Polynesian Tradition of Tattooing

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Used in the past and now the present, it causes a great deal of pain, it takes time, but in the end, it is all worth it. This is, Polynesian Tattooing. According to PBS, The actual tradition of Polynesian Tattooing existed more than 2000 years ago. This is not your typical tattooing process. It can take months to complete the process and the pain is excruciating. Polynesian tattooing is sacred on the islands of Maori, Hawaii, Tahiti, Samoa, and Tonga. These tattoos are about being proud of your heritage. Ancient Polynesian Tattooing reflects tribe, family, and land. Despite the pain this process causes, Polynesians went through it as a way to honor the culture that they love so dearly, and modern Polynesians are now readopting the practices.

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A tattoo parlor in New Zealand discusses the origins of tattoo art in Polynesia, in addition to other historic information, such as, the origins of Polynesian societies, Tonga and Samoa, tools of the trade, the healing process, and placement on the body. In order to express their character and identity, Polynesians used tattoo art. In fact, These tattoos were full of distinctive signs, often indicating status in a hierarchical society as well as sexual maturity, genealogy, and one’s rank within the society. Nearly everyone in ancient Polynesian society was tattooed. In Tonga and Samoa, Polynesian tattoos developed into a highly refined art (Polynesian Tattoo). For the Tongan people, tattoo art was extremely significant to them both socially and culturally. Additionally, in Ancient Samoa, tattooing was remarkable in terms of warfare and religious rituals. The healing process for these tattoos took almost a year. In the meantime, friends and family would have to assist the process because basic activities, such as sitting or walking, could be extremely painful. Lastly, the placement of the tattoo was very important. For instance, tattooing the head is related to themes such as, spirituality, knowledge, wisdom and intuition (Polynesian Tattoo). On the other hand, if one were to tattoo their lower arms and hands, they are showing creativity, creation, and making things (Polynesian Tattoo).

Samoan Tattooing, along with the other Polynesian cultures, is an agonizing experience. Rite of passage caused men to undergo inking over a three or fourth month period. Then, the man’s family threw a party to celebrate the completion of his pe’a, or tattoo, that stretched from mid-torso to the knees, and the tattoo master shattered a water vessel at his feet to signify that the agonizing experience had come to an end (DeHart). Then came the healing process. The tattoo would take up to a year to heal, whereas nowadays, it takes seven to 14 days (Quora). Imagine this scenario in real society. I believe that the desire to get a tattoo would be much less if in today’s world, tattooing took up to a year to heal. People probably look forward to the fact that the pain will be over in as little as a week. In addition, the ordeal was so severe that death by infection was a legitimate concern (DeHart). Most men completed the process due to social pressure. However, those who surrendered to the acute pain of tattooing were viewed upon as weak and faced humiliation among many. In addition, In ancient Polynesia, tattooing was fraught with taboos, steeped in social status, and imbued with deeply spiritual beliefs (DeHart). If this were very popular in my culture, I would most likely get tattooed because I would know how much this tradition means to my family, and I want to understand and appreciate the importance of it.

In the article “CULTURE LEAVES ITS MARK // CULTURE: Tattoos Help Keep Samoan Island Customs Alive among the Young in Orange County,” Rosalva Hernandez introduces Samoan Misiaiti Togagae who reveals that he got tattoos because of the love he has for his culture and his people. I am proud to be Samoan, he says. Despite the pain, specifically the razor-sharp needles of a boar tusk comb into a pot of inky blue fluid that would agonize his body, Togagae got these tattoos to pay respect to his culture. In addition, among some Samoan youths who have grown up far from their native island, the tattoos have become a fad, much like tinted shades and skimpy shorts (Hernandez). He says that you must have the courage to do this. In particular, because of the pain it causes, like it did to Togagae, as he nearly bolted off the floor during his tattoo procedure. Similar to what Zealand Tattoo said, a custom for hundreds of years, the ‘tatau’from which the English word tattoo is derived can symbolize a clan’s rank in Samoan society or a particular family’s background, or merely a design chosen by the tattoo artist (Hernandez). Samoans are very designated to their culture as you can see with the pain they must go through to endure this procedure.

Similarly, Maori Tattooing is where purpose and applications are sacred. In Maori Tattoos about Culture by Jared Nicoll, Ta Moko tattoo artist named Jackson Skipper tells what it is like to travel the country designing and drawing Ta Moko. The meaning of Ta Moko is Maori Tattooing. Ta Moko was like a history of a person’s achievements and represented their status in their tribe. It was like a resume. It also served as a reminder to people about their responsibility in life (Australian Museum). As stated by Ta Moko artist Jackson Skipper, People need to understand traditional Maori tattooing is about being proud of your heritage, not glorifying gangs. Skipper was known to even have tattooed members of his own family, including his cousin Daniel Skipper, who he tattooed in a tent on family land in Waikawa (Australian Museum). Jackson skipper adds It’s about being proud of your heritage. Over the last couple of years, Jackson Skipper has developed several tattoo designs, each reflecting each person’s Iwi [tribe], their connection to the land, and their Whanau [family] (Australian Museum). In addition, Daniel Skipper says “We feel good about doing it, good about getting it done, especially for the Whanau. In other words, he feels accomplished when getting a tattoo because he feels as if he’s doing it for his family.

Tahitian Tattooing was also a critical part of one’s belonging to this culture. A source from a tattoo parlor in French Polynesia specifically describes the history of Polynesian Tattooing in Tahiti. The origin of the English word ?tattoo’ actually comes from the Tahitian word ?tatau’ and goes back as far as 1500 BC (POLYNESIAN TATTOO). Almost everyone was tattooed in ancient Polynesian society. It was a fundamental part of ancient Tahitian culture. Tattooing indicated ones genealogy and/or rank in society. It was a sign of wealth, of strength, and of the ability to endure pain (POLYNESIAN TATTOO). It takes two people to do the tattooing, one does the stretching of the skin and the other does the inking.

All symbols in Tahitian tattoos are based on the 4 elements: ocean, earth, wind, fire. For each symbol, there is a sacred ceremony. A few commonly incorporated symbols include: turtle=fertility, dolphin=wisdom, tiki=protection. There were symbols specific to certain families and symbols unique to various roles. For example, the tattoos of warriors would incorporate symbols different than those of fishermen. Each symbol takes on personal meaning. There are symbols that represent the sea and symbols of the land, stability, travel etc. (POLYNESIAN TATTOO)
These symbols were key in tattooing because they were specific to the culture and each person wanted to make sure they represented their home land.

Tattooing in Tahiti is an act of sharing time and space among tattooists, tattooed people, and observers (Thomas et al). When Tahitians get tattooed, they often perceive the bodies of others and differentiate their tattoo art. In fact, when doing this, they identify uniformities and distinctions, and include and exclude each other according to the representation, experience, and social contexts of the tattooed body. Tattooing, as body inscription, is thus the embodiment and representation of identities and relationships resulting from the objectification of one’s own body, and others’, in a shared time and space (Thomas et al).

Tattooing in the Tahitian culture is a process of establishing cultural, gender, occupational and age identities for young Tahitian tattooists and tattooed people. This is a different process from that which occurs when the knowledge of tattooing is ?heritage’, passed from the elder people to the younger (Thomas et al). Due to a sporadic history of Tahitian tattooing, both people who are tattooed and young tattooists have been investigating and developing new forms of tattoos and skills both in and outside of Tahiti. The notion of ?tradition’ is, however, still significant since it boosts the social value of tattooing (Thomas et al).

Tonga in particular has a long and complicated relationship to its traditional tattoos that have only begun to re-emerge as popular designs in the last 20 years (Ding). When it comes to Pacific Island cultures, tattooing has always been a central custom, and designs were commonly used to represent one’s role within their community as well as a person’s identity. In addition, The Tongan name for its tattooing tradition is Tatatau. While designs were certainly influenced by other Pacific cultures, they incorporated their own distinct patterns and meanings over the years in which they flourished (Ding). Although designs seemed to be alike in many ways, each tattoo for each person is unique and customized to the person. For men, Tongan tattoos are commonly placed from the torso to the knees. On the other hand, Tongan tattoos for women are composed of symmetrical lines across the thighs. Authentic tattoos are created using the traditional tools (made of bone and turtle shell) and designs are based on traditional markings. As several artists apprentice under current masters of the tradition as well as increased interest in the tradition evidenced by Tongans, this tradition looks like one that will endure (Ding).

In January 1778, Captain James Cook decided to sail to the Hawaiian islands a decade after visiting New Zealand. When he arrived, he was anchored off the coast of the island of Kaua’i. On the shore, there were Polynesians who had been living here for over a thousand years. When James Cook arrived, they greeted him with surprising admiration. Their society, like all Polynesia, was governed by a strict kapu, or taboos, that regulated every aspect of their behavior (PBS). They dutifully worshiped a multitude of deities (gods), including Lono, the god of peace and agriculture. The people Cook encountered may have mistaken him for the physical embodiment of Lono since his ship’s masts and sails resembled the emblem of the god (PBS). Although cook left Hawaii and sailed toward North America, he had set the standards for the future of the Hawaiian people.

Like other Polynesians, the Hawaiian people imported their traditional tattoo art, known as kakau, to the islands (PBS). It assisted them not only for decoration and differentiation, but also to guard their health and spiritual well-being (PBS). Hawaiian tattoos often mimics natural forms. Images of lizards, which were greatly respected and feared, and of the Hawaiian crescent fan (Peahi niu) for the highest-ranking members of society, dominated Hawaiian kakau. Intricate patterns, mimicking woven reeds or other natural forms, graced men’s arms, legs, torso and face. Women were generally tattooed on the hand, fingers, wrists and sometimes on their tongue (PBS).

The designs were applied by specially trained kahuna, experts in one or more critical tasks, who applied pigment to the skin with a needle made from bone, tied to a stick and struck by a mallet. Traditional designs varied widely, according to available records, but many memorialized fallen chiefs, leaders or family members (PBS). According to the dictates of kapu, the tattooing shielded with extreme confidentiality, and all tools and evidence were thrown out after use. This shows how sacred Hawaiians took tattooing in their culture.

Although popular belief is that Polynesian tattooing was only used in the past, it is indeed used in the present, as seen with Tongan Tattooing. Tattooing for Tongans has been revived to the current day. While many artists and Tongans were interested in the tradition of Tongan tribal tattoos, there seemed to be very little information about this ancient craft. It was not until early 2002 that work began in trying to revive this art form. Specialist tattoo artist Su’a Sulu’ape Alaiva’a who was well versed in Pacific tattooing, met with several Tongans in Hawaii with the purpose of looking into Tongan tattooing practices (Ding). Fairly soon after this meeting, two Tongans obtained the first traditional tattoos of their ancestors. These tattoos even received a traditional blessing to commemorate the occasion. Within a year, two more Tongans had received tattoos and tattooist Aisea Toetu’u committed himself to being the first artist to specialize in specifically Tongan designs, ensuring that the tradition would endure (Ding).

In comparison, a very famous man known as Dwayne Johnson, also known as The Rock, a producer, an American actor, and semi-retired professional wrestler, has a tattoo relating back to a Polynesian culture, Samoa. You might know him from movies, such as Baywatch, The Game Plan, or Skyscraper. Johnson has a big tattoo covering his upper left breast area and left shoulder. In a YouTube video, he describes the reasoning for his choices. He starts out by saying The story of my tattoo is a very elaborate story that of all the things I love and that I’m passionate about and that move me from the heart. He talked to his tattoo artist for hours before the work was even started and then said a prayer before the process began. In total, it took 60 hours of work, three sessions, at 20 hours a piece. He tells us that it’s a story about his life and his journey. However, he says that bigger than him, his life, and his journey, are his ancestors and his culture on his Dad’s side, Mom’s side, his black culture, and his Samoan culture as well. He believes all the things that are important to him from his family and protecting his family, his ancestors, protecting all of us, the spirit of his ancestors. It represents great struggle and overcoming that great struggle, being appreciative of my success as we come up here to the sunshine and the sunlight that’s on my neck. He concludes the video by stating As detailed and elaborate as this entire tattoo is that I’m very proud of, it all comes down to three things, which is my family, and protecting my family, and having a very aggressive warrior spirit that you can’t hold down and I will continue to fight and overcome, and that particular piece is over my heart. By this, we can see that Samoan Tattooing is still used in today’s world.

Tattooing was used in ancient Polynesian societies, such as Maori, Tahiti, Samoa, Tonga, and Hawaii for many different reasons. Although many tattoos may contain similar designs, they are each different, representing different stories behind them. Tattooing was used in Maori to reflect a person’s tribe, land, and family. In addition, Tahitians did it to show signs of wealth, strength, and ability to endure pain (POLYNESIAN TATTOO). Samoans got these tattoos to show the love and respect they have for their culture and their people. Tongans used these tattoos to mark a person’s identity and role within their community (Ding). Lastly, Hawaiians got tattooed to guard their health and spiritual well-being (PBS). These here are single reasons for each culture, so imagine how many more can differentiate the meaning behind these tattoos. There is so much more behind these tattoos than just a couple of designs. Despite the pain this process causes, Polynesians went through it as a way to honor the culture that they love so dearly, and modern Polynesians, such as The Rock in addition to many Tongans, are now readopting the practices.

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Polynesian Tradition Of Tattooing. (2019, Apr 26). Retrieved January 30, 2023 , from

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