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.
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.
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.
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.
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.