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The following is an excerpt from the Tattoo History Source Book:

Polynesian Tattoos

Polynesian tattooing, as it existed before the arrival of Europeans in the South Pacific, was the most intricate and skilful tattooing in the ancient world. It had evolved over thousands of years and was characterized by elaborate geometrical designs which were often renewed, and embellished throughout the life of the individual until they covered the entire body.

Polynesian tattoos
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It was in Tonga and Samoa that the Polynesian tattoo developed into a highly refined art. Tongan warriors were tattooed from the waist to the knees with a series of geometrical patterns, consisting of repeated triangular motifs, bands, and areas of sold black. Priests who had undergone a long period of training and who followed strictly prescribed rituals and taboos during the process executed the tattooing. For the Tongon, the tattoo carried profound social and cultural significance.

In ancient Samoa, tattooing played an important role in both religious ritual and warfare. The tattoo artist held a hereditary and highly privileged position. He customarily tattooed young men in groups of six to eight, during a ceremony attended by friends and relatives. The Samoan warrior's tattoo began at the waist and extended to just below the knee.

Samoan women were tattooed as well, but female tattooing was limited to a series of delicate flower-like geometrical patterns on the hands and lower part of the body.
About 200 AD, voyageurs from Samoa and Tonga settled in the Marquesas. Over a period of period of more than a thousand years, one of the most complex Polynesian cultures evolved. Marquesan art and architecture were highly developed and Marquesan tattoo designs, which in many cases covered the whole body, were the most elaborate in Polynesian.

By 1,000 AD the Polynesian peoples had colonized most of the habitable islands east of Samoa. Distinctive cultural traits evolved in each of the island groups and so did unique languages, myths, arts and tattoo styles. Polynesian tattooing is briefly mentioned in European ship's logs dating from the 17th and 18th centuries, but it wasn't until Captain Cook, in 1769 that is was described in detail by Cook's naturalist, Joseph Banks.

Tattooed native of NukahiwaIn August of 1769, Banks describes how tattoos were produced:

"The color they use is lamp black which they prepare from the smoke of a kind of oily nuts used by them instead of candles. This is kept in coconut shells and mixed with water occasionally for use. Their instruments for pricking this under the skin are made of bone and shell, flat, the lower part of this is cut into sharp teeth from 3 to 20 according to the purpose into the skin so deep that every stroke is followed by a small quantity of blood, or serum at least, and the part so marked remains sore for many days before it heals."

Sir Joseph Banks was the first European who speculated as to the motive for tattooing among the natives of Polynesia. During his visit to Tahiti in 1769, he wrote: "What can be sufficient inducement to suffer so much pain is difficult to say; not one Indian (though I have asked hundreds) would ever give me the least reason for it; possibly superstition may have something to do with it. Nothing else in my opinion could be a sufficient cause for so apparently absurd a custom."

Members of Cook's crew were the first Europeans to acquire Polynesian tattoos, and the fad quickly spread in the British Navy as sailors returned home with tattoos as souvenirs of their travels to distant lands. Sailors also learned the technique from Polynesian artists, practiced it onboard ship, and later retired to establish tattoo parlors in European port cities. Tattooing is the only form of Polynesian art that has been widely adopted and imitated by westerners.

Tattoo Museum Bibliography, Resources and Links

Oceania Tattoo Map See all Oceanic Tattoo Culture Articles here

Additional Resources

Skin Stories - The Art and Culture of Polynesian Tattoo --  Skin Stories is an anthology of stories and stunning images gathered from the hot spots of Pacific tattoo: from the steaming landscape of Rotorua in New Zealand to the vibrant gathering of the first international tattoo convention in Apia, Samoa; from the terraced, lush taro fields of Maui to the golden beaches of O'ahu and California.

Meanings of Polynesian Tribal Tattoo Designs - Online Dictionary

TATAU: THE TAHITIAN REVIVAL -- Tricia Allen's 1998 article on the revival of the Tahitian tattoo

Tatau, Polynesian tattoos, the renaissance -- In traditional Polynesian society, the art of tatau (tattoos) had a high degree of sophistication in design as well as within its profound symbology. Condemned as pagan and forbidden for over 160 years, this extraordinary art could have well disappeared if it weren't for a spectacular renaissance that began in the 1980s. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, tatau has once again found its place in Polynesian society.

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