Tattooing was probably invented about 1,500 years ago in the Marquesas. From there, the art of tattooing spread all over Polynesia. While the source of this divine ritual has been lost in time, it is certain that this practice of Polynesian origin has gained a new fame nowadays, judging by the enthusiasm it generates throughout the planet. Over two centuries ago, Captain James Cook's sailors were so impressed by the sumptuous motifs they discovered while getting acquainted with the islanders that they could not resist getting tattooed themselves before returning to the old continent. A new fashion was born...
According to old legends, the Ma’ohi adorned themselves with tattoos to please to Ta'aroa, the almighty god, whose sons had gotten tattooed to seduce their entourage, and more particularly their own sister (!). A symbol of beauty and charm, tattooing quickly became an essential ritual in the Ma’ohi culture, as much for women as for the men. It was inconceivable not to be tattooed without being ridiculed by the entire population. Only the tahua tatau, priests authorized toexercise the art of tattooing, had the right to practice this divine art. They were respected and, in exchange for their work, they received magnificent presents. A young man in age to be tattooed would call the tahua who then would come to his home with all the necessary tools. The ceremony could last several days during which the young man suffered intense pain.
In Reo Ma’ohi, te tatau means "taping gently". The tool used for tattooing is called the "ta". It is a kind of comb with several teeth made of bone, sometimes in mother of pearl or sea turtle shell, fastened to a wood handle. Thus tattooing consisted in making slight incisions in the skin to introduce a dark coloring matter with the tattooing comb in order to create various motifs. A small wooden palette was used as a hammer to hit the comb.
The choice of motifs and the precision of the design
indicated the social rank of the young warrior and his noble origins. Over a few years, the entire body could be tattooed, but not the face (except in the Marquesasa where chiefs liked to get tattoed around the eyes and mouth, not to mention the ear lobes and the nose), the palms and under the feet.
Depending on the archipelagos, tattoing could vary in their motifs as well as in their precision. Several "schools" existed, but it was surely in the Marquesas and the Gambier that the most elaborate themes were found. In Tahiti and in the Society Islands in general, censorship imposed by the missionaries in the 19th century almost caused the disappearence of this ancestral practice.
The most common motifs represented Z shaped broken lines, but also very classic geometric shapes like squares, rectangles, triangles, chevrons. They were often repeated several times. Men had a preference for birds and fishes representations, without forgetting the worship of their gods expressed by impressive tiki in threatening attitudes. As to women, they were generally more discreet and limited their tattoos to their wrists, their arms and sometimes their legs. Some boldly tried tattooing on their faces, namely around the lips highlighted by parallel straight lines. Women who just had children had their right hand tatooed.
Most children were introduced to tattoing when they reached twelve years old, a ritual marking their passage to adulthood. The most often tattoed body parts at that age were the hips, the buttocks and the shoulders.
In the Austral Islands, they had a preference for wide dotted horizontal stripes similar to the motifs on their tapa, that were applied to the arms and shoulders.
In the Gambier Islands, the "ko'iko" is distinguished by an original design made of a large circle divided in equal parts by a lighter cross and that was tattoed in the lower back. The old folks would get tattooed on the eyelid and the lips(!).
In the Tuamotu, geometric motifs constituted the basis for tattooing, namely black and flesh color checkers for men, highlighted by chevrons and parallel lines on the arms and legs. On the island of Rangiroa, the largest atoll in the Tuamotu, men were totally tattooed including on their face and the motifs used ended with pictures of flames or shark teeth.
In the Marquesas, , men had their scalp tattooed but also their tongue(!), their eyelids and their nostrils. Women proudly highlighted their ear lobes and their hands knuckles with fime and elegant motifs.
For some twenty years now, tattooing has become for all Polynesians a way of preserving their ancestral art. With the help of reproductions made by 18th century European artists who accompanied the explorers, tattooing motifs were never totally "forgotten". They are found again, in different forms in the tapa, but also on petroglyphs rediscovered in the 20th century in the Austral and Marquesas Islands.
Presently, it is possible to get tattooed in many islands, following modern and very safe methods: The Polynesian Ministry of Health has implemented standards for tattoing and registered the accredited tattoo artists.