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Easter Island 1772

On Easter Sunday, 1722, the Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen was in the South Pacific and sighted a small volcanic island in the distance which was Easter Island that had developed in complete isolation for centuries.

The ancestors of the Polynesians began to migrate from Southeast Asia about 1500 B.C., and at some time around 600-800 AD, arrived on Easter Island.

Easter Island

The Easter Islanders, who today refer to themselves and to their homeland as Rapa Nui, are the easternmost of some 36 Polynesian peoples whose ancestors discovered and settled the islands of the central and eastern Pacific. They share a common ancestry with other Polynesians, such as the Hawaiians, Tahitians and the New Zealand Maori.

Rapa Nui Tattoos

Tapa barkcloth figure showing tattoos
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All Rapa Nui art blends images of people and animals (anthropomorphic and zoomorphic imagery) into superbly crafted and almost surrealistic forms. This art inspired a number of Surrealist painters, particularly Max Ernst, whose works often contain imagery after Easter Island art.

Five barkcloth figures (manu uru) are known to exist in museum collections and all are decorated with paintings representing tattoos.

Picture to the right: Tapa barkcloth figure (manu usu). Reeds, bark cloth and paint, 19th century. Forty cm. high. Note: facial and torso tattoos.

Throughout Polynesia, tattooing was widespread and often associated with chiefly or warrior status. The face, neck, torso, back, legs, arms and top of the head were tattooed.

Rapa Nui tattooing implements (ta kona)Tattoo Implements
Rapa Nui tattooing implements (ta kona) were similar to those found elsewhere in Polynesia (a comb of bird bone lashed at a right angle to a wood handle). The comb was dipped in a prepared pigment of charred ti leaves (Cordyline terminalis) mixed with black nightshade (Solanum nigrum) juice and struck with a mallet into the skin.

Juan Tepano, a Rapa Nui nobleman, 1870's

Juan Tepano, a Rapa Nui nobleman, 1870ís
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Only one photograph survives of traditional Rapa Nui tattooing. This 1870s carte-de-visite, made by Tahitian photographer Madame Hoare, portrays Juan Tepano, a Rapa Nui nobleman, with neck and facial tattoos. The Swedish ethnographer Hjalmar Stolpe who traveled the Pacific in the 1880s also illustrated him in portrait and profile views.

Juan Tepano's forehead tattoos consisted of six to ten solid vertical stripes. The parallel lines across the forehead and the fringe of dots were the first motifs tattooed on the face. This pattern was commonly recorded by early voyagers. Beneath Tepano's chin and beard (on the throat) is a stylized bird with head turned down, elongated body and wings reduced to four small tattoo lines. This motif, also seen in other abstract versions on bark cloth figures, is the frigate bird. The frigate, a predatory bird that flies swiftly and cunningly, is widely associated with the tattoo traditions of several indigenous peoples of Polynesia, Melanesia and Indonesia, and is symbolic of headhunting and warfare. Also, on the right side of Tepano's spine is a set of nine parallel lines, running vertically and bending to the right at the bottom, reminiscent of a bird swooping downwards with wings outstretched. These same tattoos appear on a bark cloth figure. Other tapa figures have more abstract images of birds on their necks and hips.

By 1911, only four islanders out of 228 wore traditional tattoos, and these were women. By 1930, only two survived.

Easter Island facial tattoosGenerally speaking, Rapa Nui tattooing was comprised of fundamental motifs preserved and passed from one generation to the next. Certain designs were more common than others. Women and men very often had heavy lines on their faces, which, crossing the forehead extended from one ear to the other. These lines were curved and combined with a series of large dots (humu or puraki, "to enclose") that marked the forehead and temples. On the cheeks of women below the ears was a motif called pagaha'a (something that hangs heavy), formed by the meeting of two designs, one triangular and the other fusiform (tapering at each end). Tattooed rings (ngutu tika) surrounded the mouths of women, possibly akin to the Maori custom, while three vertical lines descending the mouth sometimes crossed the chin.

Tattoo Museum Bibliography, Resources and Links

South America Tattoo Map See all Eastern Oceania Tattoo Culture Articles here

Additional Resources

Tattoo History Source Book by Steve Gilbert

Trisha Allen -

See the Lars Krutak article RAPA NUI SKIN: EASTER ISLAND INK for more information about tattoos & tattooing in the Easter Islands.

Easter Island Tattoos -- Some of the traditional designs and bit of history

Meanings of Polynesian Tribal Tattoo Designs - Online Dictionary

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