Tahitian Body Art

Tahitian tattoos

To many, the word “Tattoo” conjures up images of bikers, sailors, and pop icons. However, in the South Pacific, Tahitian body art opens a window to the soul. Did you know that the word, “tattoo” comes from the Tahitian word “Tatau,” which means, “to mark something?”

A Polynesian tradition

As the Polynesians sailed eastward, they established their dominance in what is commonly referred to as the “Polynesian Triangle.” To envision this area, draw three points from the Easter Islands to New Zealand, and back up to Hawaii, with Tahiti as the bull’s eye.

 

Polynesian Triangle
1. Hawaii 2. New Zealand 3. Easter Island 4. Samoa 5. Tahiti

Evidence of Polynesian body art dates back 2,000 years. The naturalist aboard “the HMS Endeavour” (Captain Cook’s ship), Joseph Banks, first mentioned the word “tattoo” in his journal.  It was then Cook who introduced the  word Tattoo top Europe upon his return.

In the Marquesas Islands, famed for their tattoos, a tattoo artist is known as a Tuhuna Patu Tiki. It is thought by Tahitian traditionalists that the body art masters possess the inner nature that embodies the images they ink. This allows them the ability to weave key meanings and memories into the work they do for each person. They are believed to be able to articulate various meanings by combining different Polynesian symbols and icons together. As a result, an artist’s work can become highly regarded in the Tahitian community and lore.

Tattoos carry a signature

local Tahitians tattoo
Carl with locals at a Tahitian Restaurant

In Ireland, the British Isles, and Scandinavia, it is common to have sweater knit styles that designate who a person is, where they are from, and so forth. In Tahiti, tattoos traditionally follow this same idea.

The tattoo patterns of each Polynesian region vary, as do those who wear them. For example, back in the day, all high-ranking officials were tattooed, but those occupying the lowest social status were largely tattoo-free.

Body art has also never been relegated to one sex. While men exhibit the highest tattoo density and variety, women often display them on their feet, hands, arms, ears, and lips. For both sexes, the face is always considered the most sacred place for tattoos as they are highly visible, painful to apply, and time-consuming for the artist.

Getting a lasting remembrance of your trip to Tahiti

Tattoo Artist James Samuela – Moorea Tattoo

During the 18th century, Catholic and Protestant missionaries started to push hard for the abolition of the art. Their case was grounded in Leviticus 19:28, the one and only place in the Bible that mentions tattoos (“… and do not mark your skin with tattoos.”). Adding fuel to the argument against tattoos were the cleanliness and hygiene issues of the early ages.

While traditional, antiquated, tattooing instruments were banned in Tahiti in 1986, thanks to modern tools and sterilization, the practice is back in full fashion for both Polynesians and their guests.  And if you really want to get a tattoo done in the traditional manner this is available for those willing to brave the pain for the bragging rights and experience.

Are you interested in the ultimate Tahitian souvenir?  Let me know when we are planning your trip and I can put you in touch with a Tattoo artist in advance so you can confirm an appointment and plan your unique and lasting souvenir!

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Carl Henderson