“Your necklace may break, the fau tree may burst, but my tattooing is indestructible. It is an everlasting gem that you will take into your grave.”
A Verse from a traditional tattoo artist’s song
Polynesian tattoo history dates back to over 2000 years ago and it’s as varied and diverse as the people who wear them. The Polynesian ink art originated way back from the initial days of the Polynesian, Maori and Samoan civilization in the South Pacific. The foundation of the English word ‘tattoo’ in fact came from the Tahitian word ‘tatau’ which goes as far back as 1500 BC.
All across Polynesia, there are a lot of stories which narrate the origin of the tattoos. Their primary belief is that the tattoos are a gift from heavens above to humankind. According to Tahitian legend, the sons of supreme creator ‘Ta’aroa’, were the first ones who adorned their bodies with tattoos. His sons, in turn, taught this intricate ink art to the men who admired this new type of expression. It’s also a tradition in Samoa’s culture, which has been unbroken for over two thousand years where they honor the next generation with their skills; a custom that often travels from father to son.
In Polynesian culture, historically, there was no writing, the tattoo art was mainly comprised of unique and intricate signs and designs to express their character, identity and personality. Almost everyone in Polynesian culture was tattooed which was distinctive and specified their hierarchy status in society, sexual maturity and genealogy.
Arrival of Ink Art in Europe
History suggests that the European explorers along with Spanish navigator, Alvaro de Mendana de Neira, in 1595, were the first who visited the Marquesas Islands of the Polynesian islands. But due to the lack of vast valuable resources, the European navigators showed no interest in the region.
Captain James Cook was the first navigator who tried to explore the Polynesian triangle. The word ‘tattoo’ appeared in Europe, in 1771, after Captain James Cook returned to Tahiti and New Zealand from his maiden voyage. In the journals of James Cook, on his voyages of discovery, he narrated the behavior and customs of Polynesian people where he mentioned that they mark their bodies with patterns which he termed as tattaw. In his journal he said:
“I shall now mention the way they mark themselves indelibly, each of them is so marked by their humor or disposition”.
He also brought back, from his voyage, a Tahitian man named Ma’i to Europe. Ma’i’s ink art was quite intriguing and fascinated the Europeans. So this new custom, from that moment onwards, started gaining rapid popularity all across the region mainly because of Ma’i’s tattoos.
According to another tale, the reason this custom spread so quickly across Europe was because of the European sailors who were so mesmerized by this strange and beautiful norm that they inscribed their bodies with these tattoos.
Loss and Revival
The arrival of western missionaries on distant Pacific shores, in the 19th century, diminished that unique art, termed as unholy, barbaric and inhumane in Christian religious beliefs. The new arriving faith had a huge impact on the native divine and spiritual beliefs. The custom which was once spread in Polynesian societies across the Pacific Ocean was almost wiped out due to the ban imposed.
Some of the Tahitian tribes tried to lead resistance to preserve their ancient tradition known as ‘tattoo rebellion’ from the early to the mid 19th century in order to take back their independence, sovereignty, and spiritual roots.
In the 1970s and 80s, when it was on the verge of being banished from the world, Polynesian tattoo art experienced a rebirth but by then most of the ancient patterns and designs had lost their meaning in the chaos. People tried to revive it by using the knowledge that was acquired by a few German and American scientists. Due to the lack of authenticity from the native people, the meaning and sense were altered and lost forever.
Even though the real practice of Polynesian tattooing has been alive for more than 2000 years, still, in the 18th century, the procedure was strictly prohibited. In 1986, the Ministry of Health banned tattooing in French Polynesia mainly because it was very difficult to sterilize the wooden and bone instruments that were used to make tattoos.
Still, this culture holds a lot of meaning and spiritual value among its people. Their tattoos give significance to their lives and symbolize their journey in this world. This ancient artistic ritual has been carried out by their ancestors for centuries and then they carried this heritage beyond the horizon to distant shores where it still thrives.