Tattooing has a long history in Oceania. The first traces of tattooing in Polynesia date back 2,000 years! Today, tattooing is still a thriving art in The Islands of Tahiti, perhaps more than ever, an this despite having nearly disappeared when it was banned by the christian missionaries.

Every Polynesian culture has its own tattoos, with different designs, tools and techniques. A few centuries ago, one of the easiest ways to determine a Polynesian’s origins was to look at his tattoos. Every island had its own designs and some of the tattoos worn today still reveal the native island of the wearer, and even which family he belongs to. Ancient Polynesian’s didn’t have the written word, so a tattoo was a kind of identity card, that gave information about who the wearer was, where he came from, his status in society, occupation, family ties and even his passions.

Polynesian tattoos in the islands

Tattooing spread throughout the Polynesian Triangle, including New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island. However, its main center was, and still is, in the Marquesas Islands, where the complex themes of the designs are different and unique. The ancient tattoo artists were highly respected members of society with a status equivalent to that of priests. They etched the tattoos into the skin using a shark’s tooth comb struck repeatedly with a mallet.

A tattoo could take months to complete and was a very painful experience. Men who couldn’t put up with the pain and didn’t allow their tattoos to be finished were often marginalized. Bathing in seawater was the method of choice for reducing the risk of infection while the scars healed, although this certainly wouldn’t be recommended today! Generally , it would take about a year for an intricate tattoo to completely heal.

Significance of Polynesian tattoos

The position of a tattoo on the body was also important and had an effect on its significance. The body was considered the link between heaven and earth, with the upper body being associated with the spiritual world and the lower body to the earth. Tattoos on the back had an association with the past, and on the front with the future,. The left side of the body was associated with women and the right with men.

In ancient times, you could identify the wearer’s social status through his tattoos. Some designs were reserved for the gods, others for priests and others for the ari’i. A tattoo of the type hui ari’i was for chiefs, while the hui to’a, hui ra’atira, ‘īato’ai, and manahune were for war chiefs and warriors, dancers, canoeists and others of the same class.


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