaments in their ears, formed of whales’ teeth, ivory, or a kind of soft and light wood, whitened with chalk; from their neck suspended a whale’s tooth, or highly polished shell, and round their loins several turns of the stronger kind of papercloth, the end of which hangs before in the manner of an apron: this with a black and highly polished spear of about twelve feet in length, or a club richly carved, and borne over the shoulders, constitutes the dress and equipment of a native warrior, whose body is highly and elegantly ornamented by tattooing, executed in a manner to excite our admiration.

Many toa also carried the decorated skulls of their victims as evidence of their martial success. Sometimes they were adorned with natural materials to further humiliate their enemies, as one 19th century writer noted: “These skulls decorated the houses of all the renowned warriors, who, in derision put on them pearl-shell eyes, a wooden nose, and pig’s teeth.” This powerful visual statement not only communicated an emphatic message of dread to a potential adversary, it also excited the imagination of early European writers who captured such poses in publications for audiences back home.

Heavily tattooed Marquesan toa of Nukuhiva with head trophy, 1813. Note the mata komoe design in the center of his back.
Heavily tattooed Marquesan toa of Nukuhiva with head trophy, 1813. Note the mata komoe design in the center of his back.

Human heads, and especially their faces and eyes (mata), also held an important place in Marquesan art and genealogy (mata can also mean “ancestry”). For each of these specific body parts comprised the central motif in the artistic complex of the islands.

In Marquesan art, for example, objects decorated with motifs derived from the human face symbolize Tiki, a culture hero who, as “the ancestor of men,” taught the Marquesan people most facets of their traditional culture. According to oral tradition, Tiki and his wife Hina-tu-na-one also gave rise to the first Marquesans, whose descendants became the founding ancestors of each mata’eina’a (literally, “face/eye people”).

Down through the centuries, tiki images developed into artistic forms that commemorated the gods and other legendary figures from the mythological past. But tiki were also employed to represent the male generative force and human creativity, because the word can be used as a noun to mean “tattoo” or as verb “to sculpt or draw” a design. Thus, when placed on an object, or human body as a tattoo, tikisimultaneously refers to several opposing and related concepts: the realm of ao, creativity, fertility, and life; and the realm of po, death, and the spiritual/divine world.

Of course, in Marquesan sculptural traditions tiki generally refers to all statuary rendered in anthropomorphic form. These human images typically represented a diversity of supernatural beings, or etua, including the gods and goddesses who created the universe to patron deities and especially deified ancestors. All of these entities possessed great mana.

Schematic view of a tattooed Marquesan warrior.
Schematic view of a tattooed Marquesan warrior.

In this connection, it should be noted that tiki were metaphorically and stylistically linked to a pair of important warrior tattoo designs, mata komoe and ipu, that were, in all likelihood, believed to have harnessed ancestral power. These exceedingly common patterns were, like tiki, comprised of a pair of eyes and other facial features, like the nose and mouth rendered naturalistically or in nonfigurative form.

One of the earliest foreign visitors to have recorded one of these designs was the Russian explorer Langsdorff who landed in the Marquesas in 1804. He depicted the head trophies of the toa as well as their tattooing designs, like the mata komoe motif that was centered on the backs of men and many other parts of the body. This tiki-like tattooing pattern is said to have been the most popular design amongst the toa, and is believed to have been derived from a legendary chief named Komoe and what von den Steinen called the “skull face” or “face of Komoe.” Apart from marking the bodies of warriors, chiefs, and other notable personages, this motif was also carved as rock art: especially at or near the burial grounds of chiefs and priests.

Lapita face design imprinted on a pottery vessel, ca. 1000 B.C. This motif may have been the ancestral form from which tiki-derived tattoos like the mata komoe found their inspiration.
Lapita face design imprinted on a pottery vessel, ca. 1000 B.C. This motif may have been the ancestral form from which tiki-derived tattoos like the mata komoe found their inspiration.

Another tiki-like tattoo motif called ipu resembles the mata komoe design, but it is slightly more abstract. According to art historian Carol Ivory, the word ipu symbolizes a container or vessel and when combined with other terms its meaning changes to “protective shield or covering.” When Langsdorff visited the Marquesas, he reported that ipu appeared only on the thighs and underside of the arms. In battle, these areas of the body were quite vulnerable to enemy weaponry, especially when a toa hurled a spear or raised his club or slingshot. Placing ipu tattoos at these locations of the body suggests that they may have offered some form of perceived psychological, spiritual, or ancestral protection to the wearer.

Langsdorff's illustration of the mata komoe pattern (#9) and ipu designs (#17).
Langsdorff’s illustration of the mata komoe pattern (#9) and ipu designs (#17).

If this hypothesis is correct, the process of tattooing would seem to have sealed the body’s surfaces with the eyes and faces of gods and ancestors that, in turn, empowered the possessor. As vision, genealogy, and power were closely identified in the Marquesas, a proliferation of eyes conveyed diminished vulnerability while also providing the warrior with an additional skin or shell. At the same time, this tattooed armor diminished both the body’s susceptibility to tapu substances, like blood spilled on the battlefield, and an opponent’s mana that could be lethal.

Tattooing of a Marquesan woman, 1804.
Tattooing of a Marquesan woman, 1804.

Life After Death

Over the course of a warrior’s lifetime in the Marquesas, a man’s epidermis was covered with layer upon layer of sacred protection until his body was black with designs. At death, however, these mana-infused markings were erased, so that the man could be reborn in a perfectly pure coat of godly skin. This ritual practice was significant, because it was an essential element in the making and unmaking of men, and the cosmic interplay between the ao and the po.

The Marquesans believed in an afterworld divided into a melancholy realm occupied by past servants and common people, and an Eden ruled by the goddess Oupu into which the spirits of chiefs and other persons of status might be admitted. However, Oupu forbade tattooing in her abode, and particularly violent deities lingered here to punish those people who possessed the tabooed body modifications.

As a consequence of this perceived reality in the land of the dead, the wife or relatives of a tattooed individual were compelled to carefully rub away the corpse’s tattooed skin over a period of months. After which time the body was removed to sacred ground, from which the spirit was later understood to depart by canoe to the underworld.

Polynesians, as noted above, associated the divine realm with the concept of po or what could be called the “dark place.” It is also from this tapu location that newborns emerged into the light of the living, and as they matured into adulthood they participated in various rituals of deconsecration and protection (e.g., tattooing) that rendered them less contagious (tapu) and less vulnerable.

Hand tattoos of a Marquesan woman, ca. 1920.
Hand tattoos of a Marquesan woman, ca. 1920.

But when a person left the ao and moved back to the world of night after death, their tattooed wrappings were removed and their sanctity enhanced, so that they could be assimilated again to their original condition in the po. Just as tuhuna patu tiki created a person in the world of light through the application of artificial skins, Marquesan women created a person for the next world by removing those skins; stripping away the visual armor from which the person had been constructed. And perhaps for this reason women were tattooed on their hands at a very early age to render thetapu state of the dead much less dangerous.

Hawaii

In Hawaii, the art of tattoo was called kakau i ka uhi, or to “strike on the black.” As in other parts of Polynesia, tattooed designs enveloped the body with genealogical and spiritual power, and transformed living bodies into dwelling places for the gods and protective ancestors called‘aumakua. As Hawaiian scholar and educator Mary Kawena Pukui wrote, “tattoo was primarily a mark that designated individuals as part of a village, devotees of the same god, or descendants of a common ancestor.”

Asymmetrical tattooing of a Hawaiian man observed by the Cook expedition, 1778.
Asymmetrical tattooing of a Hawaiian man observed by the Cook expedition, 1778.

When the first references to Hawaiian tattoo appeared in the logs of Cook’s voyage of 1778-79, the vast majority of observed designs were both geometrical and asymmetrical in nature. Moreover, it was noted that tattooing was not as common as that found in Tahiti nor did anyone recollect “to have seen any man whose business it was to tattoo others” or even tattooing tools themselves. This evidence, combined with the general lack of archaeological evidence of pre-contact tattooing tools, may suggest that the custom of Hawaiian tattoo may have been more kapu (the Hawaiian word for tapu) than in other Polynesian societies, and that tattooing tools were discarded or destroyed after being used. Whatever the circumstance, by the 1830s the practice was by “now almost obsolete.”

As compared to the rest of Polynesia, the culture of Hawaiian tattooing seemed to be disintegrating around the time of Cook’s arrival. Western motifs, including guns, goats, and other objects, had appeared and were gradually supplanting traditional abstract designs. This movement in style was perhaps due to a political shift in traditional patterns of rule whereby the old school of heavily tattooed chiefs of godly genealogical descent of the highest grade (kapu more) were gradually being supplanted by more “modern” men of lower pedigree and grade (kapu wohi), like Kamehameha who through sheer guile and political strategy eventually unified the entire archipelago from his base on the island of Hawaii.

Symmetrical tattooing of a revered Hawaiian military officer, 1819.
Symmetrical tattooing of a revered Hawaiian military officer, 1819.

In the late 18th century, however, vestiges of the traditional art of Hawaiian tattooing were still to be seen. These traces were typically observed on islands of the “old order” like Maui where the chiefdom was considered to be one of most ancient. Headed by a powerful and profusely tattooed warrior king Kahekili, Maui was a far cry from Kamehameha’s Hawaii where developed feudalism, not ancestry, was the tool with which he eventually governed the people.

Kahekili was a direct descendant of the thunder-god Kanehekili. In his image, he was tattooed solid black on the right side of his body, a form called pahupahu, as were his warrior chiefs and household companions. Oral history relates that everyone knew Kahekili was a man who possessed greatmana. “He could speak to the thunder and lightning, and they avenged him instantly upon his enemies; those persons who cursed him and abused him were all killed suddenly by thunder and lighting. His enemies therefore plotted in their hearts to kill him and whispered about it in secret. While they whispered, thunder struck. His enemies ceased to plot and to think evil thoughts.”

Kahekili’s asymmetrical tattooing, or that which appeared on the right side of the body, was also significant in other symbolic respects. In Polynesian thought, the right side of the body is the male side: the strong and lucky side. It also stood for vigor, health, virility, and life. Moreover, both sides of Kahekili’s head were tattooed with half-circles or crescent arches called hoaka. Interestingly, early Hawaiian drums called pahu (meaning a drum, box, or container) were often decorated with similar arches called hoaka and they may have symbolized conjoined anthropomorphs that traced both lineal and collateral genealogical relationships back to the gods. By symbolic implication, then, Kahekili was not only wrapped in a virtual cloak of tattooed ancestry; he was encapsulated in a body of sacred protection.

Kahekili’s warriors also attempted to harness their leader’s protective potential through similar forms of tattooing, because these powerful and divine genealogical markers were, as noted, imbued with great mana. However, other writers have argued that such asymmetrical tattooing was necessary because it protected those vulnerable parts of the body that were exposed during battle. For example, warrior chiefs and their soldiers often wore capes of feathers or other materials to shield their backs from the weapons of their enemies. Helmets safeguarded their heads but when a warrior prepared to hurl a spear or brandish his club, one side of his body became susceptible to his adversaries. This assertion seems to make good sense, but Hawaiian warriors did employ shields when they wielded their weapons and several early illustrations also show men with their tattooed sides covered by their cloaks. Other images show warrior tattooing appearing on the same side of the body that was employed to launch weapons. Therefore, perhaps it was the weapon-bearing side of the body that needed the most protection.

Of course, and as in the Marquesas, inhabitants of one Hawaiian valley may have adhered to a slightly different custom of tattooing than their neighbors, because they found a more appropriate or effective solution. Furthermore, while certain tattooing patterns found across the islands may have looked similar, it is quite probable that the names varied from island to island, and valley to valley, as they did between individual tattoo masters or kahuna ka kakau.

Kahuna and Hawaiian Tattooing Designs

Although little is known regarding the life, work, and ritual practices of the kahuna of old, they were certainly revered for their highly skilled work, creativity, and knowledge of natural substances suitable for tattooing. For example, kahuna fashioned tattooing combs (moli) out of the wing bones of the albatross (also called moli). This material was preferred because it was slightly flexible and the teeth would rarely break off after puncturing the skin. The comb was attached to a handle manufactured from the midrib of a coconut frond, and was hand-tapped into the skin with the aid of a small but heavy mallet of wood.

Hawaiian tattooing scene, 1819.
Hawaiian tattooing scene, 1819.

Tattooing pigment was derived from a suite of various natural sources, but the soot from the burnt kukui nut (candlenut) was perhaps the most popular. Other accounts report that some tattooists mixed the juice of the Hawaiian pokeberry with the pulverized fruits of a local iris called mauulaili (Sisyrinchium acre) to create their inks, whereas the gall of a certain shellfish or juice from the roots of Plumbago zenlanica (a kind of small evergreen shrub) were also used.

Before more Western elements began to pervade the artistic cannons of kahuna towards the beginning of the 19th century, highly geometric patterns consisting of various configurations of angled arches, zigzags, checkerboards, stacked chevrons, and triangles were applied to the body. The vast majority of these patterns invoked the backbone or spine which was a visible metaphor for genealogical descent; since, the spine stood for a series of lineage members linked through a common line of descent.

Notwithstanding, it is thought that when a kahuna operated, he chanted sacred prayers infused with mana as he laid down his designs. Such actions would have been particularly important when preparing a warrior for battle, for it is believed that such men were blackened with tattooing in anticipation of specific military engagements. Similar protective chants were uttered when the feathered cloaks of warriors and other high ranking individuals were constructed. This practice was understood to capture the supernatural energy embodied in the esoteric words in an attempt to contain them within the sacred mantel of the encapsulating cloak.

Kauai leg tattooing, ca. 1900.
Kauai leg tattooing, ca. 1900.

Other forms of tattooing recalled the presence of deified ancestors (‘aumakua) of personal and collective protection, and acted as a conduit through which these spiritual entities traveled to enter the world of their living descendants. Oftentimes, these designs took on specific patterns, like a series of arches, sharks teeth (niho mano), or other natural elements that can be likened to a family crest. But in other cases, ‘aumakua tattoos represented a specific animal that was identified with a particular ancestor.

For some Hawaiian families, sharks were considered to be an ancestral ‘aumakua, and the Hawaiian historian Samuel Kamakau captured many of these native traditions in the late 19th century. For example, most of the sharks that had become supernatural beings were originally people that received their shark forms from the gods. But these ancestral spirits did not show themselves in all sharks, because only those who had been given distinguishing marks were considered to be sacred. Of course, these visual characteristics were made known to their human descendants through the assistance of the family’s kahu (a kind of physical, educational, and spiritual caretaker), who was usually a relative, and their offspring.

Thus, if a family member were in trouble and in danger of death on the ocean, they would call upon their shark ‘aumakua, and that shark would render its assistance so that the individual would escape death. Hawaiians are very familiar with these events, and it is said that shark ‘aumakua could save as many as ten to forty individuals at one time.

Mortuary tattooing, 1819.
Mortuary tattooing, 1819.

A related story recorded in the 1920s stated that a woman was seen wearing a row of dots tattooed around her ankle as a “charm” against sharks. The backstory to this account, however, related that she was in fact bitten by a shark, which was her “guardian god” or ‘aumakua. This shark, which the woman recognized, had seized her ankle while she was swimming. When she cried out his name, he released her and proclaimed, “I will not make that mistake again, for I will see the marks on your ankle.”

Sometimes a kahuna hand-tapped a series of small dots to signify or accompany a particular ‘aumakua design. These patterns usually symbolized the eyes of the ancestral‘aumakua and offered their protection through reference to their supernatural vision.

In Hawaii, tattoos also commemorated the death of beloved chiefs and other notable figures in society. These marks of mourning not only served to show allegiance to the departed, but perhaps expressed an individual’s desire to experience death through an act of self-mutilation. Tattoos of this sort usually took the form of the deceased’s name tattooed on a forearm or other body part, but in extreme cases the wives of the dead also had their tongues subjected to the painful taps of the kahuna‘s moli: many mourners also knocked out one or more of their teeth. Whether this act of tattooing had a protective function is not known, but it can be implied that the skin became stronger with these added layers of sacrificial meaning.

Easter Island

Twenty-five hundred miles to the southeast of Hawaii lies the island of Rapa Nui or Easter Island. On Easter Sunday, 1722, the Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen was cruising the vastness of the South Pacific when he first sighted a small volcanic island in the distance. Landing at a rocky cove, his crew marveled at colossal seven-meter high stone statues (moai) standing in silent rows along the shore. Perhaps at that moment his men began to wonder just who lived in this mysterious place cut off from the entire world. It seemed that Easter Island had developed in complete isolation for centuries.

The Easter Islanders, who today refer to themselves and to their homeland as Rapa Nui, are the easternmost of some thirty-six Polynesian peoples whose ancestors discovered and settled the islands of the central and eastern Pacific. They share a common ancestry with other Polynesians, such as the Hawaiians, Tahitians, and the New Zealand Maori, and their tattooing traditions retain particular features that link them to other Austronesian speakers of Melanesia.

Profile and portrait view of Juan Tepano, 1880s.
Profile and portrait view of Juan Tepano, 1880s.

The ancestors of the Polynesians began to migrate from Melanesia and Southeast Asia around 1500 B.C. and by 600-800 A.D. they arrived on Easter Island. According to Rapa Nui legend, the island was settled by Hotu Matu’a, a powerful chieftain who arrived with a group of colonists in two large sailing vessels. At this time, dense palm forests and stands of small trees covered the island, and the coasts were visited by seabirds, sea turtles, and marine mammals. Over time, however, the trees were cut and by the close of the 19th century, Rapa Nui was virtually a barren landscape.

Down through the centuries, a distinctive form of art developed on the island blending anthropomorphic and zoomorphic imagery into superbly crafted and almost surrealistic forms. The power of this aesthetic tradition revolved around perceptions of life experienced in an unforgiving insular environment, one devoid of trees and land mammals (except perhaps for one lizard species), which led Rapa Nui artisans to focus their energies completely and entirely on the few fragments of wood they could find.

Although wood for carving was rare, barkcloth objects (tapa) made from mulberry trees were rarer still and perhaps even more important. Where Hawaiian chiefs wore red feather cloaks to assert their high, god-like status, the Rapa Nui chiefs wore tapa cloaks and tattoos on their backs suggesting that these ornaments were considered as high-status substitutes.

Furthermore, the ruling elite may have utilized anthropomorphic figures covered with barkcloth to assist them in communicating with their divine ancestors. These objects are exceedingly rare and only three of these figures (manu uru) are known to exist in museum collections. Because all are decorated with paintings representing tattoos, they can be associated directly with the ruling class; since only they were sacred enough to control the supernatural power (mana) manifested in these types of objects.

Sketches of fully tattooed tapa figures. From top, a swooping frigate bird is tattooed on the back above the buttocks (center view) and is symbolic of war and headhunting. From bottom, 'ao or mata'a motifs on torso and back are suggestive of warfare and/or ancestral protection. Feather-like tattoos appear on the neck and three lines adorn the chin.
Sketches of fully tattooed tapa figures. From top, a swooping frigate bird is tattooed on the back above the buttocks (center view) and is symbolic of war and headhunting. From bottom, ‘ao or mata’a motifs on torso and back are suggestive of warfare and/or ancestral protection. Feather-like tattoos appear on the neck and three lines adorn the chin.

On Easter Island, tattoo was widespread and often associated with chiefly or warrior status. The face, neck, torso, back, legs, arms, and top of the head were tattooed and Rapa Nui tattooing implements (ta kona) were similar to those found elsewhere in Polynesia: a comb of bird bone lashed at a right angle to a wood handle. The comb was dipped in a prepared pigment of charred tileaves (Cordyline terminalis) mixed with black nightshade (Solanum nigrum) juice and struck with a mallet into the skin. In Hawaii, ti was considered sacred to the god Lono and to the goddess Laka.Ti leaves were emblems of high rank and divine power and they were carried to ward off evil spirits and bring good fortune.

The Vanishing Rapa Nui Tattoo

Sadly, there is very little pictorial evidence of Rapa Nui tattooing today. In fact, just a handful of photographs survive of traditional Rapa Nui tattooing, and only one of male tattooing itself. This 1870s postcard, shot by Tahitian photographer Madame Hoare, portrays Juan Tepano, a Rapa Nuinobleman, with neck and facial tattoos. The Swedish ethnographer Hjalmar Stolpe who traveled the Pacific in the 1880s also illustrated Tepano in portrait and profile views, but by 1911 only four islanders out of 228 wore traditional tattoos, and these were women. By 1930, only two tattooed women survived: Juan Tepano’s mother, old Viriamo, and Ana Eva Hei, the wife of Atamu Te Kena, one of the last “kings” of Easter Island. Both women were incompletely tattooed and Viriamo said she refused to submit to further sittings because the tattooing operation was too painful. Ana Eva Hei, who was younger, was tattooed by one of the last “experts.”

As in most of Polynesia, tattoo artists were men and on Rapa Nui they were specialists – like wood and rock carvers – and their work was supervised by the ariki mau, or ruling king. Being maori (“expert”), tattooists constituted a class of tufunga, or a kind of priesthood or guild, “charged” with sacredness because they had mastered their ritual craft. Certainly tattooists, as members of thetufunga brotherhoods, worked under strict religious codes that dominated their respective professions. Because as one early visitor noted, tufunga were exempt from performing any laborious activity not associated with their work, indicating their high status in the eyes of the local community.

Symbolic Dimensions of Women’s Tattooing

Generally speaking, Rapa Nui tattoo was comprised of fundamental motifs preserved and passed from one generation to the next. It is true, however, that personal taste varied and perhaps different clans had favorite designs, but little else is known of the symbolic import of tattooing: except that certain designs were more common than others.

Women and men very often had heavy lines on their faces which crossed their foreheads or extended from one ear to the other. These lines were curved and combined with a series of large dots (humu or puraki) that marked the forehead and temples. These designs are also seen on existing barkcloth figures, but in smaller detail.

On the cheeks of women below the ears was a motif called pagaha’a, “something that hangs heavy,” formed by the meeting of two designs, one triangular and the other fusiform (tapering at each end). An old spelling of this word is tangehua or pangehúa, and based on the root hua, it can be suggested that these were fertility markings: hua means “testicle,” or more figuratively, “son”. Other motifs included tattooed rings (ngutu tika) surrounding the mouth of women, possibly akin to the Maori tattoo custom, and three vertical lines descending the mouth sometimes crossing the chin.

Back and profile view of Old Viriamo, Tepano's mother, 1911.
Back and profile view of Old Viriamo, Tepano’s mother, 1911.

On the back of old Viriamo, between the shoulder blades, is a motif called ao (“dance paddle”) with conventionalized eyes and nose. When interviewed Viriamo in 1911, she said she received her aotorso markings “after [her] first sexual intercourse.” ‘Ao dance paddles resemble a vagina in abstract form and the elongated V-shaped curves that comprise their “face” may symbolize the former female custom of artificially extending the clitoris.

Notwithstanding these considerations, along the lower part of Viriamo’s back under the tattooed aois a stripe which winds back and forth. These bands, or “dancing torsos”, are tattooed in one continuous design around the body. On one barkcloth figure, the same tattoo design covers the buttocks and the waist region, and the band terminates at a bird design with a beak joined by two concentric rings.

It is possible that the ao motifs have an ancestral and protective importance, especially since the word ao also refers to the ruling elite, suggesting that only aristocrats – who were closer to the gods – could wear these tattoo motifs. However, the ao designs perhaps have a deeper symbolic significance. In 1770, Spanish explorers to Easter Island noted that a pair of tattoos called paremarked the abdomen. Another writer gave the name pare-pu to the anthropomorphic tattoos on the abdomen of a female informant, which raises some issue over what was ao and what was pare? The Swiss anthropologist Alfred Métraux recorded that the word pare was given to him as meaning a motif tattooed around the waist, one that I would suggest was similar to that which Viriamo wore on her torso.

Gleaning linguistic evidence from Rapa Nui dictionaries, pare is an obsolete word, meaning “a kind of sculpture made of wood” or “tattooing on the arms.” Maori dictionaries state that pare is “a wooden figurine representing a human head with arms.”

Thus, it at least seems clear that some sort of affinity existed between particular forms of Easter Island tattooing and woodcarving. Looking towards New Zealand, the same pattern follows since the culture hero Mataora introduced tattooing and wood carving to the Maori. More specifically, the Maori maintained a rich tradition of wood carving and one particular form, called pare, adorned the lintel above the entrance door of the house. Of course, as Easter Island became devoid of trees circa 1850-1900, we can be fairly certain that even before that time large pieces of wood were scarce, and certainly those needed to carve lintels must have been rarer still. Indeed, we have no archaeological evidence that this custom was ever practiced on Rapa Nui, although carved wooden images of lizards (moko), possibly in the form of clubs, stood on either side of doorways to ward-off intruders or to protect the dwellers of the house against evil spirits. For the Maori, lizards were symbolic of death and it was necessary to employ a ritual specialist to avert their evil omen.

The art historian Michael Jackson has commented extensively on the “symbolic system” of Maoripare, where “[t]here seems little doubt that the pare composition reveals a symbolic connection with the Maori conception of birth and death, creation and dissolution.” For example, over the door of the Maori house, female genitalia were carved in deep relief on pare lintels, sometimes with a small stylized anthropomorphic head being situated in place of the genitalia suggesting parturition. In Maorimythology, the vagina symbolized destructive energy because of its association with the po and the residual sacredness (tapu) that emanated from newborns into the world. Thus crossing the threshold of the Maori house brought an individual dangerously close to the great mana contained and displayed within it. In this sense, pare sculptures exemplify a double-sided function whereby the female, who has the contagious power (tapu) to transform life by destroying it and also by recreating it (by giving birth), symbolizes the fundamental division of the Maori mythological universe; one that is displayed in the carved lintel, which by surmounting the dwelling house, embodies all social life within and outside of its door.

Similarly, the mouth tattoos of Maori and Rapa Nui women may also evoke this cosmological relationship. Waha, the Maori word for mouth, also referred to the vagina, and the tattooed mouth ring of Rapa Nui women, called ngutu tika, or “mouth marking,” probably embodied similar concepts, although a related term ngutu tiko translates to “menstrual opening.” Because it is the death and rebirth of symbolic forms that is at the essence of our inquiry, it is obvious that menstrual blood is highly tapu while at the same time it refers to the potentiality of creating life.

Profile and portrait views of Ana Eva Hei, 1911. Note her tattooed mouth ring.
Profile and portrait views of Ana Eva Hei, 1911. Note her tattooed mouth ring.

As previously noted, the main facial tattooing of Maori women besides the labial markings placed around the mouth were chin markings called whakatehe, from “tehe”, “the penis in an erect state.” Although the term for these tattoos has been forgotten on Easter Island, the chin was crossed by three vertical stripes descending from the mouth. If we are to read the female mouth/chin-tattoo as a manifestation of the phallus probing towards its predestined (open) orifice, a view proposed by the late anthropologist Alfred Gell, then I would suggest that this form of tattoo was perhaps conceived of as a kind of fertility symbol.

Besides the tattooing which was done for women, however, many elaborate and symbolic forms were received by Rapa Nui men. Juan Tepano, Viriamo’s son, wore forehead tattoos (retu, “to stand”) consisting of six to ten solid vertical stripes. The parallel lines across the top of the forehead and the fringe of dots around his hairline were the first motifs tattooed on the face. This pattern was the most general, since it was the one commonly recorded by early voyagers.

Carte de visite of the Rapa Nui nobleman Juan Tepano, 1870s. And stylistic frigate bird tattoo appearing on Tepano's throat, 1880s.
Carte de visite of the Rapa Nui nobleman Juan Tepano, 1870s. And stylistic frigate bird tattoo appearing on Tepano’s throat, 1880s.

But of considerable interest are the tattoos that you cannot see. Beneath Tepano’s chin and beard (on the throat) is a stylized bird with head turned down, elongated body and wings reduced to four small tattoo lines. This motif, also seen in other abstract versions on barkcloth figures, is that of the frigate bird. The frigate, a predatory bird that flies swiftly and cunningly, is widely associated with the tattoo traditions of several indigenous peoples of Polynesia, Melanesia, and Indonesia, and is symbolic of headhunting and warfare. Although rarely seen on Easter Island today, frigates acquired a special mystique as a symbol of invasion and aggression. They were a symbol of the warrior class who overthrew the ruling nobility during the Decadent Period (1500-1722 A.D.): a time when Rapa Nui was characterized by intertribal warfare, cannibalism, and the disintegration of society.

Tepano’s other tattoos reinforce this avian symbolism. On the right side of his spine is a set of nine parallel lines, running vertically and bending to the right at the bottom, reminiscent of a bird swooping downwards with wings outstretched. The fundamental decoration of the neck (ua), which was essentially masculine, consisted of four pairs of broad and wavy stripes. Also appearing on large stone moai around the island, these tattoos look like bird feathers, and when combined with Tepano’s other markings they transformed him into a powerful predatory “birdman.”

As early as the 15th century, a series of annual religious ceremonies developed on Rapa Nui that were centered on the creator god Makemake, whose earthly manifestation was the tangata manuor birdman. The rise of the cult of Makemake marked a radical shift from the old religion of ancestor worship and seems to have evolved from a postulated earlier bird ritual that arose in response to the warrior class’s need to justify and legitimize its anarchistic rule over the secular and declining authority of the ruling elite. Born from a floating skull that was washed from a temple into the sea, Makemake created the first humans and with his companion, the goddess Haua, brought the first flocks of migratory seabirds to the island.

The continuous cycle of war that plagued Rapa Nui during the Decadent Period has been supported by archaeological findings: obsidian spearpoints (mata’a) have been uncovered in large quantities. Likewise human bones that display cut marks have been unearthed suggesting cannibalism.

For the Maori of New Zealand, warfare was also endemic and provided a constant source of terrifying reality. The concept of death among the Maori was called mateMate is also the Rapa Nui word for death and the derivative mata’ameans a spearhead made of obsidian in both the Maori and Rapa Nui languages. Interestingly, mata’a appear on two of the barkcloth figures from Easter Island suggesting in all likelihood that they were a traditional tattoo motif of thematatoa – the warrior class.

Conclusion

Throughout Polynesia, tattooing was a cultural practice that transcended time and space. Tattoo knowledge was traditional, and as it was handed down over successive generations to become a time-tested and time-honored method to affect physical, psychological, and spiritual change in the people who endured it. Tattoo motifs traveled between lineages and traced genealogical relationships back to the gods. And because each new design was a duplicate or composite inspired by an original ancestral source, it brought together in one place simultaneous reference to the ancient past (po), present (ao), and future.

However, when the tattooing comb struck the skin the release of blood was considered to be a powerful moment cognate with the recurring cycles of birth, maturation, accomplishment, and rebirth. And through this act of repetition, tattooing made manifest several important ideas and feelings surrounding life and death within the visual fabric of indigenous Polynesian culture.

Tattooing also animated and influenced the mana of others – both human and supernatural – who controlled destiny and the surrounding world. And as a system of ceremonial and ritual action, Polynesian tattooing was a component of a highly complex system essential to the social and religious reproduction of local cultures. This is because tattoo transformed the body into a microcosm of the indigenous universe by creating a sacred, personal and collective space that provided a means from which to reconcile the affairs of humans and the divine through dramatic designs that both illuminated and constrained the body itself.

But over time tattooing gradually lost its importance in the cultural repertoire of the majority of the Polynesian people. Colonial administration and especially Christian missionization forcibly paved the way for a relinquishing of ancient customs in many regions, although in some areas the practice survived (e.g., Samoa) or it was simply driven underground until it was finally revived in recent decades.

Today, the practice of Polynesian tattooing continues. But ever-increasing opportunities for artistic interaction between traditional tattooists and non-Polynesians have contributed to growing tensions related to questions of cultural appropriation. Many contemporary designs are genealogical symbols and forms of intellectual property related to specific families, and there is a strong sense that they have become devalued as they have been copied by outsiders who have no knowledge of what these patterns are meant to convey.

Yet for the Polynesian practitioners of tattooing and their indigenous recipients, the art form largely remains true to its origins. Tattooing not only asserts affiliation, genealogy, and religious intent, but it also pays homage to the ancestors through an artistic movement of mutual respect.

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