Indigenous peoples around the world wore tattoos, from African tribes to the Ainu of Japan to the Celts of northern Europe. And the practice goes back before recorded history. Mummies dating from the Ice Age sport body art as do some excavated from ancient tombs in Egypt.
But the modern practice of tattooing in Western culture has its origins in what is now Tahiti and the other islands of French Polynesia.
Tattoos Spread From Gods to Men
In an ancient Polynesian myth, two sons of the god Ta’aroa were the first to tattoo themselves in an attempt to seduce their sister. Men began to imitate them, using body art not only to enhance their sexual attractiveness, but as a rite of passage from boy to man and as a means of identifying themselves with their island group or tribe.
The practice was widespread by the time European explorers arrived in Polynesia in the 18th Century. According to Tahiti Tourisme, a crew member’s logbook from 1767 reads: “at 16 they paint in black the thighs of all men, and a little later draw strange designs on their legs and arms.”
European sailors picked up the practice of tattooing, bringing their body art back to Europe with them.
Patterns and Placement of Body Art in the South Pacific
In the Society Islands, both men and women wore tattoos on the shoulders, arms and legs, but not the face as was done by the Maoris of New Zealand. Buttocks were covered with rows of designs, often Z-shaped broken lines.
On the island of Rangiroa, men might be tattooed from head to toe with irregular designs, such as curved lines, concentric circles or a checkerboard pattern.
On the Marquesas, men were entirely tattooed, including their eyelids, tongue and skulls, which they kept shaved.
Tattooing was mandatory on Mangareva in the Gambier archipelago. A circle divided into four parts was tattooed under the armpit of a teenage boy. As he grew, each of the four parts was inked.
Tattoo designs often imitated those found in Polynesian art, such as chevrons, triangles, shark teeth and parallel lines.
In a Word, Tattooing Was Painful in Polynesia
The word “tattow,” which became “tattoo,” was Capt. Cook’s English pronunciation of the Polynesian word “tatau,” which means “to hit.” The word refers to the method of applying a tattoo as it was literally beaten into the skin.
Paul Atallah, who studied anthropology at the University of Hawaii and owns Island Eco Tours on the island of Huahine, explains that shark’s teeth or sharp bits of mother-of-pearl were attached to a miniature rake and pounded into the skin with a mallet. The pigment came from the soot of burned candle nut, ti’a’in in the Polynesian dialect, and thinned with water. Once under the skin, the pigment turned blue.
Missionaries Made Tattoos Taboo and Impractical
The first European explorers were followed by English missionaries who introduced Christianity to Polynesia. Under Tahitian King Pomare II, the Pomare Code brought puritan values to the islands and banned human sacrifice, infanticide and practices deemed lewd.
Polynesians, who had gone around nude or only partially clothed, now wore garments that covered their tattoos. With its erotic appeal under wraps, the practice of tattooing declined.
Body Art Makes a Comeback in French Polynesia
Today body art is back in fashion throughout the South Pacific. The revival began in the 1980s using the motifs of the Marquesas Islands because they had been the most carefully recorded, says Atallah.
Young men, some rebelling against European culture on the islands, began asserting their independence and Polynesian identity by adopting the ancient custom of tattooing.
The practice has spread, using both traditional and new designs applied with modern, sterilized equipment.