The Ancient Art of Polynesian Tattooing

Tamati Waka Nene 800

Tamati Waka Nene by Gottfried Lindauer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The art and skill of tattooing amongst the native islanders of the Pacific Islands is an ancient and important part of Polynesian culture, and even though it wasn’t until almost the end of the 19th century that anthropologists began looking into the meanings and importance of tattooing amongst the Polynesians, we have been able to discover quite a bit about the designs and purposes of tattoos amongst the islanders thanks to the observations and notations left for us by the scientists and scholars that travelled to the South Seas many years ago.

The Artistry of Polynesian Tattoos

During the time that the first Europeans began to arrive in the South Pacific, Polynesian tattoos were the most skilled and intricate to be found in all of the world. The art of tattooing had evolved over thousands of years on the Pacific Islands, and it was known for the elaborate geometrical designs that were added to and embellished throughout an islander’s lifetime, usually ending in a body covered entirely in tattoos. In sheer beauty and complexity, ancient Polynesian tattoos rival even the master tattoo artists of today.

Melville’s Love of Polynesian Culture

When explorers from Europe arrived in the Pacific islands, they found lush valleys fed by volcanic ash, beautiful lagoons full of tropical fish, and a class of people that were flourishing and happy. The islanders were secluded in their islands so far from the rest of the civilized world, affording them protection from predators, enemies, and disease.

The famous author, Herma Melville, noted that the English explorer Captain James Cook had declared the islanders to be the “most splendid” people that he had ever seen, and when Melville had a chance to see the natives of the South Seas for himself, he wholeheartedly agreed. As a young man, Melville spent six years sailing the seas, and much of his time was spent on the islands of the South Pacific. He was fascinated with the islander way of life, and many of his books were centered around the adventures that he had while exploring Polynesian culture.

Peaceful, Artistic People

Polynesians were not the typical inhabitants of a wild realm, as was the case in many other parts of the world that the Europeans had explored. They did not spend their days struggling to survive, instead they were an artistic and skilled people that decorated every item that they could, including their canoes, bowls, huts, tools, and even their bodies. The Polynesian people possessed the time, skill, and mild temperament that allowed them to bring their art to a peak level of perfection, and their craft was passed down from generation to generation.

Those that visited the Pacific during the 18th and 19th centuries noticed that all of the island people spoke languages that were very similar to one another, shared many of the same cultural practices, and even had appearances that were closely related to one another. For many years, it was a mystery as to how this was possible, and it was only within the last several decades that anthropologists were able to put together an idea of how the people of the Pacific migrated from Southwest Asia and settled into the islands nestled in the sea.

Peaceful, Artistic People

The new inhabitants of the Pacific Islands developed successful farming and fishing techniques, designed and built sophisticated watercraft that were capable of long voyages at sea, and created an artful culture and language that evolved over thousands of years. These people were called the Lapita, after a particular type of pottery that they designed and produced.

The Lapita pottery was identified by its fine craftsmanship and intricate designs, and it not only gave the ancient islanders their name, but also gives us a glimpse into the oldest known evidence of the nature of their tattoo designs. Much of the pottery bore V-shaped and interlocking geometrical designs, with some resembling masks, sea creatures, and other native animals. Similar motifs are found on tattoo designs from throughout Polynesia, and even the technique of cutting them into the pottery with a series of punctures that are closely bunched together is similar to that used in the process of tattooing. The production of the pottery ceased around the time of Christ, but tattooing became ever more important and common, with the islanders practicing and perfecting their technique over many years.

Ancient Polynesian tattoos were created with flat, chisel-like instruments, some of which have been found at archeological dig sites during the 19th and 20th centuries, and the tools have been dated to over 3,000 years ago. The ancient instruments were approximately 4 centimeters in length, and were made of pieces of bone that had been filed to a sharp point at one end or even shark’s teeth, forming a series of points, similar in appearance to that of a comb.

These “tattoo combs” were then attached to the end of a long wooden handle, dipped into black coloring made from fire soot and the oil from native nuts and plants, and then placed on the skin. A small mallet was then used to create the tattoo by striking the sharpened instrument into the skin, creating punctures that held the coloring from the ancient ink.

A Painful (and Noisy) Event

This technique of tattooing was painful and it took long hours to complete even some of the smaller designs, but those being tattooed took pride in the pain, being sure to scream and cry out, so that others in the village could hear how brave they were in the face of such a great amount of pain.

The process of ancient Polynesian tattooing has not been found anywhere else in the world, but it was very common throughout the South Pacific, and it is even used still to this day by traditional tattoo artists in the Pacific Islands.

The practice was first developed and perfected on the islands of Tonga and Samoa, and became the standard for all Polynesian tattooing from that point forward.

Cultural Importance

In Tonga, tattoos carried heavy social and cultural importance, and islanders were known to have tattoos covering their bodies from the waist to the knees, consisting of geometrical designs that repeated triangles, bands, and areas of solid black. Only priests that had undergone long periods of specialized training were allowed to practice the art of tattooing, and there were strict rituals and rites that had to be followed throughout the tattooing process, by both the artist and the islander that was receiving the tattoo.

In Samoa, tattooing played an important role in religion and warfare, as well as culture importance, and tattoo artists held highly privileged positions amongst the Samoan people. The artist typically tattooed men in groups of six or more, and the process was one of ceremony and celebration, with the ritual being attended by their friends and family. A Samoan warrior’s tattoos would begin at his waist and stop just below the knee.

The Difference Between the Sexes

Although tattoos were mostly for men, there were some Samoan women that participated in the art, as well, but female tattooing was limited to more delicate designs and were only found on the hands and lower body parts, such as the feet. The tattoo designs for women were so delicate and intricate, many of them resembled lace gloves on the hands and beautiful stockings on the legs and feet.

Eventually, islanders from Tonga and Samoa began to travel to surrounding areas, and found a large area known as the Marquesas. Here the islanders settled into a large and complex Polynesian culture over the following thousand or so years and created the Marquesan culture. Their art and architecture were highly developed, and the tattoo designs found there were some of the most elaborate in all of the Pacific.

Polynesian Tattoo Artists

Tattooing became even more significant amongst the Marquesan people, and tattoo artists soon became professionals that earned their livelihood through nothing but placing tattoos on the islanders that could afford to have them done. Owing to this fact, tattoos became a mark of success amongst the Marquesan, and they were seen as a badge of honor and distinction.

Those of the ruling class, such as the son of a chief, would receive a tattoo in an elaborate ceremony, and be required to sequester themselves from the rest of the village for weeks at a time, as a means to prepare for the honor of receiving their tattoo.

All women were forbidden from entering the area, and both the tattoo artist and the islander receiving the tattoo were fed the very best food leading up to the start of the event, which was seen as a cause for festivities and celebration.

The Tattooing Process

The tattooing process was done in separate sittings, each usually lasting a full day, and allowing for healing time between each one. The entire tattoo usually took a month or more to complete, and the islander would go through multiple tattoo sessions throughout their life, until their entire body was decorated.

For those in the middle class, tattoos were performed with less ceremony, and usually in the home of the tattoo artist, while those in the lower classes were tattooed by novices, and those in the lowest class of all, usually fishermen, were often not able to afford tattoos of any kind. It’s easy to see how tattooing became a means of class distinction amongst the Marquesan people.

Women in the Marquesas were limited to tattoos only on the lips, ears, hands, and feet, as was the practice of both Tonga and Samoa, and the placement of their tattoos were not a matter of ritual or celebration like that of the men, no matter what class they happened to be a part of, even if they were a member of the ruling class.

Tattoo Designs

The tattoo designs themselves were chosen with great care, and whatever image was chosen was placed on the appropriate part of the body, as each design was meant for specific areas, and every design had a particular name and purpose. Some of the images were of animals, some were of simple geometric shapes. No matter what design was chosen, they were all symmetrical and aligned perfectly with any other tattoos that happened to be already placed on the body.

Tattooing was irrefutably interwoven into the Marquesan culture, and all of their artistic endeavors were related to their supernatural and spiritual beliefs. The decorative themes were also taken from their environment, and were passed down from one generation to the next. Tattoo artists rarely created new designs, instead keeping themselves to the meaningful and varied images that were a part of their heritage.

Many of these designs had significant meanings and purposes, but these were unfortunately lost during the introduction of European life and the disintegration of Marquesan culture. Thanks to the invasion of colonists from Europe, the beautiful and sophisticated art from of tattooing, which had taken thousands of years to develop, was all but destroyed in a matter of a few decades.

Polynesian Style Tattoo Luke Jinks 01

Polynesian tattoo by Cloak and Dagger resident artist Luke Jinks

Captain Cook and Polynesia

Polynesian tattoos are first mentioned by European explorers in their ship logs of the 17th and early 18th centuries, and one of the first visitors to the Pacific islands was the now infamous Captain Cook and his crew aboard the Endeavour.

Cook was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Navy by the Royal Society to sail to Tahiti and complete two missions. The first mission was that of observing the travels of Venus in the night sky as it passed between the earth and the sun, as it was believed that taking note of this would enable scholars to calculate the exact distance between the two and aid in the making of maps and ease naval navigation.

His second mission was to discover and explore the so-called “Southern Continent,” as the Royal Society had heard tales of the rich resources that had been observed there, and they were looking for a way to increase colonial wealth and power. Cook was ordered to use this second, more important mission as a way to observe and record the plants, animals, minerals, and other natural resources of that part of the world.

Assembling the Crew

For this mission, Cook knew that he would need a naturalist on the crew, and he turned to Joseph Banks, who at 23 years old became the youngest member of the Royal Society, and had already made a bit of a name for himself in scientific circles for his large natural history collection, which included skeletons, insects, minerals, and animals that had been captured and stuffed for study. This collection became so large and impressive over the lifetime of Banks, that it was acquired by the Natural History Museum of London, and can still be seen there to this day.

Banks also brought a talented young scientific illustrator along with him on the voyage named Sydney Parkinson. It was Parkinson’s commission to draw and record the natural findings of Banks on their visit to the Southern Continent. Cook, Banks, Parkinson, and the rest of the crew boarded the Endeavour and set sail for the 18-month long journey on August 16, 1768 with 94 men, but ended up staying on the seas for almost 3 years, and returning with only 56 men left onboard.

Arriving at Tahiti

On April 11, 1769, Cook and his crew reached Tahiti, and were greeted by hundreds of islanders as they rowed out to meet the anchored Endeavour. Banks was fascinated by Tahitian life and culture, and made many notes on their customs, being sure to immerse himself in their lives by joining them in their ceremonies, eating native food, and forming as many friendships with the islanders as he possibly could.

Banks was so determined to learn as much about island life as he could, he learned the native language and even worked out the beginnings of the first Tahitian-English dictionary, which became the foundation for all communication between Tahitians and Europeans from that time forward.

Observing Tattooing

During his time in Tahiti, Banks had many opportunities to observe and record the process of native tattooing amongst the islanders. Just a week before Cook’s crew departed Tahiti to continue on their journey, Banks wrote a first-hand account of a Marquesan islander being tattooed, making note of the intricate geometrical patterns that were being added to the man’s already impressive body suit of tattoos.

After a successful and peaceful stay of three months on Tahiti, Cook and his men boarded the Endeavour once more and sailed south in search of more information for the Royal Society. On October 16, 1769, the crew spotted land and anchored off of the coast of New Zealand, which at that time was still very much a mystery, as Europeans had not set foot there in over a century.

Clashing with the Maori

Cook and his crew were in desperate need of food and other supplies at this point, as their journey had already taken longer than had originally been anticipated, and they attempted to trade with the islanders of New Zealand. Unfortunately, the fierce and proud Maori warriors had little desire to help the European strangers, and a small battle broke out during their first meeting, and one of the crew fired a shot and killed a Maori warrior.

Banks had the opportunity to examine the man’s body afterwards, and noted that he was a “middle-sized man, tattooed on the face and one cheek only in spiral lines very regularly formed; he was covered with a fine cloth of a manufacture totally new to us; his hair was tied in a knot on the top of his head; his complexion brown, but not very dark.” This was the first recorded account of Moko, or Maori facial tattooing.

Maori Tattoos

The art of Moko tattooing amongst the natives of New Zealand was new to the crew, even after having observed the tattoos of the Marquesan islanders. Moko was different not only in the designs and varied tattooing technique, but also in the fact that the Maoris chose to tattoo much of their face, and the women were tattooed almost as much as the men, which was a change from the practice that had been noted amongst the Marquesan natives.

Moko was not only tattooed into the skin with an instrument similar to that which had been observed in the Marquesas, it was also incised into the skin to create scarring in ridges and grooves over the sensitive skin of the face, as well as the rest of the body.

An Integral Part of Maori Life

Every Maori male was tattooed on their faces, and most also had tattoos on most of their bodies, as well. The only exception was that of slaves and the most common of the villagers, as they were not deemed fit to wear the designs. Tattooing was seen as an integral part of life by the Maroi, and an intricate tattoo on the face was a source of great pride for a warrior, as it not only made him appear fierce to his enemies while in the heat of battle, it was also a mark of attraction to the women of the New Zealand tribe.

The tattoos of the Maori women were less elaborate than that of the men, but they were no less important. A great show of beauty amongst the Maori women would be lips that were outlined and filled in with tattoos, as well as lines or spirals worn on the cheeks or forehead. Tradition did limit the number of tattoos a woman could have on her face, but unlike the Marquesan women, there were no such limits for the rest of the body, and many Maori women wore elaborate and extensive tattoos on their breasts, thighs, and legs.

Tattooed Maori Warriors

The Maori process of tattooing and scarring was very painful, sometimes puncturing the skin so deeply that it went through the cheek of the islander being tattooed, and it caused quite a bit of bleeding, but unlike the Marquesan, Maoris took great pride in not making a sound during the process, or even flinching to indicate any pain or discomfort.

Luckily, Cook and his crew were able to repair relations with the Maori, and Banks had the opportunity to observe and record the life and culture of the New Zealand natives, much as he had with the Tahitians, and Parkinson had the chance to draw the first portraits of the tattooed Maori warriors.

The crew left New Zealand soon after, and returned home to England in June of 1771. The Royal Society was so pleased with the results of Cook’s journey that they commissioned him to lead two more missions to the South Seas. During his third voyage, Cook discovered the Hawaiian Islands, where he died at the age of 51 from injuries that he obtained during a skirmish with the natives.

Missionaries vs Tattooing

Missionaries followed soon after the explorers, in hopes of converting the islanders to the Christian and European way of life. The missionaries opposed the act of tattooing, as they associated it with “heathen practices,” which caused fear and superstition amongst them. They attempted to talk the natives into giving up the art of tattooing and focus instead on their “one true God.”

After the missionaries came the Europeans that wished to colonize the islands. These men forced the islanders to cover up their tattoos with clothing that they had brought with them, and forced them to work menial jobs as they plundered the natural resources of the Pacific and fought over possession of the land. Tattoos were outlawed by the European colonists, as they were seen as resistance to the new way of life that had been brought to the islands, and as a way of trying to push the colonists out of the islands.

Growing Love of Tattoos in the West

Ironically, as tattooing was dying out amongst the islanders, it was gaining popularity in Europe thanks to the sailors that were returning home with tattoos that they received as souvenirs during their travels, as well as the practice of bringing tattooed islanders back to Europe to be placed on display as “curiosities.” These men were captured and forced into slavery by the European colonists, and were made to participate as they were turned into entertainment by their captors.

One of the most famous cases of natives being removed from their home and being placed on display for the amusement of the European masses is that of Prince Giolo, a South Seas islander that was ripped from his island home and pressed into servitude.

Prince Giolo

Giolo had been taking an innocent trip by canoe with his father, mother, brother, and two other men from his village when a storm rose up and caused their boat to be tossed onto the shore of a neighboring island. Giolo and the others were captured by natives of that island and sold into slavery, being beaten and starved to force them to comply with their new owners, even though some of the tasks were utterly foreign to them, since they were peaceful people with no concept of warfare or heavy manual labor.

The prince was separated from all of the other islanders except for his mother, and they were sold together to an English merchant named William Moody, who took them to Fort St. George. The men at the fort admired the islanders’ tattoos, and they soon attracted the attention of the adventurer and sometimes pirate, William Dampier.

Making Money from the Painted Prince

Dampier was greatly impressed by the painted prince and his mother, and believed that other people would be, as well. He felt quite sure that he could make money off of the pair by placing them on display for the well-to-do citizens of London, and he worked out a business arrangement with Moody that stated that the two men would split any profits equally, as long as Dampier was able to maintain possession of the islanders and do what he thought would make them the most money.

Before Dampier and his tattooed captives could leave for England, the prince and his mother fell ill, and while Giolo recovered, his mother was not able to do so and passed away shortly after, even though Dampier did his best to nurse them both back to health. The prince was devastated by his mother’s passing, and the fact that he was now the lone islander in this foreign place. He insisted that Dampier bury her with all of her worldly possessions, which consisted only of the European clothes that had been forced upon her since their capture. Dampier complied, and the two left for England once it was clear that the prince wasn’t going to succumb to illness himself.

Dampier had several portraits done of the painted prince when they arrived, showing his impressive tattoos covering his body front and back, from collar bones to ankles. He also created a fanciful tale that the islander was so formidable thanks to his tattoos, snakes and other dangerous animals would flee from his very presence.

Exploiting the Islanders

After some success with his new attraction, Dampier was tricked into selling his shares to other men, and soon he lost possession of Giolo. He later learned that the painted prince had been paraded all over England as an oddity, and had sadly died of smallpox.

Giolo was not the only islander to fall prey to European illnesses. Native people had no defense against the diseases that the colonists brought with them, such as dysentery, syphilis, smallpox, measles, tuberculosis, malaria, and leprosy. Thousands died after being exposed, and the population of the Marquesan people went from about 90,000 before the Europeans arrived, to just under 5,000 when a census was taken by colonists.

Polynesian Tattooing – Loved Across the World

The beauty and skillfulness of Polynesian tattooing cannot be denied, and neither can the sad nature of its rise and fall due to the invasion of the Europeans. The Pacific Islands once held a peaceful and artistic people, dedicated to their families and the preservation of their culture and art. It’s only through the hard work of a few visitors that recognized the importance of preserving and recording the process and designs of Polynesian tattooing that we are able to enjoy them today.

Thankfully, the art of Polynesian tattooing underwent a resurgence toward the end of the 20th century, with the descendants of the islanders making an effort to keep this beautiful and intricate practice alive and well for the current generation, and hopefully many more to come.

Polynesian Style Tattoo Luke Jinks 02

Polynesian tattoo by Cloak and Dagger resident artist Luke Jinks