The Forgotten Code: Tribal Tattoos of Papua New Guinea

Young Motu girl getting tattooed, ca. 1930.
Young Motu girl getting tattooed, ca. 1930.

AS FAR BACK as the old men and women can remember, tattooing has been a tribal custom of the coastal peoples of Papua New Guinea. Among the Motu, Waima, Aroma, Hula, Mekeo, Mailu and other related southwestern groups, women were heavily tattooed from head to toe, while men displayed chest markings related to their exploits in the headhunt.

By World War II, however, tattooing traditions largely disappeared in Papua for a variety of reasons; headhunting was outlawed; missionaries discouraged initiation ceremonies; and tattoos associated with Hula and Motu trading voyages (lakatois) became obsolete, especially since motorboats had replaced sailboats, making these trips much less dangerous. Today, only a few groups around Port Moresby and others like the Maisin living near Collingwood Bay in southeastern Papua remain as the last coastal people to carry intricate forms of tattooing on their bodies and faces.

Tattoos were generally inked upon women in a fixed order among all coastal Papuans. Many of the tattoo motifs were passed down through the family – from mother to daughter, and sometimes from father to son. First, girls between five and seven years of age were tattooed on the backs of hands to the elbows and from the elbows to the shoulders. Girls between seven and eight were tattooed on the face and lower abdomen, the vulva and up to the navel, then the waist down to the knees and the outside of the thighs. At ten, the armpits and areas extending to the nipples were tattooed with the throat done shortly thereafter. When puberty approached, the back from the shoulders down, then the buttocks, back of the thighs and legs were marked. When ready for marriage, V-shaped designs from the neck down to the navel were tattooed. Sometimes, special tattoos could be added if the father, brother, or close relative of the girl killed another man, or if they showed prowess in fishing or trading expeditions. All of these markings were ritualistic, and in some cases erotic. If a girl did not have them, she was not acceptable for marriage.

Motu facial tattoos, ca. 1915.
(left) Waima woman wearing full body tattooing, ca. 1910. Her sternum tattoo below the neck was called “frigate-bird,” and the branching elements on her abdomen “centipede.” The turtle-shell motif appears on her legs above the knees, and the “fluttering” or “flying spark” motif represents the lines tattooed on the face. The photographer could not provide a detailed record of the tattoo patterns worn beneath the petticoat, although he doctored this and many subsequent photographs by painting over them so they would show more clearly. This was not an uncommon practice in Papua, because tattoo pigments did not show up well on dark complexions. The subject has been posed in front of a white canvas
sheet to provide contrast. (right) Two Motu women with back tattooing, ca. 1915. Kaiakaro designs on the spine or waist comprise an abstract “star” motif like a Maltese or St. Andrews cross. The motif is related to flight and may also represent the brilliant colors of certain butterflies from the region. Gado tattoos appear on the upper shoulders and buttocks and resemble serpents slithering downwards
and horizontally.

Tattooing Kits and the Women Who Used Them

Typical tattooing kits were fairly simple and the technique employed to apply the tattoos was a form of hand-tapping. Among the Motu, the wooden “hammer” was called iboki and the needle-like gini was a lemon branch twig with a thorn projecting out at one end. The Motu first painted the desired tattoo motif on the skin and allowed it to dry. With the gini held in the left hand, with the point of the thorn almost touching the skin, and theiboki held in the right hand by the small end, the gini was tapped with enough force to cause the thorn to pierce the skin. For finishing the tattoo, the gini may have had three or four thorns tied together for filling.

Motu facial tattoos, ca. 1915.
Motu facial tattoos, ca. 1915.

Usually, tattoo pigment came from the charred remains of the candlenut. Candlenut (Aleurites moluccana) was also utilized as pigment in Hawaii (kukui) and other Pacific islands in Polynesia. Interestingly, I have found that the leaves and sap of the candlenut tree were used throughout Polynesia, the Philippines, China and Indonesia in the treatment of arthritic joints or as a healing application for chapped lips, cold sores and sunburn. Even in Papua, the Sinagoro tribe specifically utilized several types of “medicinal” tattoos to treat rheumatoid arthritis. These marks were usually grouped around aching joints on the back, neck, shoulders, and forehead. Triangular motifs seen under the left breast of a Sinagoro man in the 1880s appeared to one explorer as “hav[ing] been tattooed for palpitations or uneasy sensations in the region of the heart.”

Hula facial tattooing, ca. 1915. The stepped tattoos (lakatoi) on the woman’s cheeks and nose note that her father participated in several successful trading voyages. However, some scholars believe that this design evolved from the concept of an elbowed birds’ wing, possibly a predatorial bird. The motif on the throat denotes that the woman is married.
Hula facial tattooing, ca. 1915. The stepped tattoos (lakatoi) on the woman’s cheeks and nose note that her father participated in several successful trading voyages. However, some scholars believe that this design evolved from the concept of an elbowed birds’ wing, possibly a predatorial bird. The motif on the throat denotes that the woman is married.”

Traditionally, tattoo artists were almost always female and different women were employed for tattooing specific parts of the body. Among the Mailu, facial tattoo artists seem to have been paid more, as this work was the most painful and dangerous. Around 1900, a typical payment for facial work included two strings (pairs) of armshells, quantities of cockatoo and parrot feathers and a string bag, whereas other parts of the body may have only brought small payments of cooked food.

Mekeo backpiece displaying centipede and frigate bird symbolism, and Mekeo torso designs, ca. 1915. The V-shaped mark running from the shoulders to the center of the sternum denotes marriage, and the “spirit bird” motif below the neck in the shape of the double “M” is perhaps symbolic of the frigate bird. A “star” or concentric diamond pattern is illustrated between the navel and breast, and zigzagging tattoos under each breast represent the centipede; other motifs are known simply as patterns used in tattooing.
Mekeo backpiece displaying centipede and frigate bird symbolism, and Mekeo torso designs, ca. 1915. The V-shaped mark running from the shoulders to the center of the sternum denotes marriage, and the “spirit bird” motif below the neck in the shape of the double “M” is perhaps symbolic of the frigate bird. A “star” or concentric diamond pattern is illustrated between the navel and breast, and zigzagging tattoos under each breast represent the centipede; other motifs are known simply as patterns used in tattooing.”

Aroma woman, ca. 1915. All portions of the body are tattooed with various designs. Pau-lo, or bamboo motif on chest, is reminiscent of the design found on Aroma beheading knives. A frigate bird design appears on her nose, and the centipede (aivamele) pattern on the lower right abdomen. Other motifs are unnamed or perhaps unknown.Tourist postcard of an elder Waima woman of the Bereina District, ca. 1970.
Aroma woman, ca. 1915. All portions of the body are tattooed with various designs. Pau-lo, or bamboo motif on chest, is reminiscent of the design found on Aroma beheading knives. A frigate bird design appears on her nose, and the centipede (aivamele) pattern on the lower right abdomen. Other motifs are unnamed or perhaps unknown.Tourist postcard of an elder Waima woman of the Bereina District, ca. 1970.”

Motifs

The tattooed tribes of coastal Papua seemed to prefer abstract motifs of natural subjects, and those of falling objects (stars), flying birds, especially predatory birds (Frigate bird, hawk) or other creatures associated with movement and predatory habits (like centipedes, serpents, and crocodiles) were quite common. But some of these animals were tattooed onto living skin for other reasons; they were able to straddle diurnal and nocturnal lifestyles, thus mastering the worlds of both light and darkness. For the Papuans, this otherworldly existence was perceived in abstract reality as “life” on the supernatural plane of the living and the dead. And it is no surprise that most, if not all, of these animals were believed to repel evil spirits and were tabooed from being eaten altogether.

Group of Waima girls with frigate bird motif on sternum below neck, centipede motif on sides of the abdomen, ca. 1915.
Group of Waima girls with frigate bird motif on sternum below neck, centipede motif on sides of the abdomen, ca. 1915.”

Frigate birds, however, seem to have ranked highest on the tattoo motif map. Characterized in folk belief as a rapacious, ravenous, and voracious seagoing predator, frigates were widely associated with Papuan headhunting mysticism, somehow lending power to the wearer, or even to the family of the tattooed, acting as a sort of spiritual “assistant.” This belief was shared, since many other headhunting groups living in Polynesia, Melanesia, and Indonesia tattooed the emblem (Note: frigate tattoo motifs extended as far as the headhunters of Easter Island).

Mailu facial tattooing, ca. 1915. This woman has the aisava motif on both sides of the forehead. It consists of two parallel lines forming a double-angled zigzag on either side of the central line of the forehead, terminating at the upper end in a coil. Aisava means “frigate-bird.” The “bake” pattern, not to be confused with “beak”, curves upwards and backwards near the corner of the eye and seems to be another bird design. The curving lines that emanate from the corner of the nose and travel to the ear are called boi, or the “reef heron” motif. The repeated zigzag which forms the dominant feature of the cheek represents the frigate bird. It has been suggested by some scholars that the frigate bird symbolized “the host of the spirit of 
 the dead” among some coastal Papuans.
Mailu facial tattooing, ca. 1915. This woman has the aisava motif on both sides of the forehead. It consists of two parallel lines forming a double-angled zigzag on either side of the central line of the forehead, terminating at the upper end in a coil. Aisava means “frigate-bird.” The “bake” pattern, not to be confused with “beak”, curves upwards and backwards near the corner of the eye and seems to be another bird design. The curving lines that emanate from the corner of the nose and travel to the ear are called boi, or the “reef heron” motif. The repeated zigzag which forms the dominant feature of the cheek represents the frigate bird. It has been suggested by some scholars that the frigate bird symbolized “the host of the spirit of
the dead” among some coastal Papuans.


Sometimes tattoo motifs took the form of harmless birds like the great-beaked hornbill or bina among the Papuan Hula and Motu. Among the Iban of Borneo, the hornbill was tattooed on headhunter’s chests, because it was thought to provide protection against the intrusion of evil spirits. It was associated with the Upperworld and it was a sacred omen bird. This association between man and bird, was expressed in tattoo as well as in mimic bird dances, songs and the wearing of feathers as a symbolic ornament. Among the Papuan Hula of the 1880s, warriors who had taken human life wore white cockatoo feathers in their hair, the mandibles of the hornbill on their foreheads and other plumes as headdresses, not to mention tattoos on the legs and chest. As noted before, even sons, daughters and the wives of those men who had taken heads were entitled to tattoos worn on their skins.

Hula kadidiha or “armpit” tattoo patterns, ca. 1915.
Hula kadidiha or “armpit” tattoo patterns, ca. 1915.”

But Papuan men who headhunted were considered to be unclean until they had undertaken specific ceremonies to purify themselves. Usually, once they had returned from an expedition, headhunters were secluded from the community for a period of time and then reincorporated into the village after, as one elder said, “having been assured of scaring the ghost of the dead away.” One traveler to the Hula noted in 1883 that, “Even the dead ancestors of tribes are on the watch to deal out sickness or death, to anyone who may displease them, and the natives are most particular to do nothing that should raise their ire.”

Circa WWII postcard depicting two Motu girls demonstrating the proper method of hand-tapping technique. Collection of the author.
Circa WWII postcard depicting two Motu girls demonstrating the proper method of hand-tapping technique. Collection of the author.”

The Forgotten Code

Men’s and women’s bodies along the Papuan coast no longer speak their complex and ritual language. And as the skin continues to heave in the moist jungle heat, it no longer glistens with elaborately patterned tattoos.

Maisin women of Collingwood Bay, Oro Province. Maisin tattooing (buwaa) originated “when the heaven and earth appeared” and the Maisin people emerged from the ground far to the west. Tattoos were applied at the onset of puberty and particularly before the months leading to large public celebrations at which time the newly tattooed girls displayed themselves. Once married, women could not be tattooed. Maisin women were tattooed by close female relatives. Maisin tattoo kits were similar to other Papuan groups except that the pigment comes from an herb called buwa kain (“tattoo medicine”). Photograph circa 1900. And an old Motu warrior with headhunter’s tattoos on chest, ca. 1900. This man wears the gado motif on his torso and probably represented a tally of his victims. According to the early 20th century scholar A.C. Haddon, such chiefs had, “both upper arms tattooed, and two zigzag stripes down the middle of the back. They indicate that he has killed three people, two men and two women. Hila, the deposed chief of the Motu, and quite the modest man in Anuapata, is richly tattooed on the breast and on the arms down to the wrists. He bears on his chest the double obtuse-angled stripes like the gado of the women. Sometimes zigzag stripes are found only on young people. They are, in that case inherited from the father, and by no means signify that the party in question has killed any one.” Interestingly, the Sinagoro used a similar homicidal mark called mulavapuli. It was placed on both men and women of the Sinagoro tribe. It should be noted that root word “mulava” is the name given to an evil spirit who is believed to bring death.
Maisin women of Collingwood Bay, Oro Province who today are among the last coastal Papuans to wear tattoo. Maisin tattooing (buwaa) originated “when the heaven and earth appeared” and the Maisin people emerged from the ground far to the west. Tattoos were applied at the onset of puberty and particularly before the months leading to large public celebrations at which time the newly tattooed girls displayed themselves. Once married, women could not be tattooed. Maisin women were tattooed by close female relatives. Maisin tattoo kits were similar to other Papuan groups except that the pigment comes from an herb called buwa kain (“tattoo medicine”). Photograph circa 1900. And an old Motu warrior with headhunter’s tattoos on chest, ca. 1900. This man wears the gado motif on his torso and probably represented a tally of his victims. According to the early 20th century scholar A.C. Haddon, such chiefs had, “both upper arms tattooed, and two zigzag stripes down the middle of the back. They indicate that he has killed three people, two men and two women. Hila, the deposed chief of the Motu, and quite the modest man in Anuapata, is richly tattooed on the breast and on the arms down to the wrists. He bears on his chest the double obtuse-angled stripes like the gado of the women. Sometimes zigzag stripes are found only on young people. They are, in that case inherited from the father, and by no means signify that the party in question has killed any one.” Interestingly, the Sinagoro used a similar homicidal mark called mulavapuli. It was placed on both men and women of the Sinagoro tribe. It should be noted that root word “mulava” is the name given to an evil spirit who is believed to bring death.”

Today, coastal Papuan tattoo is an abstract art form barely recognizable and largely forgotten. Yet despite this, each indelible symbol allows us to dimly discern those concepts and ideologies of a cultural code that once served to represent the complex of life experience in the natural and spiritual worlds of the tribal headhunters of Papua New Guinea.

(left) On the deltoid region of her arm is the ialata pattern. This motif is related to the spinal column of a particular local fish. Throughout Polynesia and the Pacific, spinal or zigzag motifs are symbolic of genealogical relationships likened to a “family tree” of ancestors. The bina or “hornbill” pattern is oftentimes tattooed on the backs of the hands of Hula women. In this photograph, the bina perhaps denotes that her father was successful in a recent headhunting expedition. (center) Motu woman’s tattoos, ca. 1915. Like the Waima pattern, the V-shaped pattern denotes marriage. Among the Motu, the lower line is called sinana, mother, and the upper line natuna, the child. In the Sinagoro language, however, this motif is called “wing of flight.” The dot patterns likely represent stars and sparks – things which fly; and the diagonal gado motif running across the breasts perhaps denotes that her father was successful in a headhunting raid. (right) Mekeo woman with V-shaped chest tattoo denotes future marriage ties, and the “spirit-bird” (frigate) motif adorns her sternum below the neck, ca. 1915. The other designs are unknown although many appear on carved gourds. Amongst the Mekeo, gourds are associated with water and fertility.
(left) On the deltoid region of her arm is the ialata pattern. This motif is related to the spinal column of a particular local fish. Throughout Polynesia and the Pacific, spinal or zigzag motifs are symbolic of genealogical relationships likened to a “family tree” of ancestors. The bina or “hornbill” pattern is oftentimes tattooed on the backs of the hands of Hula women. In this photograph, the bina perhaps denotes that her father was successful in a recent headhunting expedition. (center) Motu woman’s tattoos, ca. 1915. Like the Waima pattern, the V-shaped pattern denotes marriage. Among the Motu, the lower line is called sinana, mother, and the upper line natuna, the child. In the Sinagoro language, however, this motif is called “wing of flight.” The dot patterns likely represent stars and sparks – things which fly; and the diagonal gado motif running across the breasts perhaps denotes that her father was successful in a headhunting raid. (right) Mekeo woman with V-shaped chest tattoo denotes future marriage ties, and the “spirit-bird” (frigate) motif adorns her sternum below the neck, ca. 1915. The other designs are unknown although many appear on carved gourds. Amongst the Mekeo, gourds are associated with water and fertility.

Literature

Barton, Francis R. (1918). “Tattooing in South Eastern New Guinea.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 48: 22-79.

Guise, R.E. (1899). “On the Tribes Inhabiting the Mouth of the Wanigela River, New Guinea.”Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Britain and Ireland 28(3-4): 205-219.

Haddon, Alfred C. (1894). The Decorative Art of British New Guinea: A Study in Papuan Ethnography. Dublin: Academy House.

Ison, Barry. (1974). “Motu Tattoos from Pari and Hanuabada.” Gigibori 1(1): 41-57.

Oldham, Roland V. (1934). “Tattooing of the Motu Tribe, Papua.” The Australian Museum Magazine 5: 269-272.