The islands see a plethora of visitors all through the year. Tahiti is among the most popular of these islands. Many are drawn to the beauty of these islands which have some of the most beautiful beaches and seascapes. In addition to its natural beauty Polynesia is also a world replete with some of the most of the ancient traditions and rituals. It is this colorful culture and rich heritage which draws many visitors to this land.
Among the many visible and unique traditions of this land the art of tattooing is the most striking and noticeable. The series of lines, circles and different symbols and signs tattooed onto the skin have a story of their own to tell. The art of tattooing has been a part of the Polynesian culture for many centuries. According to Polynesian mythology Mata Arhu and Tu Ra’i po’, the sons of God Ta’aroa took it upon themselves to teach this decorative art style to man and as there is no written word in the Polynesian language this art of tattooing was perfect for the natives to convey their personal style and identity, all through the different characteristic signs and symbols.
Even though tattooing as an art has its moorings in ancient history it was in Polynesia that this art was brought to the fore and perfected to indicate the individual’s status in society, their standing in hierarchy, their ancestry and their development sexually. Interestingly, both, men and women were tattooed with the girls being tattooed on the right hand by the age of twelve after which they were accepted as a significant part of society, and, further tattoos on arms, hands, ears, lips and feet being done with passing time. Some women even had their legs tattooed to signify their wealth and standing in society.
The word ‘Tattoo’, therefore, originates from the Tahitian word Tatau, which means hitting or striking repetitively. The natives of French Polynesia regarded tattooing as a ritual with spiritual significance. They also thought of it as a protection from any evil specter. Tattooing was done only by individuals who had mastered the art of tattooing over a prolonged period of training and study. The tattoo master or shaman known as tahua’a tatau or tahuka patu tiki accompanied by his aides created tattoos using a mallet, a sharp comb with needles which were made from shells, shark teeth or bone and indelible ink originally made from wood ash of the candle nut, coconut oil or water while chanting to the tempo of the tap of the mallet. As part of the ritual of getting a tattoo the blood that oozed out during the process was not allowed to fall to the ground and was cleaned off the body with a special cloth called tapa which was made from a tree bark.
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Tattooing was an intrinsic part of the culture in the Polynesian archipelago. But each group of islands retained their own unique features in their style of tattoos. The Marquesas Islands used different aspects of nature like plants, animals and geometrical designs and the very popular tiki as tattoo designs. The Marquesian tattoo style is the most widely used design style today. The Society Islands which include Tahiti did not tattoo the face while tattooing the lower body with Z shapes, birds, dogs, geometrical shapes. Tattoo practice in Tahiti lost its popularity and its unique style is very rarely seen today.
In the Gambier Islands, it was a must for men to be tattooed while the women were under no compulsion. The Austral Isles had tattoo styles like the Society Islands with parallel lines which were like the tapas produced there. Mangreva is known for its unusual design of a circle just below the armpit and in the back which was darkened every year till all that was left was a cross on the inner part.
The Polynesian tattoo art was discovered only after the first sailors landed on these islands. Sometime in 1595 Mandaña, the Spanish explorer disembarked on the Fenua Enana Islands which he named Marquises Islands but detailed scripts of these tattoos were written about by Captain Willis, Bougainville- the French voyager and Captain Cook much later in the 18th century. These signs and symbols on the human body were completely new to European society and they looked at this art with a mixture of awe and shock. Ma’i oe Omai the Tahitian as he was known to the Europeans was the first native to travel out of Polynesia with Captain Cook. He gained a lot of fame wherever he went because of his tattooed body.
Subsequent voyages to these islands resulted in many of the sailors being tattooed with these designs and these tattoos became a mark of the sea faring person. The missionaries who came to this island converted the natives to Christianity and forbade them from continuing with this ritualistic and symbolic art. This led to the practice of tattooing being literally wiped out during the 19th and 20th centuries. However, this art form saw a revival of sorts during the 1980’s, adopted more as a symbol of one’s personality or as a tribute or in memory of special events or people.
The tradition of tattooing which was formerly used as a symbol of a person’s passage from childhood to adulthood has today become a fashion trend with many wanting to get tattooed with designs of their choice. Visitors to the Polynesian Islands usually ask for tattoos which are traditional to the island with the tiki, the lizard, the turtle, ray, shark and even specific geometrical shapes and lines being very popular as tattoo choices.
Tattooing as a tourist attraction has gained in a big way in these tourist centric islands and it is very easy for a visitor to get himself/herself inked from a good tattoo artist. A visitor who wants the real deal can always go to a traditional tattoo master and get a tattoo done from authentic sources. Tattooing as a traditional art form and heritage has been revived in the islands and today, this art form is seeing a resurgence with tattooing festivals involving foreign artists and the local artists being held frequently making this another popular tourist draw.