The Revival of Polynesian Lost Art

 

The role of tattooing in ancient Polynesian society: As there is no writing in the Polynesian culture, the Polynesians used this art full of distinctive signs to express their identity and personality. Tattoos would indicate status in a hierarchy society: sexual maturity, genealogy and one's rank within society. Nearly everyone in ancient Polynesian society was tattooed.
The revival of Polynesian lost art: Shortly after the missionaries arrival (1797) the practice was strictly banned, as the Old Testament forbids it. In recent years, however, the art of tattooing has enjoyed a renaissance in the early 1980’s. Polynesians are once again taking pride and interest in their cultural heritage, finding their identity in the revival of many lost arts. Tattooing with traditional tools was banned in French Polynesia in 1986 by the Ministry of Health due to the difficulty in sterilizing the wooden and bone equipment.
Tahitian art vs Marquesan tattoos: There is a distinctions between  ancient Tahitian and Marquesan tattoos that is often misunderstood, as explains Tricia Allen, academic in Polynesian culture. “They were very different in  ancient times. Today few know or realize the difference. Very few know anything about the Tahitian tradition -- even in Tahiti! In fact, in 13 trips to Tahiti, I have yet to meet anyone wearing Tahitian designs! Except one mark on Raymond Graff's torso.” (Raymond Graffe is a “tahua”, a Tahitian shaman.)

 

1595: European explorers discover Polynesian tattooing

 

 

The early Spanish explorer Mendaña “discovered” the Fenua Enana Islands in 1595 and baptized this archipelago Marquises Islands.
But the first descriptions of Polynesian tattooing were written almost 2 centuries later by English Captain Samuel Wallis, French explorer Bougainville and English Captain Cook.
In 1767, Wallis had noticed that it was a “universal custom among men and women to get their buttocks and the back of their thighs painted with thin black lines representing different figures”.
The next year (1768) Bougainville reported in that "the women of Tahiti dye their loins and buttocks a deep blue”.
Height year later (1774), Captain Cook returning from his trip to the Marquises Islands, wrote in his diary “they print signs on people’s body and call this tattow”.
Ma’i (called by the English Omai), the first Tahitian to travel to Europe (with Captain Cook) became rapidly famous partly because of his tattoos.

 

Traditional tattooing tools

 

Traditional tattooing tools consist of a comb with needles carved from bone or tortoiseshell, fixed to a wooden handle. The needles are dipped into a pigment made from the soot of burnt candlenut mixed with water or oil.
The needles are then placed on the skin and the handle is tapped with a second wooden stick, causing the comb to pierce the skin and insert the pigment. The name tatau comes from the sound of this tapping.

 

Sacred art performed by shamans

 

 

According to the mythology, the 2 sons of the God of Creation Ta’aroa taught the art of tattooing to humans. It was a tapu or sacred art form. It was performed by shamans (tahua) who were highly trained in the religious ritual, the meaning of the designs and technical aspects of the art.
The designs and their location on the body were determined by one's genealogy, position within the society and personal achievements.
In preparation for the tattooing, one would have to undergo a period of cleansing. This generally involved fasting for a specified length of time and abstaining from sexual intercourse or contact with women.
Dr. ROLLIN described the art of tattooing the following way: “The patient was immobilized most frequently in a sort of vise composed of two trunks of banana trees between which he was attached and held tight. The tattooer, accompanied by his assistants, sang a sort of chant of the occasion syncopated to the rhythm of the tapping of his little mallet. Each drop of blood was rapidly wiped up with a scrap of tapa, so that none be allowed to fall to the ground”. (Note: the tapa is a piece of cloth made out of the bark of a tree beaten with a heavy stick).

 

Traditional tattoo designs

 

 

The traditional tattoo designs, which disappeared after their ban by the first missionaries, reappeared recently thanks to the notes and sketches of over 400 drawings made by missionary Karl Von Steinen! Traditional designs can be divided into 2 groups: 
- Enata: natural symbols representing one’s life history, island of origin, social level, work and activities. These motives were also related to seduction. A fisherman for example could have symbols protecting him from sharks, or a warrior against his enemies.
- Etua: mystic symbols representing past ancestors - chiefs and shamans - and the gods (Tiki). These symbols would confer honor amongst the tribe and protection from gods (against natural dangers and evil spirits). Etua symbols are closely related to the mana – the spiritual force. The mana was inherited from ancestors but the people were supposed to develop and master this power.
Joseph Banks (naturalist on Captain’s Cook first travel) wrote: “Men and women usually carry a Z-mark on each articulation of their toes and fingers and sometimes around their feet. They also have signs representing squares, circles, human faces, birds, dogs painted on their arms and legs.”

 

Tattooing indicated status

 

 

Tattooing was begun at adolescence. Teenagers (around 12 years) were tattooed to mark the passage between childhood and adulthood. Different tattoos were added with the passing of years. The more a man was tattooed, the more prestige he had.
Tattooing was not only a sign of wealth, but also a sign of strength and power. Therefore chiefs and warriors generally had the most elaborate tattoos. Men without any tattoo were despised, whereas those whose bodies were completely tattooed – the to’oata – were greatly admired.

 

The tattooing of women

 

 

Girls right hand was tattooed by the age of twelve. Only after that were they allowed to prepare the meals and to participate in the rubbing of dead bodies with coconut oil.
The tattoos of women were less extensive than the tattoos seen on men; generally being limited to the hand, arms, feet, ears and lips. Women of rank or wealth may have their legs tattooed as well.

 

Tattoo today

 

 

Today, you will find many places to get tattooed in French Polynesia (see the list of tattooist).
The most popular and appreciated designs are the tiki, the turtle, the gecko, the ray, the shark, the dolphin, as well as a lot of abstracts symbolic designs.
You will find the meaning of most of them included inside each Tahiti Tatou multi-tattoo pouch.
The first international festival of tattooing was organized in April 2000 on the “sacred island” of Raiatea. It gathered 50 tattoo masters from all over the world and encountered a big success. Tahiti Tatou was there too, “tattooing for a week” hundreds of kids and adults not ready for a permanent design!

 

Go to Celtic Tattoo History & Symbolism >>

 

Go to Japan Tattoo History & Symbolism >>

 

Go to Ta Moko History & Symbolism >>

 

Go to Traditional Dayak Tattoo In Borneo >>

 

www.nushostattoo.com

created with atropa workshop toolz