Around 2000 B.C. ancient mariners speaking an Austronesian tongue arrived in the western islands of Micronesia (Marianas, Yap, and Babelthuap) from insular Southeast Asia. Several centuries later another seafaring people, the Lapitas, moved further east from the New Britain/Admiralty Island area to Polynesia, reaching Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa. Although the Lapitas populated these sun-drenched islands by 1100 B.C. and left behind tattooing tools and pottery fragments that broadly resemble tattooing designs, 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.).

Down through the millennia, these “Vikings of the Pacific” made the ocean realm of what is the Pacific their own. They traveled immense distances, sometimes over two thousands 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 also told stories about the descent of chiefs from gods, the voyages of ancestral heroes, and myths of creation.

(left) Frontal view of full body tattoo of the Pingelap and Mwoakilloa Islanders, Micronesia, 1826. (right) Dorsal view of Pingelap and Mwoakilloa tattooing, 1870s.
(left) Frontal view of full body tattoo of the Pingelap and Mwoakilloa Islanders, Micronesia, 1826. (right) Dorsal view of Pingelap and Mwoakilloa tattooing, 1870s.

Of course, the great distances separating many of the island chains and peoples of Oceania tended to isolate them from each other, although there were occasionally contacts. Consequently, there developed throughout the great ocean landscape variations of basically similar cultural elements, like ancestor worship, the presence of a universal power contained in all animate and inanimate things (mana, Polynesia; debbo, Micronesia), and belief in the divine origins of cultural practices like tattooing. Body marking was usually performed by a priestly class of men (Polynesia) or women (Fiji, Micronesia).

But by the beginning of the 19th century, European missionaries began to arrive and they rapidly converted many islanders to their foreign doctrines of religious persuasion. In turn, traditional tattooists were adversely affected and not only did they lose the motivation to create the incredibly bold skin art of their ancestors, they also were often forced to stop the “pagan” traditions that were once at the very heart of their cultural identities.

In an attempt to provide a framework for thinking about the traditional beliefs and social customs behind tattooing in Oceania, I have written two articles: one focusing on the Western Pacific and another on tattooing of Polynesia. This is more for the sake of convenience because this culture area rivals the Arctic in size spanning thousands of miles east to west.

What follows now is an overview of tattoo history and technique as it was traditionally practiced in the western islands of the Pacific, including Micronesia, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands. In all of these regions, tattooing was intimately related to the surrounding environment and most of the tattooing motifs were symbols derived from nature, the great mother force that interactively shaped the worlds of these insular peoples. Whether by moving around or through it, and by watching, feeling, and actively seeking out the signs by which the world was revealed, nature was the ultimate source of inspiration from which tattoo culture evolved in the western Pacific.

Micronesia & Fiji

Micronesia – “small islands” – consists of several major insular groups to the north of Melanesia and east of the Philippines, including Palau, the Carolines, the Marshalls, the Marianas, and the Gilberts. Most are widely scattered, small flat atolls with limited natural resources.

Earliest known sketches of Marshallese tattooing, 1816.
Earliest known sketches of Marshallese tattooing, 1816.

Like all of the peoples of Oceania, the inhabitants of these isolated shores were skilled navigators and traders, a circumstance which has contributed to a marked homogeneity throughout much of the region. Some of the cultural attributes of Micronesian peoples seem to be analogous with those of both Melanesia and Indonesia, such as large decorated ceremonial houses, highly developed textiles, the presence of clans and a class system, expertly designed ocean canoes, and diverse forms of material and ceremonial culture – including weaponry, the belief in nature spirits, and the divine origins of tattooing.

Tattooing is found throughout Oceania, and the almost bewildering diversity of artistic styles, patterns, and motifs makes it difficult at first to recognize any forms as recurrent and as basic to the art of this vast area as a whole. But a closer examination of tattoo mythology reveals a recurring theme: that most of the designs are derived from nature and the art itself was a gift from the gods.

Tattooing in the Marshall Islands was no exception. It was brought to earth by Lewoj and Lanij, the two sons of the Creator god Lowa who shaped and named the islands and moved them into the ocean.

“Paint the fish, color the birds; create special drawings on the lizard, the rat. Design well the lines. [Create] zigzags that flash, round deep, dark dots. A miracle, the color falls from heaven. Design well the lines.”

And when they tattooed (eọ) all the living creatures with their special colors and markings, Lewoj and Lanij are said to have come to the people:

“You must become tattooed, so that you become beautiful, and that your skin does not shrink with age. The fish in the ocean are striped and have lines, and because of this the people must also have such lines. Everything will pass after death, only the tattoos will remain; they will outlive you. A human will leave all and everything behind on earth, all his/her belongings; only the tattoo will be taken to the grave.”

“Beat the drums, clap your hands! Joy fills these artists of the sky. Design well the lines.”

Full body tattoo of a Caroline Islander, ca. 1835.
Full body tattoo of a Caroline Islander, ca. 1835.

But tattoos also displayed the beauty of the islands’ inhabitants and animals for all to see. The fine blackwork matched the darkness of the sea and the feathers of seabirds like the black noddy and frigate. Intricate curving lines mimicked the striped patterns of the Regal Angelfish (pygoplites diacanthus) that was called eọ or “tattooed.” Hexagonal fields symbolized the turtle’s carapace, rows of triangles shark’s teeth, branching lines crab’s legs, rows of dots sea shells, curved motifs the Goose Barnacle (lepas anserifera), and many other motifs like “mast,” “canoe,” “clouds,” and “ocean swells” related to the seafaring nature of these Argonauts of the western Pacific.

Whether aristocrat or commoner, Marshallese tattoos also signified rank and people could identify a chief (iroij) by the distinctive tattoos inked on his head and neck, just as finger tattoos (eoon-addin) were restricted to women of the same status. (Similar instances of finger tattooing among high ranking women have also been documented in Fiji.) In addition to these tattoos, noble women who could afford them also wore tattoos on their shoulders called bwilak (from the tail of the frigate bird), chest, and a “secret” tattoo on the vulva in a fashion similar to tattooing customs elsewhere in Micronesia (e.g., Palau, Pohnpei, Ulithi) and Fiji; these tattoos were inked by female tattoo artists.

Bwilak tattoos seen on old women, ca. 1950. Photographs © Leonard Mason.
Bwilak tattoos seen on old women, ca. 1950. Photographs © Leonard Mason.

Maria Yatar McDonald, a traditional tattoo artist based in Guam who studied the tradition of Micronesian tattooing from elders, has said that many older women in the outer islands of Yap and Palau still wore vulvic tattoos in the 1980s. “These could be a lover’s tattoo, done by a man on a lover, or done by a local male or female tattoo artist. A lot of tattoos were put on by tattooists who used incantations and secret words, who even tattooed secret words on people’s forearms or other parts of the body. And often the people who wore them didn’t know the stories behind them, only the tattooists did.”

Pohnpei body designs for women, 1870s.
Pohnpei body designs for women, 1870s.

She continued: “I’ve seen probably ten different styles of pubic tattoos. Some women’s tattoos are just for their husbands. Normally women had pre-marital tattoos after menstruation (which showed they were ready for marriage) and these became developed and quite elaborate. Some designs started with the hands first (puberty) and worked up to the forearms (marriageability), then the legs (maturity).”

“I talked to one woman with a public tattoo who was in her eighties, and asked why her tattoo was so dark. She said that after every birth it was redone. I asked why, and she pulled my hand to feel her belly and it was very hard – scarified. She had had fourteen children, and the tattoo had supported her lower [abdomen] and kept it from sagging, like a keloid girdle. She was very proud of it.”

In Fiji and especially on Viti Levu, women also wore vulvic tattoos under their liku or skirt. Here tradition dictated that only women, not men, could wear tattoos (vei-qia) and the designs were created by skilled female artists who have been described as hereditary priestesses. According to a local chief (mbuli) writing at the turn of the 20th century, the women who performed the painful rite were specifically referred to as Lewā vuku, or “wise women.” One was a kind of healer and her counterpart was the Lewā dau bati or “expert tattooer.” The rite was performed in the secret recesses of the forest, and young women were usually tattooed after they had reached puberty and before they were married. The ancestors were invoked to help guide the ceremony, making visible a genealogy of design and descent. The mbuli said:

Vulvic and buttock tattooing, Fiji, 1870s. In Fiji, tattooing is only performed by and for women, and is chiefly confined to the parts of the body which are covered by the liku or grass skirt. Charles Wilkes, writing around 1840, stated: “The women believe that to be tattooed is a passport to the other world, where it prevents them from being persecuted by their own sex, numbers of whom, by command of the gods, would meet them, if not tattooed, and, armed with sharp shells, would chase them continually through the lower regions. So strong is this superstition, that when girls have died before being tattooed, their friends have painted the semblance of it upon them, in order to deceive the priest, and thus escape the anger of the gods.
Vulvic and buttock tattooing, Fiji, 1870s. In Fiji, tattooing is only performed by and for women, and is chiefly confined to the parts of the body which are covered by the liku or grass skirt. Charles Wilkes, writing around 1840, stated: “The women believe that to be tattooed is a passport to the other world, where it prevents them from being persecuted by their own sex, numbers of whom, by command of the gods, would meet them, if not tattooed, and, armed with sharp shells, would chase them continually through the lower regions. So strong is this superstition, that when girls have died before being tattooed, their friends have painted the semblance of it upon them, in order to deceive the priest, and thus escape the anger of the gods.”
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Tattooing was the revered and beautiful ornamentation of the women to which great weight was attached to both by men and women, and it was performed in the following manner.

The woman to be tattooed must fast for a clear twelve hours, from daylight till eve, and the night before she must fish for freshwater prawns from dark till dawn, and must search for and procure three lemon thorns to be affixed to pieces of reed stems as handles [for the tattoo instrument].

Then she had to lie on her back before the old woman who concocted in a coco-nut shell the liquid used for the staining. This ancient dame blessed the liquid and prayed to the spirits of the dead to soften the skin of the girl so that the operation should not pain her too much. Then the tattooing commenced, the sacred part [vulva] being the first to be done. The pain which it caused was called ‘the extraction of the spear.’ When this had been done, which was the part that gave much pain, the girl was soothed into a heavy sleep, and then the operator pushed on with her work. The pattern traced was like that painted on native cloth, Nairukuruku.

The girl’s intended husband had to present [the “wise women”] with a club, as an earnest or preliminary payment, then he had to feed the operators and provide a feast on the fourth day after the conclusion of operation. By then the skin on the body would have healed. That day was called ‘the shedding of the scales.’ Then all the women would gather together to witness the falling off of the scales, and it used to rouse the envy of the young girls to see the beautiful pattern. It made them want to be tattooed.

It was also done for the sake of the woman’s husband, [so] that when he went to sleep with her…and undid her liku (grass dress) [he] might see the beautiful tracery. For that reason the women’s lips were also tattooed [so] that her husband might desire to kiss them.”

Interestingly, when Vitian navigators were sailing home from trading expeditions to the east, they always desired a westward gale as they were uncommon. In their attempt to invoke the “Spirit of the Land Breeze,” they produced the following chant:

“Come, come, O Spirit, From the ladies of the west;

O ladies with the black mouths [tattoos], Give us a fair wind.”

Of course, there were other tattoo forms and tools used in Fiji and all of the designs were compulsory. As one missionary wrote, the Creator God Degei, who was a deified chief and also the snake god, punished untattooed women in the afterlife, presumably because they had not shed their scales as his daughter did – the first Fijian woman to do so. In fact, women were still tattooed frequently in a cave below the Nakauvadra Mountains of Viti Levu as late as the 1880s, where it is said that Adi Vilaiwasa, the daughter of Degei, received her markings.

In the Lau Islands of Fiji, girls were inked on their buttocks, face, vulva and fingers with an adze-like instrument pointed with a shark’s tooth or fish bone dipped into a sooty black pigment of candlenut. The operation was performed in a special taboo hut which the men called the “black bottom.” According to tradition, old women plied their client’s skin in three or four installments covering a period of a year or more. It was said that if the girl accepted lovers during the course of her tattoo initiation, the pain would increase. When it was over, her fingers and the corners of her mouth were tattooed to show that she was marriageable.

In other regions of Fiji a comb-like instrument consisting of four or five finely chiseled teeth set into a bone and fixed to a light handle six inches long was dipped into a pigment of charcoal and candlenut oil. The pattern to be tattooed was stenciled on the body of the girl and the delicate lines were driven into the skin with the blackened rake. As one 19th century writer commented: “The command of the god affects but one part of the body, and the fingers are only marked to excite the admiration of the Chief, who sees them in the act of presenting his food. The spots at the corners of the mouth notify, on some islands, that the woman has borne children, but oftener are for the concealment of the wrinkles of age.”

German naturalist and artist Theodor Kleinschmidt added still more ethnographic observations and illustrations of Fijian tattoo customs as he encountered them on Viti Levu:

Fijian woman with facial and body tattoos, 1870s. One hundred and twenty years ago, Fijians joked about the Tongan practice of tattooing being confined to men instead of women. According to an old tale, when the Tongans first visited Fiji they were so pleased with the tattooed women that they resolved to introduce the custom into their own country so they sent a man back to Tonga with a message. “They say that the Tongan who first reported the custom to his countrymen, being anxious to state it correctly, repeated, in a sing-song tone as he went along, ‘Tattoo the women, but not the men; tattoo the women, but not the men.’ By ill luck, he struck his foot violently against a stump in the path, and, in the confusion which followed, reversed the order of his message, singing, for the rest his journey, ‘Tattoo the men, but not the women.’ And thus Tongan chiefs heard the report; and thus it came to pass that the smart qia tooth [tattoo comb] was inflicted on the Tonga men, instead of their wives.
Fijian woman with facial and body tattoos, 1870s. One hundred and twenty years ago, Fijians joked about the Tongan practice of tattooing being confined to men instead of women. According to an old tale, when the Tongans first visited Fiji they were so pleased with the tattooed women that they resolved to introduce the custom into their own country so they sent a man back to Tonga with a message. “They say that the Tongan who first reported the custom to his countrymen, being anxious to state it correctly, repeated, in a sing-song tone as he went along, ‘Tattoo the women, but not the men; tattoo the women, but not the men.’ By ill luck, he struck his foot violently against a stump in the path, and, in the confusion which followed, reversed the order of his message, singing, for the rest his journey, ‘Tattoo the men, but not the women.’ And thus Tongan chiefs heard the report; and thus it came to pass that the smart qia tooth [tattoo comb] was inflicted on the Tonga men, instead of their wives.”

“A line of tattooing typically starts at one wrist and runs up the arm to cross the chest above the breasts to the upper shoulder, and from there runs down the length of the other arm. There are generally two lines of tattooing on the back, these converging downwards from either shoulder like the seams of a jacket towards the spine and the tattooing which encompasses the haunches. Other tattoos may take the form of little stars on the cheeks, legs or hands, depending on taste. The tool is a blade of turtle shell or of chicken or other bone, or some lemon thorns, fastened to a light stick in the form of a miniature size. In addition to puncture tattooing of this sort, rows of ornamental cicatrices are often cut into the flesh of the breast, back and upper arms. Men are only exceptionally tattooed, and then not elaborately.”

Returning to Micronesia, some islanders including the Yapese also wore talismanic tattoos like dolphin motifs to keep sharks away. According to traditional tattooist and merchant seaman Dan Thome, “Whenever there are dolphins, there aren’t any sharks, so if they’re in the water with dolphins tattooed on their legs, then [this] design can’t be too closed or static; it has to somehow show the kind of movement a dolphin makes [and] dolphins occasionally save swimmers from drowning.”

Tattooed man of Yap, ca. 1930.
Tattooed man of Yap, ca. 1930.

Travel writer Dr. William H. Furness visited Yap in 1903 and noted that the islanders tattooed thengol or shark design because they believed it “to protect the wearers from attacks while swimming in the lagoon.”

Like other tattooing peoples of Oceania (e.g., Solomon Islands and Easter Island), Micronesians used the frigate bird as a tattoo emblem, but here it was more of “a good luck-symbol” than in other regions of the Pacific. As Thome related, “It was a sign or omen of land because the frigate bird will never spend the night at sea. [Navigators] knew that if they followed that bird they’d reach land before nightfall. Sometimes they’d take a bird with them as a pet, and if there was a storm or they lost their point of reference, they’d turn the bird loose – of course the bird knew where to go!”

Back on Yap, Furness noted that the traditional tattooing comb was constructed from the wing bone of the frigate bird, “the blade being made of a segment about an inch long; at one end of which six sharp little teeth have been cut and pointed.” In the Marshalls and Hawaii, tattooing combs were made of albatross bone, but in the Marshalls the frigate was also used as were its tail feathers, which served as stenciling brushes.

When I was in Hawaii, however, I heard stories of another species of bird (not a frigate) that ancient navigators utilized in the same way. This is not surprising because contemporary Hawaiian voyagers under the tutelage of master Micronesian navigator Mau Piailug have proven their ability to make non-instrumental voyages between Hawaii and Tahiti (1976) and the 2,600 mile, nine week trip between Hawaii and Satawal (2007) where Mau lives though the art of wayfinding. This resurgent technique has been described by Dan Thome as “a series of mnemonic chants which the navigator [Mau] had learned from his forefathers [and especially his grandfather]. And through observing rising stars, sea birds, ocean swells, wave configurations, cross-currents – a complex, multi-dimensional synthesis of thought – he could find [those] island groups, without any ‘scientific’ instruments, and despite storms. He put all of those variables into his human computer, and with the readout, accomplished the goal of getting from point A to B.”

Tattoo patterns of frigate birds, Solomon Islands, 1930s. Characterized in folk belief as a rapacious, ravenous, and voracious seagoing predator that also was adept at finding land, frigate birds were widely associated with mysticism in Oceania. This belief was widespread, and many peoples inhabiting Melanesia, Indonesia, and Polynesia tattooed the frigate emblem, including the Easter Islanders who lived at the far eastern boundary of the Pacific.
Tattoo patterns of frigate birds, Solomon Islands, 1930s. Characterized in folk belief as a rapacious, ravenous, and voracious seagoing predator that also was adept at finding land, frigate birds were widely associated with mysticism in Oceania. This belief was widespread, and many peoples inhabiting Melanesia, Indonesia, and Polynesia tattooed the frigate emblem, including the Easter Islanders who lived at the far eastern boundary of the Pacific.

Marshallese Tattoo Ceremonies & Other Micronesian Tattoo Customs

As noted previously, tattooing in Micronesia and Fiji was treasured as an ancestral practice and valued for its beautifying, youth-preserving, and erotic qualities. It also demarked rank within communities and noble men and women spent much of their lifetimes perfecting their incredibly rich body of tattooing, thereby enhancing their spiritual power (debbo) at the same time.

As in other parts of Oceania, tattooing rituals in the Marshall Islands were collective occasions and often focused spiritual power on persons of high status. For commoners, most tattooing was out of reach because the costs were extremely high.

“Elaborate tattooing covers almost the entire body. In former times tattooing had been connected with a whole series of complicated rituals, and the fee which the priest received for it was so high that a poor man had to work for years before he could afford to have a desired motif.”

Another source from Lae Atoll claims that commoners had “to earn” the right to be tattooed:

“In order for a commoner to be tattooed, one man was selected to represent his jowi(clan). If he survived the jib in jowi (torture ceremony) all males of his entire clan could be tattooed. Even if a clan member was on another island during the time the selected man passes the test, at a later time this clan member could sail and permission would be granted by the irooj [chief] for him to be tattooed, for his clan member had survived the jib in jowi.

The jib in jowi consisted of running with a husked coconut along the beach for about a quarter to half a mile, between two lines of men with spears waiting to stab and club the man as he ran to a designated place where the nut was to be cracked open. If he survived the run, he would crack open the nut, return with it and grate it, to be used during the tattooing. At this point permission was given by the irooj to tattoo the man and his clan members.”

Heavily tattooed man of Gilbert Island, 1880, and other tattooing patterns, 1900.
Heavily tattooed man of Gilbert Island, 1880, and other tattooing patterns, 1900.

Notwithstanding, a week or so before a tattooing session was to take place for a chief, offerings of food were “given” to sacred stones representing the gods of tattooing, Lewoj and Lanij. In the distant past, other gifts may have included human sacrifices. For example, it has been recounted through oral traditions that the tattooing combs for high ranking chiefs were once made of the bones of young men. Of course, human bones were also used in tattoo comb manufacture throughout the Pacific, including those created for use in Kiribati, Tonga, the Society Islands, Marquesas, and Samoa. In turn, such practices fostered clan cohesion through ancestor worship. But in the case of the Marshallese, young men could avoid bloodshed if they were able to procure the wing bones of albatrosses on the northernmost atoll of Wake Island.

Gilbert Islands tattooing patterns, ca. 1900.
Gilbert Islands tattooing patterns, ca. 1900.

Facial tattoos of a Gilbert Island chief, 1900. In addition to the body tattooing of men, high chiefs could also have their faces tattooed, which was an indication of rank. The face was not nearly as elaborate as the spirals of Maori chiefs, but it did provide the wearer with much prestige.
Facial tattoos of a Gilbert Island chief, 1900. In addition to the body tattooing of men, high chiefs could also have their faces tattooed, which was an indication of rank. The face was not nearly as elaborate as the spirals of Maori chiefs, but it did provide the wearer with much prestige.

Once everything was ready, the client to be tattooed reclined on a mat inside a specially constructed “tattooing house” and a chant or prayer was offered. The following text, recorded around 1900, was given during the tattooing of Kabua, a chief of Namu Atoll:

“In the north of this house our prayer shall be heard
for this house
In the south of this house our prayer shall be heard
for this house
For the coconuts to prosper
Bring the tattooed into the big house
Long may he live, he there on his mat
Some live, some will die
But your name shall be praised
He shall grow
Where is your country?
Namu, Madjigin!
His reputation increases
The reputation of Kabua spreads
over his islands!”

The German botanist Adelbert Chamisso, who visited the islands in 1815, reported that favorable omens were sought before the tattooing could commence: a process that could take several days if the proper signs were not received from the gods.

“[T]hose who wish to be tattooed spend the night in a house to which the chief who is to perform the operation conjures down the god. A perceptible sound, whistling, is said to announce his agreement. If this sign is lacking the operation is also left undone. For which reason it is never performed on some people. In case of transgression the sea would come over the island and all land would disappear.”

The next stage of the tattooing ceremony began once a major chant was sung by all in attendance. Then a chief, accompanied by a group of women, danced around the tattooing house. This was followed by a processional whereby the person to be tattooed was led into the center of the hut and male members of the nobility and lower classes took their prescribed seats around the periphery of the floor. The women, who were barred from viewing the stenciling and tattooing itself, took up positions outside of the house. Here, under the swaying coconut palms in front of the house, they began to rhythmically beat a series of drums. Once the tattooist began inscribing his stencils upon the flesh of his client, the women stopped their drumming and quietly began singing a chorus. Never once did they raise their voices because it was taboo to distract the tattoo master. This is clearly brought out in their accompanying vocal:

“The drummers do not beat
So that the color
will not stain their fingers.
No one can hear the drums
while drawing the lines, the lines!
Make the lines good, you tattooer!”

Finally the moment arrived when the tattoos penetrated the skin. The women began to drum wildly; they slapped their thighs, and increased the volume of the following song to drown out any cries or moans emanating from the tattoo house:

“The song rises to the gods
and enthusiasm returns
for the artist.
Beat the drums, beat them in a circle
The black noddy
flies this way with wings outstretched
Its blackness falls on the tattooing
Make the lines good, you tattooer!

Put the drum to your left side
Beat it for this tattooing house
He sighs, he sings out
He cries, and moves
Lanulang beats, beats the mallet
You draw the Redjolubu [motif]
Make zigzags and vertical lines on his back
The people watch!
A miracle, the colors fall from the sky!
The marks are finished!”

To the west on Yap, only warriors were allowed to ornament their legs with a pattern reported by travel writer Dr. William H. Furness as thilibetrak, but since warfare had subsided by 1900 the restriction was ignored and men found it appealing to adorn their legs to please women. Other extremely intricate motifs covered the entirety of a man’s torso, back, and legs.

Tattooed islander of Yap, and body tattoos of two Yap chiefs, 1900.
Tattooed islander of Yap, and body tattoos of two Yap chiefs, 1900.

A Japanese writer working in Yap and the Marshalls around 1930 noted that the Yapese called tattooing gachau and the art was typically performed by women. In the Marshalls, similar words translate to “mast” and this motif was the primary central vertical ornament field on men’s chests. Below this design that bisected the torso were others that formed a triangle that symbolized waves reflected from the land. (Micronesian navigators were particularly adept at reading refractive swell patterns from waves that had broken against island masses. Such effects could de discerned as many as fifty miles away from land itself.) Upon closer inspection, the deep and dark blue dorsal tattoos on Yapese men also seem to represent waves. And based on the Yapese tattooing terminology given above, it can be argued that many of the motifs are also derived from sailing and the marine environment.

Regardless, Yapese designs were expensive as they were across Micronesia. For a large tattoo that covered the buttocks and other parts of the body, the tattooist was given a large meal as prepayment and several other gifts that were distributed among his family. The actual price paid could encompass a large amount of fiber for mat making, belts, bowls, lidded crates, and even a boat because tattooing required great skill and was a very laborious profession. In the post-contact era, axes and knives were also paid.

Full body tattoos of a Mogmog Island man, Micronesia, ca. 1900. According to the artist, “the tattooing depicted here belonged to a roughly 25 year-old man in which the individual lines are sharply silhouetted by his light brown skin. In the older natives, the tattoos were already heavily blurred, so that the individual patterns and finer lines ran together. The designs that flank the loins in front are a series of three fish on either side caught in a trap net that are ready to be brought to shore.” A similar design of inverse color is characteristic of men from Ontong Java in the Solomon Islands.
Full body tattoos of a Mogmog Island man, Micronesia, ca. 1900. According to the artist, “the tattooing depicted here belonged to a roughly 25 year-old man in which the individual lines are sharply silhouetted by his light brown skin. In the older natives, the tattoos were already heavily blurred, so that the individual patterns and finer lines ran together. The designs that flank the loins in front are a series of three fish on either side caught in a trap net that are ready to be brought to shore.” A similar design of inverse color is characteristic of men from Ontong Java in the Solomon Islands.

Yapese men displayed patterns that seemed to be quite similar, although men from the Ulithi chain, and especially Mogmog Atoll to the north, wore quite different designs especially on the neck, buttocks and thighs. Presumably the marked homogeneity of Yap patterns may be attributed to legends that state that the Mogmogese were the ones who introduced tattooing to Yap. And because the custom was recently new to them, then, they were not able to draw upon the vast repertoire of Mogmog designs that had been developed over many generations of continued practice on that island. Thus, it is likely that the Yapese tradition of tattooing was based on knowledge of only a few patterns that rarely, if ever, were elaborated on after the initial visit by the Mogmog islanders. As Furness related:

“The middle–aged men who now show the elaborate and extensive tattooing, say that the fashion was introduced from the island Mukamuk [Mogmog], lying about seventy miles to the northward of Uap [Yap]. Men from this island once long ago drifted down to Uap and taught both the men and women how to tattoo.”

Mogmog men's tattoo, 1870, and Mogmog woman with elaborate leg and thigh tattoos, ca. 1900. Fish symbols predominate most of the female design and across the thighs can be seen several rows of shark’s teeth (nilpaho). As among Ontong Java women, the vulva was also tattooed.
Mogmog men’s tattoo, 1870, and Mogmog woman with elaborate leg and thigh tattoos, ca. 1900. Fish symbols predominate most of the female design and across the thighs can be seen several rows of shark’s teeth (nilpaho). As among Ontong Java women, the vulva was also tattooed.

Among Yapese women, tattooing was more or less reserved for female courtesans of the men’s house (failu). These women, called mispil, were captured from other communities to be companions for the men in the failu and were tattooed on the backs of their hands, the legs, and thighs as a lasting reminder of their social position. On Mogmog, however, women were also tattooed with the “secret mark” on their pudenda. According to Furness:

Tattooing designs of a Yap mispil, 1900.
Tattooing designs of a Yap mispil, 1900.

“The men of the failu treat their mispils with far more respect and devotion than is generally shown by the men outside to the wives of their own household. The mispils are absolutely faithful to the men, regarding themselves as unquestionable property, having been sought and captured at the risk of men’s lives, and paid for withal in costly prices of stone money.

They are by no means kept as prisoners; as soon as the excitement over their capture has abated in their own village, they are at full liberty to return home and visit their family and friends, and they always return willingly and voluntarily to the failu.

In ancient times, when there were many districts at war with each other and the high-born nobles were divided into two tribes, the capture of a mispil was always accompanied by bloodshed and enduring feuds; but, nowadays…they all regard themselves as really one people (with the exception of the tribe of slaves known asPimlingai). Today, the seizure of a young girl to fill the office of mispil is reduced to little more than a commonplace burglary; nay, it is almost always furtively prearranged with the chief of the district, inasmuch as it is to him that the parents appeal for redress. If certain captors, – or shall we say burglars, – have already made choice of a victim from his district as their future mispil, it might be difficult, if not impossible, for him to prevent them from carrying out their design, but inasmuch as he is fully assured that they are prepared to pay a good round sum in shell money and stone money by way of indemnity, he contrives, nowadays, by means of this bribe to salve the wounds of a disrupted family and dispel all thought of a bloody retaliation. Nevertheless, the whole proceeding is still carried out with the greatest possible secrecy and stealth.”

Women tattooing on Yap Island, 1900.
Women tattooing on Yap Island, 1900.

Of course, when a mispil became pregnant, a man of the failu took her as his wife and resumed life as a married man.

Another Micronesian island that featured female tattooists was Pohnpei. Female tattooists tattooed both genders on the hands, arms, legs, and thighs, but special abdominal, vulva, and buttocks designs were reserved for women – as were penis tattoos (pelikomŭtŝ) hammered over in three layers for men. Like other parts of Oceania, tattoos denoted adulthood and marriageability and also recorded lineage and clan histories.

Pohnpei arm tattooing (pelipel), 1870s.
Pohnpei arm tattooing (pelipel), 1870s.

Similar meanings probably spelled themselves out like text upon human skin in the case of the “Painted Prince” Giolo, a slave from the tiny Micronesian outlier of Meangis purchased in the Philippines by the buccaneer William Dampier in 1691. Even before Captain James Cook introduced the Polynesian word for tattooing (tatau, “to mark”) to the English language in 1769 after his journey to Tahiti, the heavily tattoo Jeoly (showname: Giolo) caused a sensation in England as a sideshow attraction in 1692. Although the man never wanted to visit London, he was told he would soon be allowed to return home a free man after he made a series of public appearances. But the voyage to Europe was lengthy and strenuous, and after just three months in England he died of smallpox, much to the disappointment of Dampier and his backers. Despite the short-lived success of the Jeoly exhibition, many entrepreneurs soon realized the potential profit in exhibiting indigenous peoples and particularly those with tattoos.

Giolo, the “Painted Prince,” 1692.
Giolo, the “Painted Prince,” 1692.

Although Jeoly did not speak English nor did anyone understand his native tongue, a few ethnographic details have been gleaned from his brief life story which shed light on the little known inhabitants and customs of Meangis, including their art of tattoo. Presumably, Dampier obtained this information while in the Philippines since Jeoly, or Giolo as he was called, learned Malay as a captive in Mindanao.

As Dampier wrote in his A New Voyage Round the World (1697), Jeoly was:

“born on a small island named Meangis; I saw the island twice, and two more close by it. Each of the three seemed to be about four or five leagues round, and of a good height. Prince Jeoly told me his father was a Raja of the Island where they lived; that there were not above thirty men on the island, and about one hundred women; that he himself had five wives and eight children, and that one of his wives painted him.

By the account he gave me of the manner of doing it, I understand that the painting was done by pricking the skin and rubbing in a pigment. They at Meangis use the gum of a tree beaten to a powder called in English, dammar. He told me that most of the men and women of the island were thus painted.

He told me that the inhabitants of Meangis had canoes, and went fishing frequently in them; and that they often visited the other two small islands, whose inhabitants spoke the same language as they did.

Tattooed Ethnic “Types” of the South Pacific, 1890. This color lithograph from a German lexicon was employed to scientifically record human “types” from which a cultural description could be made. To a large extent such illustrations were prompted by the pervasive fear among 19th century scientists that many of the human races were slowly disappearing with the spread of Western civilization and missionization into remote areas. Lithography provided, so it seemed at the time, a convenient means by which to salvage this rapidly vanishing resource.
Tattooed Ethnic “Types” of the South Pacific, 1890. This color lithograph from a German lexicon was employed to scientifically record human “types” from which a cultural description could be made. To a large extent such illustrations were prompted by the pervasive fear among 19th century scientists that many of the human races were slowly disappearing with the spread of Western civilization and missionization into remote areas. Lithography provided, so it seemed at the time, a convenient means by which to salvage this rapidly vanishing resource.

He said also that the customs on those other isles, and their manner of living, was like theirs, and that they were the only people with whom they had any converse, and that at one time, as he, his father, mother, and brother, with two or three men more were going to one of these other islands, they were driven by a strong wind on the coast of Mindanao, where they were taken by fishermen of the island, and carried to shore, and sold as slaves.

In the little printed relation that was made of him when he was shown for a sight in England, there was a romantic story of a beautiful sister of his who was a slave with them at Mindanao, and of the Sultan’s falling in love with her; but these were stories indeed. They reported also that his paint was of such virtue, that serpents and venomous creatures would flee from him, for which reason, I suppose, they represented so many serpents scampering about in the printed picture that was made of him. But I never knew any paint of such virtue, and as for Jeoly, I have seen him as much afraid of snakes, scorpions, or centipedes, as myself.

Women’s tattooing of Lukunor Atoll, Micronesia.
Women’s tattooing of Lukunor Atoll, Micronesia.

Chuuk (Truk) Island man with tattooing and other ornaments, Micronesia, 1900.
Chuuk (Truk) Island man with tattooing and other ornaments, Micronesia, 1900.

I began to long after my native country, after so tedious a ramble from it, and I proposed no small advantage to myself from my painted prince, whom [whose slave owner] had left entirely to my disposal, only reserving to himself his right to one half share in him. For besides what might be gained by showing him in England, I was in hopes that when I had got some money, I might carry him back to Meangis, and re-instate him there in his own country, and by his favor and negotiation to establish a traffic for the spices and other products of those islands.

But I was no sooner arrived in the Thames, but he was sent ashore to be seen by some eminent persons, and I being in want of money, was prevailed upon to sell first, part of my share in him, and by degrees all of it (I fell amongst rooks). After this I heard he was carried about to be shown as a sight, and that he died of the smallpox at Oxford.”

Solomon Islands

The Solomon Islands are an expansive island chain running roughly north to south that includes both Melanesian (scarification) and Polynesian (tattooing) cultural elements of body modification. Invariably, avian and ichthyian (fish) tattoo patterns seem to dominate the artistic repertoire of Solomon peoples and perhaps none more so than the frigate bird which was also used in the construction of tattooing tools here as it was in Micronesia.

More specifically, in some areas of the Solomons it was believed that the guardian of the land of the dead inspected the deceased for his or her frigate bird mark. If the deceased did not have the tattoo, they were not allowed to pass into the afterlife.

On Melanesian Ulawa, girls and boys were tattooed at their initiation ceremonies before marriage. The conventional figures were the M-shaped wings of the frigate bird – a motif that figures very prominently in Solomon Island decorations and architecture – tattooed on the temples. (On San Cristobal the frigate was usually carved into the handle of a man’s warclub, although the jaws of a fish sometimes took it place.) In specific incantations it was also called manu epu or “sacred bird,” and some peoples, like the inhabitants of Ontong Java, kept frigates as free-flying pets.

A chief’s daughter with full compliment of facial tattoos, Ulawa Island, 1927. a) “Elbows of frigate bird” on temples; b) almond nut lozenge on forehead; c) “reflections of coconut leaves [fronds]” across forehead; d) “snake’s path” chevrons on cheek; e) rows of lozenges between the serpent’s path.
A chief’s daughter with full compliment of facial tattoos, Ulawa Island, 1927. a) “Elbows of frigate bird” on temples; b) almond nut lozenge on forehead; c) “reflections of coconut leaves [fronds]” across forehead; d) “snake’s path” chevrons on cheek; e) rows of lozenges between the serpent’s path.

Additional designs on Ulawa included a lozenge that symbolized the nut of the tropical almond tree. It was tattooed on the center of the forehead and was linked to a zigzagging line that dissected it: a line called nunu i niu or “reflection of coconut leaves.” Chevrons (talamata) called the “snake’s path” were tapped into the cheeks, as were additional rows of lozenges, and a “cloud” tattoo adorned the upper arm. Chevrons, lozenges, zigzags, and “clouds” were also used for canoe decorations.

The general name for tattoo was usu (“push, draw, write”) and to tattoo any given design was rapuor “to strike.” The person who performs the tattooing is paid with shell money, and the needle was made from the sharpened bone of a bat’s wing. The desired pattern was first stenciled and then worked under the skin. Pigments consisted of burnt gum from the almond mixed with the juice of a local coleus plant.

The tattoo client was kept awake for days at a time to induce sleepiness, and before the actual tapping began a priest was employed to speak an incantation to prevent pain. When one half of the face was tattooed, drums were beaten to announce the fact to the neighboring villages; and when the frigate bird was completed the drummers again picked up their chorus.

Once the blood stopped flowing, the priest performed another incantation to staunch the flow. Afterwards, a coconut was scraped and this material was wrapped in the shoots of a littoral tree. The bundle was later roasted and rubbed over the wounds. When the tattoo dried, milk from the coconut was massaged in.

On Tikopia, one of the southernmost islands of the Solomons, tattooing practice followed the Polynesian tradition and was said to have originated from a tattooist visiting from the island of Rotuma, part of contemporary Fiji, approximately ten generations ago. Here, as in Tahiti, the word ta tau characterized the art of “striking” the skin with a comb of bone, although pani (“painted decoration”) was the generic word for the art because it was said “tattooing is a decoration till death.”

Tikopian tattoo motifs, 1930. a) Frigate bird wings; b) triangle; c) pounder or coconut frond spathe; d) annelid; e) flower of the farakau tree; f, h) shark designs; g) tooth pattern; i) large fish pattern; j, k) small fish patterns.
Tikopian tattoo motifs, 1930. a) Frigate bird wings; b) triangle; c) pounder or coconut frond spathe; d) annelid; e) flower of the farakau tree; f, h) shark designs; g) tooth pattern; i) large fish pattern; j, k) small fish patterns.

Tattooing on Tikopia was performed exclusively by recognized male experts (tufunga ta tau) who were highly revered individuals in their respective communities. These “experts” were often craftsmen in other skills, like canoe building, and their knowledge was transmitted through family lines – from grandfathers, mother’s brothers, or fathers – although some artisans had natural abilities that were cultivated.

Tattoo clients were free to work with anyone they desired, but typically they visited family members for their permanent designs. Tafunga carried their gear in small closely-woven baskets encircled with fiber loops to hold their various adze-like tools called matau. The matau was a comb of albatross bone measuring an inch and a half long lashed to a thin wand of coconut spathe three times its length. The comb or blade of the implement, called toki or “adze,” held five or six teeth and curved slightly at its serrated edge. A sharpened sea-urchin spine was used to clean out the matau’s teeth when they became dirty. Local pigment consisted of soot mixed with water and the stem of a local tree called kaunasu, because “no other kind will do” one tattooist reported.

Men were more heavily marked than women and they endured to have their chest tattoos completed in one or two days. Nearly every tattoo motif came from nature, and fish (face, arms, hands, knees, etc.) and bird designs like the frigate (face and shoulder) predominated – such designs were also carved into the hulls of ocean-going canoes. Another motif, fakaraumano, was attributed to the shark, and the motif fakanifo (“toothing”) was tattooed in the middle of the chest from neck to navel. Other designs included the pestle used for pounding coconut (urumuti) and a local tree flower (se farakau) resembling the Maltese cross, although islanders interviewed in the 1930s emphatically stated that the motif was not of Christian origin.

Heavily tattooed Tikopian man, 1973. Photograph © Mick Pendergrast.
Heavily tattooed Tikopian man, 1973. Photograph © Mick Pendergrast.

The foreheads, corners of the eyes, and cheeks of men were typically tattooed first, then the principal surfaces of the chest and back completed the cycle. Women also received their facial designs first consisting of a fish or other basic motif and a more complex double band along the jaw line from ear to ear. The latter marking was received after puberty had been reached but before marriage since it was a mandatory custom for women to be marked before their wedding day.

A tattoo master’s matau was believed to be embodied with supernatural power, and was placed under the protection of an ancestor who was called upon to keep the pain down during the hand-tapping. One tattooist interviewed around 1930 recited the following sacred chant to announce thematau to his ancestor:

“Come, Male Ancestor, to watch over the matau
that it may be light,
Do not make sore the bodies of folk,
Let the tapping be finished today.”

Once the artwork was completed, the tattooist received a series of payments from his patient’s kin including food, areca nuts, or tobacco in more recent times. The client also provided one day of labor in the cultivated fields of the expert after he had healed. More ritualistic gifts called maro were presented including a sheet of white and orange barkcloth, a pandanus mat, and several pieces of ordinary barkcloth that had not been dyed.

Drawing of a tattooed chief of the Kingsmill Group, southern Gilbert Islands, ca. 1840. Professional tattooists in the southern Gilberts and northern Tuvalu (Ellis Islands) were men called tufunga ta’utau who were held in great estimation. They received very high prices and so the art was largely confined to the wealthy and those of rank. Young men were not tattooed before the age of twenty, and slaves never earned the privilege. The tattooing consisted of mostly short oblique lines, about an eighth of an inch apart. These were arranged in perpendicular rows, and four or five moved down the back on each side of the spine. Similar markings were made in front, beginning just below the collar bone. The legs were also marked. According to the American visitors who made this early drawing, the Kingsmill islanders:
Drawing of a tattooed chief of the Kingsmill Group, southern Gilbert Islands, ca. 1840. Professional tattooists in the southern Gilberts and northern Tuvalu (Ellis Islands) were men called tufunga ta’utau who were held in great estimation. They received very high prices and so the art was largely confined to the wealthy and those of rank. Young men were not tattooed before the age of twenty, and slaves never earned the privilege. The tattooing consisted of mostly short oblique lines, about an eighth of an inch apart. These were arranged in perpendicular rows, and four or five moved down the back on each side of the spine. Similar markings were made in front, beginning just below the collar bone. The legs were also marked. According to the American visitors who made this early drawing, the Kingsmill islanders: “believed in an existence after death, and that on the death of a person, his spirit ascends into the air, where it is carried about by the winds, wherever they may chance to blow, until it finally reaches Kainakaki [the island of the dead]. Only those who are tattooed can expect to reach it, and these are generally persons of rank; all others are intercepted on their way, and doomed by a large giantess, called Baine. If those who die are old and feeble, their spirits are conducted to the Kainakaki by the shades [spirits, ghosts] of those who have died before them. The spirits of children are carried to the realms of bliss by their female relatives, and are nursed and taken care of until they are able to provide for themselves. Kainakaki is supposed to be situated on the island of Tavaira, or Gilbert’s Island. The women are tattooed in the same manner, but not so much as the men. Owing to the lightness of the lines, and the distance between them, they do not show very conspicuously. The colouring matter used is charcoal, mixed with cocoanut-oil. The instrument employed is a piece of bone, cut like a fine-toothed comb, similar to that used at the Samoan Group. The tattooing is done at different times, to alleviate the pain which attends the operation.”

Once maro had been received by the tattooist, he placed these items on a mat on the ceremonial side of his house. He then spread a barkcloth on the floor as an offering to his tutelary ancestor and murmured:

“That is your maro, Male Ancestor;
Your maro brought here on account of your adze
which has been striking.”

Fig.29B
Bowditch Island tattooist with “magic eyeshade” working on his male clients, Tokelau, 1840. Vaitupu Island lies in contemporary Tuvalu and neighbors Bowditch to the west. Here tattooing tafunga also wore eyeshades when hand-tapping tattoos into the skin. As in parts of the Solomon Islands and Micronesia, the men and women of Vaitupu were compelled to be tattooed like fish because this was an ancestral prerogative that accorded status. According to elders interviewed around 1930, if a person had not been tattooed, they were forbidden to speak at gatherings of elders because:“You are like an ulafi (a plain colored fish), you are not like a laea (a highly colored fish), or ‘What’s the matter with you there, have you any fale-vaka (tattoo design)?'”

Bellona & Rennell

To the east of Tikopia, the first born sons of chiefs on Bellona Island received a special tattoo called the taukuka that symbolized their leadership role to the community. Women here and on neighboring Rennell Island wore markings (tu’u) comprised of a series of fish designs above the breasts and a long line terminating in frigate bird motifs on the neck and aside the navel. It has been recorded that they were associated with a particular “controller” spirit that guided them into the afterlife, and if a woman did not have them she would be denied passage to the land of her ancestors. The “atua” or spirit was believed to ride on the back of the frigate itself.

On Rennell, men were tattooed with images that were different from women, although in both cases the “dolphin” pattern occurred more often. As a man progressed through life, various other tattooing elements were added to the body. For example, a teenager was marked with a porpoise on the back of each hand (A), and this indicated to the community that he was beginning to learn what he needed to know to become a man. Once the young man had been initiated, he was tattooed with an ornament consisting of three parallelograms (te aha) arranged in a fan above the navel (B). Epaulette-like tattoos on the shoulder were worn only by married men (C), and additional geometric tattoos below the shoulder pads and a fine net around the calves were received when an individual reached mature age and was recognized as an elder (D). Elders were important in community matters and their opinions were highly sought after to settle the issues affecting the tribe. The chiefs and headmen were covered (E) with a very large number of additional tattoos, the most important of which was the hakasapa: the crescent design placed on the buttocks.

Stages of Rennell Island men’s tattooing, 1935.
Stages of Rennell Island men’s tattooing, 1935.

Women received tattoos in a similar progression, and this is drawn out in the illustration above: tattoo for unmarried girl (F), married woman (G), middle-aged and older women (H). Noblewomen and other high status females wore still more patterns, especially additional sets of linear tattoos on the front and back of the thighs and legs and figurative tattoos on the arms.

Stages of Rennell Island women’s tattooing, 1935.
Stages of Rennell Island women’s tattooing, 1935.

One traveler to Rennell also observed that the wife of the high priest and the high chief Tahoa himself wore one special tattoo design not observed on other people. This motif (Te kaoka sani sani) was placed on the left arm and represented the five sacred spears of the same name which were placed in the roof of the house of the spiritual and temporal leader, the Grand Chief Taoponi.

Ontong Java

Far to the north in Polynesian Ontong Java and neighboring Nukumanu, tattooing was the most prized body decoration. Its complexity was significantly influenced by the ability to pay for it as much as it was a test of courage. Evidently self-control was to be envied, and emotional outbursts were not.

Although male and female elders still wear body tattoos today, 19th century accounts state that men who did not receive tattoos were “cowards,” and such men were heckled by their peers because “they would not catch any fish.” If unmarked men wanted to contract a marriage, “only widows would follow them.”

The completion of the tattooing required many days, and the work itself was not only painful, but so too was the dermatitis that set-in afterwards because so much of the body was ornamented. Oftentimes tattoos became infected and violent fevers and abscesses accompanied even the freshest tattooing. Not surprisingly, the indelible art lead many to their graves.

Extensive tattooing was worn by both sexes and because of the complexity of the patterns they were done in sections. The combed instruments were made from bird bones like the frigate attached to a piece of wood or coral. Inks from the weathered nuts of a local beach shrub were gathered and when heated they produced an opaque oil used in tattooing.

Facial and body tattoos of Ontong Java women, 1990s. Photographs © Tim Rock.
Facial and body tattoos of Ontong Java women, 1990s. Photographs © Tim Rock.

The tool was held in the left hand and tapped lightly with the mallet held in the right hand to drive the comb home. A visitor writing in 1895 stated that tattoo artists were always skilled women who belonged to privileged families and the art form was passed down from mother to daughter.

Other Ontongese tattoo motifs for women, 1910.
Other Ontongese tattoo motifs for women, 1910.

According to oral tradition, the practice was gifted to the people by a female goddess named Luahina and women tattooed their bodies in her honor. Luahina was the daughter of the God of the Sea Lolo who created the many islands that make up the Ontong Java archipelago; he was also the first chief.

All of the tattoo patterns of the Ontong Javans were derived from life and work in the surrounding maritime environment. In a drawing dating to 1890, this is made evident by the names and descriptions of the tattoos themselves – most of which have been largely forgotten today.

The forehead and temples of men and women were decorated with a series of small squares that represented the frigate. Just below the top row of these colored boxes, men wore another pattern shaped somewhat like the tip of the arrow that symbolized the beak of the same bird. Of course, other men preferred a pair of whales or small dolphins in its place.

Beside the eyes men wore a small line of XXX’s to represent a type of bristle worm from the reef. Arrow-shaped characters in the same area were called ika or “fish.”

Elaborate tattooing of an elder Ontong Java man with “reef” pattern on arms and many other naturalistic motifs, ca. 1880.
Elaborate tattooing of an elder Ontong Java man with “reef” pattern on arms and many other naturalistic motifs, ca. 1880.

Down the center line of a man’s chest was often placed the “big fish” pattern that was variously called hau but more popularly tagaloa. Whether or not the word tagaloa referred to the ancient Polynesian deity of the same name is not known. Beside the hau (running up and down) is the tattoo of an edible worm of the reef (it has many feet or spurs) followed by sets of small whales or dolphins. Just above the nipple of men were seen two transverse stripes that allegedly signified the carved bar in the elder’s house (hare tapu), a cultural feature found throughout Polynesia. Below the nipple appeared a series of “king” and “red fish” that wound around to the back. Among both men and women designs of sharks (four) flanked the navel.

Moving to the back, three or four small fish were tattooed just above the armpits. A line of great whales ran up and down the thighs, and the long design that extended from the shoulder diagonally across the back, then diagonally across the thigh to the front of the knee, was another sea worm. It was capped off with more fish designs. In the midline of the back, four stripes symbolized still more carved elements of the hare tapu and these concluded with two fish with conjoined heads.

Returning to the man’s torso and upper breast reveals an emblem that some contemporary observers who visited Ontong in the 1990s call a “fish hook” pattern. This is probably a false interpretation because tattooed men one hundred years ago revealed that it symbolized an ocean reef in abstract form. For example, the element that resembles a series of small connected rectangles arching outwards from the clavicle represents the pattern found on the shell of a large marine mollusk. It sits on a line of similar but smaller designs that reproduces a reef lying in shallow water. The transverse style of the tattooing expresses the unevenness of the reef caused partly by small drainage channels and partly through the interstices of the individual coral heads.

The lower reef line connects with another located on the inner arm and consists of black stripes with small white spaces wedged between. This representation depicts the lower or outer parts of the reef which range up from deeper water or a few small coral heads that rest just below the water table. The tattooing reproduced in the drawing symbolizes this because the bands of blackness represent very deep water and the white rectangles a shoal or sandbar.

Of course, the tattooing thus represented was very rare even one hundred years ago but was characteristic of what a fully tattooed man looked like to the viewer. The artist reported that most men of that era typically wore a smattering of frigate, dolphin, and “great fish” designs interspersed with annelid motifs. On the other hand, the tattooing of the arm was oftentimes replaced by a larger number of “fish” or ika that faced each other on the outside of the arm.

In many respects, however, women wore much richer tattooing than men, which is not surprising since it was gifted to them by the goddess Luahina. Instead of a frigate beak on the forehead, a centipede in the form of a series of vertical XXX’s took its place. On the cheeks, a small fish and green caterpillar were inked and these motifs were also repeated on the breasts.

Intricate body tattoo patterns of an Ontong Java women, ca. 1880.
Intricate body tattoo patterns of an Ontong Java women, ca. 1880.

On the shoulders, from top to bottom, were tattooed fish and bristle worms. Between the shoulder and chest was repeated the marine mollusk design worn by men followed below by more fish. In the midline between the breasts were several whales or dolphins, and between the chest and navel a small branching figure – a chicken – was marked; it was not a traditional design but rather a recent innovation. Flanking the navel were more bristle worms, a series of fish resembling directional arrows, and two very small M-shaped tattoos of the long-tailed or Tahitian cuckoo.

On the back nearest the sides are two dolphins and a group of three fish above them. Moving towards the spine is a series of more fish, with the pointier forms possibly symbolizing “barracudas.”

The tattooing which covers the hip and buttocks symbolizes a bonito net that also wraps around the front to form a shaded triangle. (Fishing nets were also worn as tattooing motifs on Tikopia amongst other locales.) Just outside of the net on the hipbones is a vertical zigzagging motif that signifies a small basket used for bait fish. The two fish on the buttocks have been caught in the net and the large zigzags next to them reproduce the carved railing of a fishing boat. Below these are the reef markers.

On the outer edge of the thigh (in front) is an ornamental series of shark teeth, lying adjacent to a single fish form. Next are several interconnected lozenges that are again derived from carvings in the hare tapu.

Sikaiana

Lying several hundred miles southeast of Ontong Java was Sikaiana or the Stewart Islands. Here men and women wore tattoos probably derived from Ontong or Nukumanu sources based on the similarity of patterning and linguistic evidence.

A northern origin for such tattoos is pointed out in a ca. 1850 song, which was not of Sikaianese origin, that was sung on Takuu Atoll. We can date the chant because tattooing ceased on Takuu around the mid 19th century and the women were then compelled to sail to Nukumanu for their marks.

Sikaianese woman with elaborate<br />
chest tattoo.
Sikaianese woman with elaborate chest tattoo.

“You call me, saying
That my bed stands alone,
So I feel ashamed for you.
What will you do with that shame?
Shame on your young girls,
Her tattoo is not straight.
And so your anger wells up.
My lips are inviting,
To take for all of you.
And insert in your belly.
Which would bring you shame for the
spirits.

My tattoo
Should be light so as to be transportable,
To Sikaiana for placement on its marae,
And so allow my pattern to be displayed,
And proclaimed on top of a canoe.”

Nevertheless, the tattoo artistry of Sikaiana was not as complex nor as encompassing as that found on Ontong, but it was performed with a comb tool called matau’u (the same word as in Tikopia) made from frigate bone. As among the Ontongese, men carried four motifs on their hips that earlier observers called “sharks,” but the word given for these motifs was atu which, according to Sikaianese dictionaries, is an old term meaning “to fish for bonito.” On the sternum is a nearly identical tattoo seen on Ontong that was also called “big fish.”

Over the shoulder and upper arm men wore a degraded version of the impressive “reef” tattoo that adorned Ontongese men. On Sikaiana, however, the entire motif referred to a large net where the longitudinal and transverse lines are ropes wedged between a series of wooden floats. The alternating white and black squares resembling a checkerboard were net sinkers, the dark ones fabricated from coral stones. In summary, the stylistic similarity, the repetition of the four fish-like elements over the hip and the large fish above the sternum are all evidence pointing to a cross-cultural exchange of tattooing styles that probably took place in antiquity.

The tattooing of Sikaianese women also resembles Ontong Java patterns to a degree, but the median line of tattooing that runs down the chest between the breasts is more similar to Tikopian net forms. Sometimes these motifs are flanked with a series of fish, and the same fish designs are also placed on the forearms and outer things. The inner thighs are heavily tattooed with geometric shapes that are perhaps indicative of teeth or net sinkers.

Sikaianese man with atu motif on hips and net pattern on arms. Sikaianese woman with chest, arm, and thigh tattooing, 1900.
Sikaianese man with atu motif on hips and net pattern on arms. Sikaianese woman with chest, arm, and thigh tattooing, 1900.

One interesting argument was posited around 1900 regarding the “reef” patterning on the arms of Ontong males versus the somewhat complementary but different “net” tattooing of Sikaianese men. In short, it is a matter of geography and I encourage the reader to compare both drawings and the description above regarding the Ontong “reef” tattoo. First, the reef systems of Ontong and Sikaiana are quite different. The first group is rich in passages into the big lagoon of the atoll, whereas Sikaiana has only a few: in fact, there is no safe anchorage close to the atoll. On Ontong the lagoon is large and quite deep on either side of the reef: hence the long dark tattoo lines on the arms. On Sikaiana, the atoll rises very steeply from the water and nearly encloses its shallow lagoon: hence no long black lines, but ones with more “open” (white = shallow) designs on the edges are visible. Under such circumstances, then, the possibility exists that the Sikaianese reinterpreted the geographical model of their native lagoon and reef system through tattooing as an adaptation to local conditions in an attempt to reinforce their sense of identity and place throughout the region.

A Natural Art Form of the South Seas

The indigenous peoples of western Oceania may have originally come from the same parts of the world, held similar basic beliefs, and utilized tools and natural materials created from their surrounding environment, but once they settled themselves in the remote archipelagos of the great South Sea they began to develop their own distinctive cultures and practices like tattooing in concert with the expansive geography that enveloped them. And whether subject to the demands of local landscapes, histories, and influences outside of their home regions, tattooing became a way to influence the demands, needs, and dangers associated with life in and around the largest ocean on earth; because tattooing was a collective expression that embodied the cultural symbolism of the western Oceanic people.

Tattooed inhabitants of Kosrae Island, Micronesia, 1820.
Tattooed inhabitants of Kosrae Island, Micronesia, 1820.

Of course, most of the tattoo art presented here was made during a time when traditional values were shifting to foreign ideals, but they still had not yet been separated from their original cultural core. In some instances, the degradation of style and content is easy to see. But the history of migrations, settlement, and the underlying philosophies and systems of aesthetics help us define the place of tattooing in western Oceanic art, as well as provide an explanation for the fundamental similarities and differences that can be found among its various styles and peoples.

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