Embodied Symbols of the South Seas: Eastern Oceania
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Embodied Symbols of the South Seas: Eastern Oceania

Article © 2010 Lars Krutak


Throughout Polynesia, tattooing was a cultural practice that transcended time and space. Tattoo knowledge was traditional, and as it was handed down over successive generations to become a time-tested and time-honored method to affect physical, psychological, and spiritual change in the people who endured it. Tattoo motifs traveled between lineages and traced genealogical relationships back to the gods. And because each new design was a duplicate or composite inspired by an original ancestral source, it also brought together in one place simultaneous reference to the ancient past (po), present (ao), and future.

However, when the tattooing comb struck the skin, the release of blood was considered to be a powerful moment cognate with the recurring cycles of birth, maturation, accomplishment, and rebirth. And through this act of repetition, tattooing made manifest several important ideas and feelings surrounding life and death within the visual fabric of indigenous Polynesian culture.

Tattooing also animated and influenced the mana of others - both human and supernatural - who controlled destiny and the surrounding world. And as a system of ceremonial and ritual action, Polynesian tattooing was a component of a highly complex system essential to the social and religious reproduction of local cultures. This is because tattoo transformed the body into a microcosm of the indigenous universe by creating a sacred, personal and collective space that provided a means from which to reconcile the affairs of humans and the divine through dramatic designs that both illuminated and constrained the body itself.

But over time tattooing gradually lost its importance in the cultural repertoire of the majority of the Polynesian people. Colonial administration and especially Christian missionization forcibly paved the way for a relinquishing of ancient customs in many regions, although in some areas the practice survived (e.g., Samoa) or it was simply  driven underground until it was finally revived in recent decades.

Today, the practice of Polynesian tattooing continues. But ever-increasing opportunities for artistic interaction between traditional tattooists and non-Polynesians has contributed to growing tensions related to questions of cultural appropriation. Many contemporary designs are genealogical symbols and forms of intellectual property related to specific families, and there is a strong sense that they have become devalued as they have been copied by outsiders who have no knowledge of what these patterns are meant to convey.

But for the Polynesian practitioners of tattooing and their indigenous recipients, the art form largely remains true to its origins. Tattooing not only asserts affiliation, genealogy, and religious intent, but it also pays homage to the ancestors through an artistic movement of mutual respect. 


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Museum photo gallery of the images in this article may be seen here.

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