The practise of tattooing in ancient Polynesian society was used to denote hierarchy, sexual maturity, and blood line, and most people bore tattoos. After the missionaries arrived in Polynesia in 1797, the practise of tattooing was banned as it was felt that the art contradicted the teachings of the Bible's Old Testament, but since the 1980's, a revival of Polynesian tattoing has spread from Polynesia across the globe as these beautiful designs, and the meanings behind them have fascinated new generations and audiences.
History of Polynesian TattooingWhen Mendana , the Spanish explorer, found the islands of Fenua Enana in 1595, he named the archipelago (chain of islands) the Marquises Islands, however it was the English Sea Captains, Samuel Wallis, and Cook, as well as French explorer Bougainville who first described Polynesian tattoing to the West over 200 years later. Samuel Wallis in 1767 said that there 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." Bougainville said that "The women of Tahiti dye their loins and buttocks a deep blue" in 1768. In 1774, Captain Cook wrote in his diary that the Polynesian people "Print signs on peoples' bodies and call this Tattow".
Traditional Polynesian Tattooing ToolsNeedles carved from bone or Tortoise shell form a comb which is then fitted to a wooden handle. After being dipped into a pigment made from the soot of burnt candlenut mixed with water or oil, the comb of needles is placed on the desired area of skin, and tapped with another stick to form the image by piercing the skin's surface, allowing the ink deep into the skin's broken layers. The word tatau is said to come from the sound of this hand tapping
The sacred aspects of Polynesian tattoingPolynesian culture viewed tattoing as a sacred art or 'Tapu', and it was performed by Shamans (Tahua) who were highly trained in the technical aspects of the art, the meanings of the desings, as well as the rituals associated with the process. A period of cleansing was often undertaken before receiving a tattoo, including abstaining from food, sex, and contact with women for a specific amount of time. The positioning of the tattoos was based on your blood line, social rank, and your personal acchievements. At about 12 years of age, the first tattoos would be performed on ancient Polynesians to mark the passage between childhood and adulthood, and more were added as your experience and prestige grew. Tattoos were also a sign of power and prestige, and not having any meant you were despised for your lack of these attributes. Chiefs and warriors wore the most elaborate tattoos due to their status, and power within the social hierarchy. Girls also received their first tattoos around the age of twelve - the first being a hand tattoo which allowed them to take part in acivities such as the preparation of foods, and the rubbing of dead bodies with coconut oil - before the tattoos were completed, participation in these activities was prohibited. Although much less elaborate than the male tattoos, the Polynesian womens' tattoos were still extensive, although usually limited to certain parts of the body such as hands, arms, feet, lips, and ears, although prestigious women also could have their legs tattooed.
Traditional Polynesian Tattoo DesignsEnata designs are natural designs that come to symbolize a person’s life history, island of origin, social level, type of work done, etc. For example, if you were a fisherman, you might have a symbol that is there to protect you from dangerous sharks, or to protect your fishing vessel.
The Etua designs have a much stronger spiritual, magical or religious meaning to them, and might show particular honour to one or more people in a tribe, or offer protection by the gods.
Tiki:Tiki is a god, most often depicted with his eyes closed. His eyes are closed because Tiki is reported to smell trouble before he sees it.
Shells:Shells represent wealth to the Polynesian cultures, most likely because they were used as a type of currency.
Sharks’ teeth:Tattoos of sharks’ teeth denote protection.
Sharks:Sharks were sacred animals. Powerful and mighty, Polynesian shark tattoos were often used as a protection from enemies.
Turtles:Turtles symbolized fertility and long life.
Gecko:The gecko is supposed to have supernatural powers, and is regarded by Polynesians with fear and awe. It is rumored that if a green gecko “laughs” at you, it’s a terrible omen of illness and bad fortune.
Even though Polynesian tattoing has had more than its fair share of adversaries, this beautiful art form is once again flourishing both in its homeland and abroad.
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