INSET: The gorgeous Motu village of Tubuseria. Field research for this article would not have been possible without the assistance of journalist David Lornie and Nata Richards (Hula). I thank you both!
Article © 2018 Lars Krutak
PAPUA NEW GUINEA (PNG) is the second largest island in the world. Although it is roughly the size of California, it is one of the most rural countries on the planet and only 18 percent of its six million inhabitants live in urban areas. Incredibly, over 800 indigenous languages are spoken in PNG: a statistic that accounts for 1/5 of the world’s total.
Just as PNG is linguistically diverse, it is also an ecological and geographical wonder. From snow-capped peaks reaching heights of 14,793 feet, to steamy rain-soaked jungles and volcanically active islands, PNG is a virtual treasure trove of natural beauty waiting for the intrepid traveler.
But it is also one of the final frontiers of women’s tribal tattooing culture. And as far back as the old men and women can remember, tattooing has been a tribal custom of nearly every coastal people. Here, among the Motu, Waima, Aroma, Inland Aroma, Hula, Mekeo, Korafe, Maisin, and Miniafia, women were heavily tattooed from head to toe, resulting in some of the most complete body coverage in the indigenous world.
COLLINGWOOD BAY: KORAFE, MINIAFIA & MAISIN
I think one of the reasons why so very few outsiders have studied tattooing in PNG recently is that it is a dangerous (and expensive) place. Leaving the capital Port Moresby for the coastal hinterlands is certainly not for the faint of heart, as bandits roam certain sections of highway. Buses, personal vehicles, and other forms of motorized people-movers are all vulnerable to such attacks. So if you are in search of tattoos in remote villages and need to travel the roads, it pays to have a local guide.
Luckily, getting to Collingwood Bay from the capital does not entail highway driving, but airline tickets are expensive by local (and international) standards and the flight schedules are random. First you take a puddle jumper from Port Moresby to Popondetta and then you sit outside the “terminal” in searing tropical heat waiting for the next scheduled flight to appear from the sky. But the experience is highly rewarding, and the journey along the coast is spectacular because the coral reefs offshore are said to hold “more fish than water.”
Although the ethnic groups of Collingwood Bay have distinct languages, they often intermarried and women all shared similar forms of bold facial tattooing. Traditionally, tattooing (bua, Maisin) here was female-focused and signified a girl’s transition from childhood into a marriageable young woman. In the Korafe region the tattooing (buaré) of young girls, typically between the ages of 12 to 14, by female tattooists has continued until recent times, but the custom became abandoned in the 1980s among the Miniafia and Maisin tribes. Today, tattooing for all groups has become more a symbol of identity instead of one that marks an individual’s rite of passage through early life stages.
Maisin tattooing originated “when the heaven and earth appeared,” a mythical time when the Maisin say they emerged from the ground far to the west. Prior to the actual tattooing rite, one or more girls were brought to the house of the tattoo artist (bua’ ta). There they remained for one or more months as the facial tattoos were applied in several successive layers. Those girls who were “strong” could complete their tattooing in three painful sessions, whereas others had to endure five of six rounds with the tattooist. The tattoos were applied via hand-tapping and a lemon or orange thorn was attached at a right angle to a green stick and worked under the skin with a mallet. Tattoo pigment was vegetable charcoal. It was taboo for men to witness the tattooing, otherwise it was believed a girl’s wounds would not heal; also, no person was allowed to view the girls as their tattoos healed. For this reason, when girls had to relieve themselves outside they were compelled to cover their faces with barkcloth (tapa). Tattoo recipients were also tabooed from certain foods.
One Korafe woman named Daphne told me that fish with spines, hot food, or crabs were forbidden. Maisin informants stated that if crabs or spiny fish were eaten, an unpleasant feeling would overcome the tattoo recipient during their tattooing – a feeling likened to bony creatures crawling across the face. A type of plant medicine (uwgha, Korafe; bua kain, Maisin) was applied to heal the wounds.
After a young woman received her tattoos, large public celebrations were held at which time the newly tattooed displayed themselves to the community. Once married, a woman was not allowed to be tattooed.
SOUTHWEST COAST: MOTU, HULA, AROMA, & INLAND AROMA
Among the Motu, Hula, Aroma and Inland Aroma people, bold facial and body tattoos were applied to the body at certain life stages, with the hands, arms, and face being tattooed at the age of five to seven; shortly thereafter, the abdomen, navel, vulva, and inner thighs were marked. About the age of ten, the armpits down to the nipples, and throat were tattooed. When puberty was reached, the back, buttocks, outer thighs and legs were inked, and when a girl reached marriageable age V-shaped designs from the neck down to the navel were added.
Traditionally, most Motu tattoo sessions were performed in relation to lengthy and dangerous trading expeditions called hiri that were undertaken by large double hulled sea-going canoes (lakatoi). Hiri expeditions, which were symbolically complex, typically lasted six to eight months, and in rare instances one or more years. During the hiri, the first-born daughters of the lakatoi owner and part owners were secluded in a village house, along with 10 to 15 daughters of lakatoi expedition members, until the voyage had been completed.
During the girls’ seclusion, many ritual restrictions were placed on the girls and female “guardians” watched their every move, because breach of taboo could spell disaster for the hiri. For example, girls were compelled to sleep on their backs (faces up) every evening, because if they slept on their sides or on their stomach it was believed that these movements would capsize the lakatoi on the open sea. Girls were also forbidden from consuming large meals, because this action might “sink” the boat or make the lakatoi “heavy,” resulting in its inability to move quickly on its journey. Moreover, girls could not sit cross-legged upon the floor of the seclusion house and whenever they prepared to sit or stand they first walked in a circle, so as to help propel the lakatoi on its journey. I was told that men on the sea canoes would know that rules had been broken in the seclusion house if they encountered frequent big waves and violent storms during their voyage.
Girls could not visit their boyfriends during their period of seclusion and they were kept under lock and key at all times, especially after they were tattooed in the seclusion house.
Girls that were third, fourth, or fifth born daughters could also be tattooed after a hiri returned to their home village, but more ceremonial emphasis was placed on the tattooing of an expedition leader’s eldest daughter (hudiha hahine) and her cohorts. This custom is linked to an ancient myth where the first lakatoi builder mandated that the eldest girls in seclusion should be tattooed by female relatives while the expedition was at sea. The mythic creator of the hiri also instated the religious taboos that were to be obeyed while the girls where in seclusion.
Once the lakatoi returned, the newly tattooed hudiha hahine and a few pairs of other girls were washed, oiled with coconut oil, and dressed in new grass skirts. Then they boarded a small canoe to meet the lakatois anchored offshore. Due to the lengthy period of seclusion, the girls’ skin had become pale and this enhanced the boldness of their newly acquired tattoos. The girls then sang songs of welcome, the verses being repeated several times over, and one of these tunes, recorded in the village of Gaba Gaba, is as follows:
“At low tide, we will hold hands and we will swing our grass skirts; to welcome our lakatois coming in;
Two or three pairs of us will always welcome our lakatois home; that brings us wealth from the Gulf.”
Girls that were not first-born could also be tattooed during minor village events, especially while turtle hunters where out at sea. For example, certain clans were specialists in turtle hunting and these animals were captured in large nets. Turtle hunting expeditions typically lasted two weeks and while men were out hunting, girls that were not firstborn would be secluded in a village house and tattooed. Here, they observed the same ritual restrictions as first-born daughters during the hiri seclusions.
First-born daughters were entitled to special facial and leg designs. These motifs proclaimed to all villagers that their fathers had successfully participated in hiri expeditions. Younger daughters of hiri leaders, or those that were not first-born, were not allowed to wear these designs.
NORTHWEST COAST: WAIMA & MEKEO
Between 1899 and 1907, the colonial British administrator of Papua New Guinea Capt. Francis R. Barton shot hundreds of photographs of Papuan peoples, including dozens of images of tattooed women from the various tribes he visited on his official tours. Due to the photographic technology of the time, he over-painted many of the tattoo designs he encountered so that they would show more clearly in his photographic negatives. Barton’s tattoo research was groundbreaking in many respects. First, he recorded the names of many tattooing motifs that have long since been forgotten and captured others that have faded into history. Interestingly, in the 100+ year period since Barton created his body of photographic work, only a handful of researchers have attempted to retrace his steps, but these writers have only focused their attention on the tattooing traditions of the Motu people living in and around the capital of Port Moresby. Thus, one of the goals of my PNG trip was to visit those tattooing tribes that Barton documented so long ago, including the Waima who might be the most heavily tattooed of all.
There are characteristic tattooing motifs that are shared amongst coastal women living north and south of Port Moresby. The V-shaped tattoo (mairi mairi) extending from the shoulders to between the breasts signified that a woman had reached marriageable age or had been betrothed. But among the Waima, there are other tattooing motifs that only occur among this group. For example, the Waima centipede (ra’a ra’a) design covered a woman’s abdomen and navel and frigate bird markings (areau) were tattooed below the neck in between the V-shaped pattern. Although the Waima women I met could no longer remember the significance of centipede and frigate bird designs, both creatures are widely used across Pacific tattooing cultures.
After young Waima girls were tattooed, they were compelled to fast for five days. During this period, they could only eat food with a fork and never with their bare hands. Once a girl was ready to be washed, she was led down to the ocean and bathed with an unidentified local herb and seawater. A girl who was not completely tattooed was called uahoho, but once she received a full set of tattoos she was considered “fully tattooed” (uaho) and ready for marriage.
For girls that had been fully tattooed, a feast was prepared to celebrate their transition into adulthood (note: several girls of the same age-set were usually tattooed together). The girls formed a procession and were led through the village to publically display their newly transformed bodies. Unmarried young men would show their admiration by throwing betel nut skins at the women. Then a special song was sung and repeated several times by the women:
“Uaho Patsi Raka Raka;
Shell ornaments hang down,
Hibitoi, Haba toi;
From our backs…”
Then, the men would counter and repeat this verse several times:
Let me dance, you are ready to be married.”