The Marquesas, Tattoo Art

Historically there was no writing in Polynesian culture, so the Polynesian’s used tattoo art filled with distinctive symbols to express their uniqueness and individuality. Tattoos can indicate status in a hierarchical society as well as sexual maturity, genealogy and one’s rank within the local society. Nearly everyone in ancient Polynesian society was tattooed. Tattooing has a long history in the Oceania region, with some of the earliest examples of Polynesian tattoo art showing up more than 2,000 years ago. Each Polynesian culture has its own interpretation on tattoos, from the varied motifs to the tools and techniques. The work is often intricate and deeply meaningful.

French Polynesia, farewell.

The Polynesian islands that were first visited were the Marquesas Islands, which were found by European explorers and the Spanish navigator, Alvaro de Mendana de Neira, in 1595. However, the European navigators showed little interest due to the lack of valuable resources. Captain James Cook was the first navigator trying to explore the Polynesian triangle. In 1771, when James Cook first returned to Tahiti and New Zealand from his first voyage, the word “tattoo” appeared in Europe. He described the behaviors of the Polynesian people in his voyage, which he called tattaw. He also brought a Tahitian named Ma’i to Europe and since then tattoo started to become rapidly famous, primarily because of the tattoos of Ma’i.

Hiva Oa

My epic Journey on Lindblad National Geographic Ship Orion from Papeete to the Marquesas yielded a small collection of photos of local tattoo art.  I expected to discover more, however the locals were very pleased to let me photograph their body art. One man in Fatu Hiva asked me for $30 to photograph him, he explained there was no work on his island. I later discovered he told another guest five dollars. Lesson: hard not to look like a tourist on remote islands! Half of his face was tattooed, a work in progress, and I didn’t provide the additional funds for the second half.

A few centuries ago, one of the easiest ways to figure out where a Polynesian person came from was to look at their tattoos. Marquesan art and architecture were highly developed and Marquesan tattoo designs, which often covered the whole body, were the most intricate in Polynesia.

Tools of the Trade. Although many years have passed, the tools and techniques of Polynesian tattooing have changed very little. For a very traditional design the skill of tattoo art was usually handed down through generations. Each tattoo artist, or tufaga, was said to have learned the craft over many years of serving as an apprentice. A young artist in training often spent hours at a time, or even days, tapping designs into sand or bark-cloth using a special tattooing comb or au. The tattoo master was a highly-regarded position within the ancient Polynesian culture. Regarded as spiritual leaders, these individuals had many responsibilities, from mastering the art of Polynesian tattooing to extensive travel within islands to perform their rites. The position was so demanding that they rarely had families.

Placement on the body plays a very important role in Polynesian tattooing. There are a few elements that are related to specific meanings based on where they are placed. A tattoo placement above the waist indicates that the design is related to someone’s spiritual nature or the heavens. If the tattoo is below the waist, then it goes down into the earth. The placements of some elements on the body, such as genealogy tracks on the back of the arms, suggest that the back may be related to the past and the front to the future.

In ancient times, you could distinguish the social class of the tattooed subject, as some were intended for gods, others for priests and still more for ari’i. The hui ari’i type is reserved for chiefs, whereas those of the hui to’a, hui ra’atira and ‘īato’ai, and manahune types are seen on war leaders, warriors, dancers, rowers and people of similar classes.

French Polynesia

Geometric patterns are the most common element you’ll see. The shapes, placement and other details change dramatically depending on the tattoo master, the location and other factors. For example, Tongan warriors had triangles and solid black parts that were placed down to their knees from their waists.

Welcome at Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas

As beautiful of a practice as it is, Polynesian tattooing almost suffered the fate of extinction. When Catholic and Protestant missionaries came to the islands in the 1800s, they forced islanders to dress in traditional English styles, therefore covering tattoos. Eventually, tattoos were banned, but as the 1980s came about, Polynesians started reclaiming their cultural identity. Since then, the practice has been revived and now flourishes throughout the islands.

Fatu Hiva French Polynesia
Hiva-Oa French Polynesia

French Polynesia Headdress

In the travel world, there are organized Journeys known as a FAM, a familiarization trip to introduce you to hotels or countries. Days packed with movement, multiple site inspections interspersed with elaborate dining. Numerous whirlwind days when I often can’t remember what town we were in or which hotel. I prefer to create my own fam trips! Some Journeys are imprinted by the people you meet along the way, a simple act of kindness or generosity that make a site memorable. My Lindblad National Geographic Orion sailing adventure from Papeete to the Marquesas was extraordinary but memorizing the harbors and multi-syllabic atolls and islands was challenging! The charming people of each village fashioned my memories, especially the women wearing traditional flower headdresses. An enchanting recollection enhanced by their unpretentious beauty and ever so casual descriptions on making these, by my standard, elaborate floral hats. Beautiful, welcoming and humble women, a true joy to meet them.

French Polynesia Floral Headdress and a tattoo!

Passengers arriving in Tahiti are gifted with handmade floral leis when you arrive at the airport. Usually one spends a night in Papeete before embarking on an island adventure. The air at the nearby Intercontinental Hotel is heavily scented by trees and bushes that bloom year-round. However, it is in the remote Marquesas Islands where flowers are intricately woven into the fabric of everyday life. The beautiful women wear extravagant handmade floral headdresses. Often referred to as simply “hei,” the formal name for these headdresses is “umu hei.” A contraction of two Polynesian words, “umu” means aphrodisiac and “hei” is the Polynesian word for wreath. Women believe that wearing a crown of flowers heightens their sensuality and makes them more attractive to the opposite sex. Wouldn’t you agree they are charming?

Young girls learn their native traditions at the visitor welcome performances

You might also see a range of native flowers woven into the Tahitian headpiece, including hibiscus, frangipani or plumeria, and of course, the greatest symbol of the islands of Tahiti, the tiare flower. Everyone wears the fragrant white tiare flower behind an ear. If you wear the flower behind your left ear, the heart side, it means you’re married or taken or not interested in a relationship. Behind your right ear, it means you’re searching for love. And if woven in the hair and placed behind the head? That means “follow me”. The French post-Impressionist artist Paul Gaugin, inspired by the beauty of the Marquesas Islands and their inhabitants, did not fail to capture these flower-related practices in his paintings.

Flowers are an important part of the culture and history of French Polynesia. On the atoll of Fakarava, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and second-largest atoll in French Polynesia, we motored in to shore and rode bikes around the small atoll. Fakarava has 837 inhabitants; the main village is Rotoava. An outdoor Catholic Mass yielded a small parish of radiant bedecked women. Mass was a combination of French and local language, in a garden grotto due to construction on their church. Village women in brightly colored floral muumuu’s and straw hats festooned with brilliantly hued flowers quieted young children, fanned themselves and sang hymns. Some adornment made of dried leaves were just as attractive. It was Mother’s Day and the ladies would celebrate with a craft fair presenting their shell and bead jewelry. Photos and shopping, I was thrilled to spend more time with these artistic ladies.

Mothers Day on Fakarava at the craft fair

On the island of Fatu Hiva, our welcoming singers and dancers were also bedecked in splendid floral headdresses. A village woman described the simple process: she picks a few garden flowers and assembles an elaborate wreath in a matter of minutes, it’s very easy! Obviously, a clever islander with years of experience. One of my favorite decorated women played a guitar in the welcoming band, a massive green leaf headdress drew all eyes to her.

Fatu Hiva – what an amazing headdress and flower behind her left ear

Hiva-Oa, the second largest island in the Marquesas and where Gauguin is buried, presented a small museum shop where I discovered my woven headdress, the picture-perfect adornment for evening cocktails!


Tahitian headpieces, or Tahitian flower crowns, are common throughout the islands of Tahiti. Worn by locals in order to celebrate a special occasion or simply, celebrate the beauty of everyday life. While some Tahitian headpieces can be very elaborate, it is not uncommon to see a simple crown made only from woven ti leaves.

There are many types of Tahitian headpieces beyond the simple flower crown. Typically, you will see the more elaborate forms only in Tahitian dance numbers. The headbands are sometimes woven with palm fronds or tapa cloth which gives the headpiece structure. Intricate designs and embellishments such as flowing raffia, feathers, mother-of-pearl, or black pearl, are often added as well.

Hiva-Oa local woman with garden flower headdress, which she assembled ‘in minutes’!
American Tourist who purchased her woven headdress on Hiva-Oa.