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The Marquesas

The following selection is taken from Voyages and Travels in Various Parts of the World by Georg Heinrich von Langsdorff. London, 1817.

Marquesan warrior tattoos
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The most remarkable and interesting manner which the South-sea islanders have of ornamenting their naked bodies consists in punctuation, or, as they call it, tattooing. This kind of decoration, so common among many nations of the earth, merits greater attention from travelers than it has hitherto received. It is undoubtedly very striking, that nations perfectly remote from each other, who have no means of intercourse whatever, and according to what appears to us never could have had any, should yet be all agreed in this practice.

Among all the known nations of the earth, none has carried the art of tattooing to so high a degree of perfection as the inhabitants of Washington's Islands [the Marquesas]. The regular designs with which the bodies of the men of Nukubiva are punctured from head to toot supplies in some sort the absence of clothing; for, under so warm a heaven, clothing would be insupportable to them. Many people here seek as much to obtain distinction by the symmetry and regularity with which they are tattooed, as among us by the elegant manner in which they are dressed; and although no real elevation is designated by the greater superiority of these decorations, yet as only persons of rank can afford to be at the expense attendant upon any refinement in the ornament, it does become in tact a badge of distinction.

Marquesan tattoo photos
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The operation of tattooing is performed by certain persons, who gain their livelihood from it entirely, and I presume that those who perform it with the greatest dexterity, and evince the greatest degree of taste in the disposition of the ornaments, are as much sought after as among us a particularly good tailor. This much, however, must be said, that the choice made is not a matter of equal indifference with them as it is with us; for if the punctured garment be spoiled in the making, the mischief is irreparable, and it must be worn with all its faults the whole life through.

While we were at the Island, a son of the chief Katanuah was to be tattooed. For this purpose, as belonging to the principal person in the island, he was put into a separate house for several weeks which was tabooed; that is to say, it was forbidden to everybody except those who were exempted from the taboo by his father, to approach the house; here he was to remain during the whole time that the operation continued. All women, even the mother, are prohibited from seeing the youth while the taboo remains in force. Both the operator and the operatee are fed with the very best food during the continuance of the operation: to the former these are days of great festivity. In the first year only the ground-work of the principal figures upon the breast, arms, back and thighs is laid; and in doing this, the first punctures must be entirely healed, and the crust must have come off before new ones are made. Every single mark takes three or four days to heal; and the first sitting, as it may be called, commonly takes three or four weeks. When once the decorations are begun, some addition is constantly made to them at intervals of from three to six months, and this is not infrequently continued for thirty or forty years before the whole tattooing is complete.

The tattooing of persons in a middling station is performed in houses erected for the purpose by the tattooers, and tabooed by authority. A tattooer, who visited us several times on hoard the ship, had three of these houses, which could each receive eight or ten persons at a time: they paid for their decorations according to the greater or less quantity of them, and to the trouble the figures required. The poor islanders, who have not a superabundance of hogs to dispose of in luxuries, but live chiefly themselves upon breadfruit, are operated upon by novices in the art, who take them at a very low price as subjects for practice, but their works are easily distinguishable, even by a stranger, from those of an experienced artist. The lowest class of all the fishermen principally, but few of whom we saw, are often not able to afford even the pay by a novice, and are therefore not tattooed at all.

The women of Nukuhiva are very little tattooed, differing in this respect from the females of South-Sea islands. The hands are punctured from the ends of the fingers to the wrist, which gives them the appearance of wearing gloves, and our glovers might well borrow from them the patterns, and introduce a new fashion among the ladies, of gloves worked a la Wsahington. The feet, which among many are tattooed, look like highly ornamented half-boots; long stripes are besides sometimes to be seen down in the arms of the women, and circles round them, which have much the same effect as the bracelets worn by many European ladies. Some have also their ears and lips tattooed. The women are not, like the men, shut up in a tabooed house while they are going through this operation: it is performed without any ceremony in their new houses or in those of their relations.

The figures with which the body is tattooed are chosen with great care, and appropriate ornaments are selected for the different parts. They consist partly of animals, partly of other that have some reference to the manners and customs of the islands; and every figure has here, as in the Friendly Islands [Tonga], its particular name. Upon an accurate examination, lines, diamonds, and other designs, are often distinguishable between rows of punctures which resemble very much the ornaments called A la Grecque. The most perfect symmetry is observed over the whole body; the head of a man is tattooed in every part; the breast is commonly ornamented with a figure resembling a shield; on the arms and thighs are stripes, sometimes broader, sometimes narrower, in such directions that these people might very well be presumed to have studied anatomy, and to be acquainted with the course and dimensions of the muscles. Upon the back is a large cross, which begins at the neck, and ends with the last vertebra. In the front of the thigh are often figures, which seem intended to represent the human face. On each side of the calf of the leg is an oval figure, which produces good effect. The whole, in short, displays much taste and discrimination. Some of the parts of the body, the eyelids, for example, are the only parts not tattooed...

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