The History of Tattooing in the Pacific

By | January 12, 2014

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Although tattooing has been practiced among a variety of peoples throughout time and space, nowhere in the world has it been as important to the cultural heritage of a people as in the Pacific Islands of Oceania. According to legends, the practice is an ancient custom and probably, like the people of the islands themselves, originated in Asia. Unfortunately, as with many non-Western societies, there are no local histories of this practice so that the origins and functions of tattoo in the Pacific cannot be known for certain. What is known from archeological data is that the practice dates back at least as far as 1200 BC with the Lapita people who “colonized the Solomons, Hebrides, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa where the art of tattooing was continued” (Winman-Rudzinski 2003:24). According to Winman-Rudzinski these people used “flat chisel-shaped pieces of bone that were roughly two to four centimeters long and were sharpened at one end and resembled a comb” (2003:24). These bone tattoo tools were dipped in pigment made of soot and water and tapped with a mallet to embed the pigment into the skin. This basic technique varied little among the different people of the Pacific Islands, suggesting that the art and technology of tattooing predates the spread of people throughout the Pacific. Tattooing was vital to the many different cultures that inhabited these islands and was deeply “embedded in a social system, with which cosmology and religion were closely integrated” (Kuwahara 2005b:32). The art of tattooing manifested itself throughout the region in various but also very strikingly similar ways.

In Polynesia, the area within the triangular points of New Zealand/Aotearoa, Easter Island/Rapanui and Hawaii, tattooing was done using a skin-pricking technique that required a “stick with a piece of bone with sharpened teeth attached to the end….Tattooists from the more advanced tattoo cultures of New Zealand, Samoa and the Marquesas Islands used a wide variety of instruments, from tattooing combs with three to six sharp teeth…to combs with 60 teeth” (van Dinter 2005:137). These instruments were dipped in black liquid, usually made of the smoke from an oily nut mixed with water and other components, and struck rapidly with a mallet so that they penetrated the skin. In some instances, ink was rubbed into the wounds after they had been made.

The Mâori of New Zealand/Aotearoa took tattooing to its most extreme with their gorgeous spiraling facial tattoos known as moko. One explanation for the purpose of these tattoos is that the designs have been compared to the function of European heraldry with the distinction that “whereas the coat of arms attested [to] the merits of ancestors, the moko illustrated the merits of the person decorated with it” (Winman-Rudzinski 2003:39). Each person’s moko was unique, and the designs signified status and were also a history of that individual’s achievements. These tattoos were worn proudly and contained aspects of identity so that when Europeans arrived bringing with them writing and documents, Mâori chiefs signed them with exact copies of their moko designs.

Tattooing was an important part of the culture of these various peoples. It was used to mark the status of an individual, to project a ferocity and prowess in battle (especially with the Mâori Moko, or facial tattoos), for mourning the dead, and as a rite of passage for both sexes. Being able to endure the excruciating pain of being tattooed proved that a boy was ready to become a man and would not flinch in battle and that a girl was ready for the duties of childbearing that made her a woman.

Most designs in the Pacific were geometric rather than figurative. Lines, swirls, spirals, checkers, and large areas of solid color characterized the tattoo style of the Pacific Islands. Each culture had its own style, with the Maoris of New Zealand known for their graceful and symmetrical curved and spiraled patterns, Samoans known for their intricately lined “trouser tattoos,” Hawaiians known for their asymmetrical checker and triangle patterns, and Marshall Islanders known for their intricate zigzag “chain mail” tattoos (van Dinter 2005:175).

Early Western explorers were astonished by these designs, and a few of them may have gotten themselves tattooed, bringing the design back to Europe and causing a stir in European society. The practice spread among sailors and soldiers and eventually even became a fad for the upper classes in the late nineteenth century. As for the state of indigenous tattooing in the Pacific, within 100 years of Cook’s voyages, the tattooing cultures of the Pacific drastically declined and all but disappeared due to the influence of missionaries, who took it upon themselves to eradicate customs that they considered unacceptable. Along with cannibalism, idolatry, and human sacrifice, the custom of tattooing was also targeted (van Dinter 2005:175-177).

Today, a revival of ancient tattoo customs is underway, most notably in Tahiti, where the practice had been absent for about 150 years. Kuwahara writes that the revival of traditional tattooing “occurred with the cultural revitalization movement in Tahiti in the 1970s and 80s when modernization and urbanization in Tahiti took place with mass migration from the remote islands and from outside French Polynesia to Papeete due to the installment of nuclear testing facilities…and an international airport in Faa’a” (2005b:29-30). These independence and revitalization movements “emerged from the rejection and contestation of French culture and the desire to regain an indigenous past. The customs and practices particular to their land, including language,…dance, music, art and crafts and sport were regarded as essential…and started being taught at school, at home and in the community” (Kuwahara 2005b:30). The traditional tattoo culture of Tahiti was an integral part of this cultural revival.


Kuwahara, Makiko

2005a. Multiple Skins: Space, Time and Tattooing in Tahiti. In Tattoo: Bodies, Art and Exchange in the Pacific and the West. Nicholas Thomas, Anna Cole and Bronwen Douglas, eds. Pp 171-190. London: Reaktion Books.

2005b. Tattoo: An Anthropology. Oxford: Berg.

van Dinter, Maarten Hesselt

2005. The World of Tattoo. Amsterdam: KIT Publishers

Wiman-Rudzinski, Georgina

2003. Tattoos in Ancient Times. In Body Piercing and Tattoos: Examining Pop Culture. J.D. Lloyd, ed. Pp 21-26. New York: Greenhaven Press.

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