Polynesian tattooing tools

Fiji and Tahiti, 19th century

[b]Top:[/b] Collected by Sir William McGregor and H. A. Tufnell, and donated by Henry Anson in 1899; 1899.62.432[br][b]Bottom:[/b] Founding collection; 1884.85.10Top: Collected by Sir William McGregor and H. A. Tufnell, and donated by Henry Anson in 1899; 1899.62.432
Bottom: Founding collection; 1884.85.10
These two tools illustrate traditional methods of creating particular effects in Polynesian tattooing. The tool at the top from Fiji has a head made of an iridescent material – possibly mother-of-pearl – shaped into a series of needle points and set at right angles into a wooden handle. Both the plant fibre binding and the handle are stained with dark blue pigment, suggesting repeated use in tattooing. Below is a smaller implement from Tahiti with an ergonomically tapered handle and a broad head edged with small serrated teeth, designed to create finer patterns on the skin.

No story of world tattooing would be complete without a large chapter devoted to Polynesia. It was in Tahiti, an island in French Polynesia, where Captain Cook is famously said to have reported the sight of native peoples with 'tatau'. Such was the impact of this never-before-seen body art upon his crews that tattooing caught on among British sailors. By the 1830s, just fifty years later, most British ports had at least one professional tattoo artist in residence.

In Polynesia and areas of Micronesia that share much in the way of Polynesian culture and social organization – places such as the Gilbert and Ellice Islands (Kiribati), the Caroline Islands and the Marshall Islands – tattooing has a quasi-religious origin. According to mythology, humans learned tattooing from the Gods. Therefore it acquired special status as a treasured family and cultural inheritance, to be applied not spontaneously but in a careful and ceremonial context by revered masters in the art. In addition it was believed that a person's mana, their life force was expressed through their tattoos. In some places in Polynesia tattooing has become merely decorative but in others it retains this spiritual aspect. The special qualities still attributed to tattoos are illustrated by this contemporary account by a woman from the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia, who recalls her childhood encounter with the 'tattoo lady' of her village:

"I couldn't see what she saw. I didn't have any tattoo around my lips and on my chin, and I couldn't shut my mouth for very long. I didn't have any tattoo on my forehead, and I couldn't concentrate on the ocean's language..."

Rai A. Mai (2005)

Like elsewhere in Oceania, Polynesian tattoos were usually monochrome and made use of zones and bands rendered in other art forms such as bark-cloth and pottery. The designs, as expected, draw on shapes and objects used or revered among the islanders. In Tahiti, both men and omen were tattooed, the women with characteristic designs on the feet and ankles resembling 'socks'. For men, weapon motifs were popular, often having a protective as well as decorative function, analogous to the magical tattoos (kakau) of spearheads worn by Hawaiian warriors. Here, as on Tahiti, the traditional images of clubs and spears were supplemented with swords, muskets, cannon and pistols after contact. The Tahitians also managed to realistically depict European measuring instruments and compasses. On the Cook Islands one design depicted a comet with a curved tail. The comet represented the star Maurua, which was used as a navigational reference point by Polynesian mariners.

Complex and varied combinations of recognized designs and motifs could be used to signify a individual's identity with exactness, reflecting the complex system of kinship, chiefly rank, and mixed marriages among, for example, Fijians, Tongans and Samoans. On the Marquesas Islands – where arguably tattooing reached the greatest heights of artistry in its studied accentuation of the body's contours – upper class men and women had the backs of their hands tattooed to indicate their social status. More tattoos did not always mean more importance however: in Tonga, where most men were tattooed, the sacred paramount chief, the Tu'i Tonga, was distinguishable by his lack of tattoos.

In Fiji, where the most esteemed tattoo artists were women, older women had tattoos around the corners of the mouth that not only spoke of how many children she had but also disguised the wrinkles that form in that area of the face as a result of ageing. Fijian women also wore sexually significant tattoos on the groin and buttocks, which were often considered her 'best ornament'. In contrast, women on Hawaii were not tattooed much but did receive tattoos on the tongue (a painful process) as a sign of mourning. Tattooing and bereavement also merged on Rorotonga, the most populous of the Cook Islands, but here mourning patterns were tattooed on the neck and chest.

Traditionally Polynesian girls and boys received their first tattoos at the onset of puberty that were then added to over time so that sometimes it took decades to decorate the whole body. This was partly due to the pain involved. Whilst high esteem was generally accorded to those whose extensive tattoos demonstrated powers of endurance, the degree to which pain could be alleviated varied between cultures. On the Marquesas Islands, the artist might have chanted songs or soothed the wounds between sittings with a hibiscus and banana ointment. Elsewhere, where tattooing was regarded as a collective experience, high-ranking initiates were accompanied by a commoner who was tattooed simultaneously so that they might 'share the pain'.

The recent revival of tattooing in Polynesia is part of a wider resurgence of Polynesian culture, including tapa making, weaving, carving and dance that began in the early 1980s. As the Marquesan writer Rai A. Mai said of this time; "every Polynesian wanted, stamped into the skin, a sign of cultural belonging." Initially, traditional wooden and bone tools such as those shown here were used but since they could not be easily sterilized, the authorities banned them on health grounds in 1986. Since then, electric machines, sometimes formed out of parts of electric razors, have been used instead. On Tahiti, where many of the indigenous designs were lost with the disruption of European contact in the 18th and 19th centuries, many present-day Tahitians are tattooed with Marquesan designs copied or adapted from older sources in a new style called manoa.

Sometimes such blending of old and new can lead to misinterpretations: in the 1920s and 1930s the anthropologist Willowdean C. Handy published well-known books about Marquesan art. Over time, prints and copies of individual pages of these books became available in Tahiti and the Society Islands. One enthusiastic young tattooist saw a series of drawn tattoo designs that the author had listed in the order a, aa, b, bb, c, cc and so on. This technique employed by Handy simply to categorize the motifs was interpreted by the young tattooist as a long-lost Tahitian alphabet so he began to incorporate it into his designs. Even though historically Polynesian languages were oral rather than written, this trend stuck and it is now possible on your next visit to the South Pacific to get a tattoo of your name in 'ancient Tahitian'.

© 2011 - The Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, England