Polynesian tattoos, commonly known as to us as tribal tattoos play a big role in culture of any Pacific Islander. These sacred markings have a lot of meaning, and may even be seen as offensive if worn by a person that is not of the previously stated land. They can mean a number of things based on location of the body or whether the person is a man or woman. Even the slightest discrepancy in shape could change the meaning of the tattoo. In this essay, we will discuss the many elements of Polynesian tattoos, where they came from, and why they mean so much to the people of the Pacific.
In 1778, Captain James Cook sailed to Hawai’i, specifically the island of Kaua’i. Upon arrival, Captain Cook was very surprised by the deep respect that the Hawaiians had for their ancestors. However, while on the island, Cook came across a number of people, and these people mistook him for Lono, a Hawaiian God who is associated with fertility, agriculture, rainfall, music and peace, because his ship’s masts and sails looked like an insignia of the God. Cook was treated well and with respect while he was on the island because of the mistaken identity. After his visit, he went to the Americas and brought tattooing there. That is where the word tattoo comes from. Mainland people couldn’t pronounce tatau, so they just said tattoo.
Nonetheless, things turned around rather quickly when James Cook returned to the Hawaiian Islands for a repair on his ship. The people realized this is not Lono, so they killed Captain Cook right there on the shore. Peace in Hawai’i didn’t last long either, because after that, settlers came and began to colonize the islands, and on May 8, 1819, King Kamehameha I, one one Hawai’i greatest rulers, passed away. This led the Kapu System ” a set of taboos that regulated behaviors ” to slowly disappear. As the colonizers took over the islands, the began to infiltrate other places. Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, and even New Zealand. The Kapu System, traditional dances, celebratory garments, and so many other sacred cultural things, including tatau (tattoos), disappeared.
Inking of the body began within Polynesia specifically for war. Polynesians thought that the tattoos looked scary! Tattoos for war were placed on the head and neck to symbolize knowledge and wisdom, the chest to symbolize honor, the lower torso for courage and independence, and the upper arms to symbolize strength and bravery. These were classic tattoos for men because in those days, they were typically called for war. Men that did not fight in wars were only to be tattooed on the right side of the body. Women would typically get tattooed on the left side of their body on the lower arms and hands for craft or creation, and on the lower torso for procreation and sexuality.
During ceremonial occasions, women would be tattooed on the hands. This was called lima, and it was required to be able to drink kava, which is a drink made from the root of a kava plant that is served in big celebrations and also in many royal settings. Each different shape and design means something different, and there are many different designs that have so many meanings. This plays a big role in why Polynesians frown upon those who get tatau and are not of Pacific Islander descent. So, going on with how shapes and designs have varied meanings, this means that a warrior or chief could not have the same tattoos as a woman or civilian man. This also applies to people of higher power, such as Kings and Queens. They could have similar or the same tattoos because they are of the same ranking, but a man couldn’t have the same tattoos as a woman because men are believed to be more powerful and held higher than a woman. This quickly changed when Queen Liliuoikalani came into power, but talking about that would consist of another essay.
Tattoos were traditionally applied to the body in very a unique way. Polynesian people used the stick and poke method. This method is still used to this day. Though it isn’t sanitary, Polynesians try to connect with our roots a much as possible. But back then, tattoo artists or, tufuga, would pass their skills from father to son. The young trainee would learn by watching and then doing. He would serve a very long time, even years tapping his comb, or au, into bark cloth until his trainer (father) would approve of his work. After the time of war, people would still get stick and poke tattoos in honor of their ancestors that fought for them. They would sit through hours of extreme pain to get the tattoos because the marks left would celebrate cultural traditions. It was also common for people to get tattooed to honor those who laid their lives for the people of the islands. Today’s tattoos are done in a very sanitary way; clean shops, regular inspections, and sanitization all go into making sure your tattoo doesn’t get infected and heals right.
However, tatau risked infection and even death by infection. This is why now, many of us Polynesians do not partake in the traditional stick-and-poke tattoos, we prefer to honor our ancestors in a way that is healthy and safe for us all. Not only was the risk for infection and death by infection extreme, but the pain was as well. Polynesians would sit through long hours of intensive pain to get these imprints left on their body, and by the words of my grandmother, the matriarch of our Hawaiian family, we still bear the hurt of tattoos because the pain you feel from your tatau will never match the pain of our ancestors, who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians). That is why we still sit through the pain. To honor those who fought for us. And I can tell you, this is the mindset of a large portion of not only Hawaiinas, but Polynesians as a whole. On the flip side of tattooing, those who refused to be tattooed were looked at very negatively. They were labeled as a pala’ai, meaning coward. Sometimes, people just couldn’t endure the pain, so they walked through life feeling like a shame.
Jumping more into today’s day and age, tattoos are very common. People all over the world get anything they want put onto their bodies. But we are talking specifically about tattoos from the Pacific Islands. So more modernly, we Polynesians get traditional tribal tattoos, like our ancestors did, to honor them. We use a variation of shapes and designs, as said before, but nowadays we don’t get the same tattoos as the warriors and chiefs used to. We get things like shells to represent fertility and peace, shark teeth to honor our ancestors’ courage and power, a spearhead to represent our own power, and the sun and it’s rays to symbolize grandness and riches. We also use things like tiki faces, or ikaika, to drive out bad energies. When it comes to tying traditions from two thousand years ago to now, we all still thing of our tattoos as a link between heaven or rangi, and earth or papa, because as you can tell, Polynesian tattoos are mainly based on nature. The placement is important too. As stated before, women get tattooed on the left and men on the right, which is still true to this day. Before, men used to get tattoos all over if they were warriors, but now, we just stick to the usual sides out of respect to those that have made the ultimate sacrifice for us.
Now touching on something I said before, Polynesians get offended by tribal tattoos. You might be thinking I’m contradicting myself because this whole essay is about how people of the Pacific Islands honor tattoos so much. Well, it’s tricky to explain this, but basically if you are not of Polynesian descent, you are frowned upon for getting tattooed in our tribal. Why is this you may ask? Well, it is appropriating our culture. Islanders see our tattoos as something sacred because of the history behind it, so when we see somebody just putting it onto their body for no rhyme or reason, it is quite offensive. Even people like myself, a light-skinned woman who is literally directly related, by blood, to Queen Liliuokalani, would be frowned upon for getting tatau, until someone actually found out that I’m of Polynesian descent.
Taking everything into consideration, there is a lot of history that goes into learning about the Polynesian tatau. From Capt. James Cook visiting our islands and then bringing tattoos into the Americas, to how we honor our ancestors with tattoos today, holds a special place in the heart of any Polynesian. It resembles our deep, strong reverence for those who sacrificed for us. Not only that, it inspires us to keep traditions alive and to be strong like the people before our time. Polynesian tattoos are sacred, beautiful, and hold so much meaning. They are unique and have history. We will never forget how the islands used to be, because tatau will forever be imprinted on our bodies to remind us.
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