There is still debate over the definitive origins of Polynesian culture and that transfers also, to the notion of tattooing.
One thing that is certain is that the term Polynesian or Polynesia incorporates many tribes including Marquesans, Samoans, Niueans, Tongans, Cook Islanders, Hawaiians, Tahitians and Maori. All of these tribes are genetically linked to the indigenous peoples from parts of Southeast Asia.
Southeast Asia and in turn, Polynesia are sub-regions of Oceania, comprising of a large grouping of over 1000 islands scattered over the central and southern Pacific Ocean, within a triangle that encompasses New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island as it’s corners.
The people who inhabit the islands of Polynesia are termed Polynesians and they share many similar traits including language, culture and beliefs
However, Polynesian languages may actually vary slightly from each other, and in some cases they actually differ quite significantly. There are some words, which are basically the same throughout all Polynesian languages, reflecting the deepest core of all Polynesian cultures. Moana (ocean) and mana (spiritual force and energy) are two terms that transcend all Polynesian cultures.
These words are rather similar and this reflects how closely related Polynesian cultures are with the ocean, as they believe that the ocean guarantees life.
The Origins of Tattoo Art in Polynesia
Historically there was no writing in Polynesian culture so the Polynesian’s used tattoo art that was full of distinctive signs to express their identity and personality. Tattoos would indicate status in a hierarchical society as well as sexual maturity, genealogy and ones rank within the society. Nearly everyone in ancient Polynesian society was tattooed.
The Polynesian islands that were first first visited were the Marquesas Islands, which were found by European explorers and the Spanish navigator, Alvaro de Mendana de Neira, in 1595. However, the European navigators showed little interest due to the lack of valuable resources.
Captain James Cook (as mentioned in our comprehensive guide to Maori tattooing) was the first navigator trying to explore the aforementioned Polynesian triangle.
In 1771, when James Cook first returned to Tahiti and New Zealand from his first voyage, the word “tattoo” appeared in Europe. He narrated the behaviours of the Polynesian people in his voyage, which he called tattaw. He also brought a Tahitian named Ma’i to Europe and since then tattoo started to become rapidly famous, predominently because of the tattoos of Ma’i.
Another legend is that European sailors liked the Polynesian tattoos so much that they spread extremely fast in Europe because the sailors emblazoned the tattoos on their own bodies.
The actual tradition of Polynesian tattooing existed more than 2000 years ago, however in the 18th century the Old Testament strictly banned the operation. Since it’s renaissance in the 1980s, many lost arts were revived but it became very difficult to sterilise the wooden and bone tools that were used for the tattooing process so the Ministry of Health banned tattooing in French Polynesia in 1986.
The revival of the art and practice of tattooing, particularly in Tonga, in recent years is predominantly referred to as a result of the work of scholars, researchers, visual artists and tattoo artists.
Tonga and Samoa
It was in Tonga and Samoa that the Polynesian tattoo developed into a highly refined art. Tongan warriors were tattooed form the waist to the knees with a series of geometrical patterns, mostly consisting of repeated triangle motifs, bands and also areas of solid black.
Priests who had undergone a long period of training who followed strictly prescribed rituals and taboos that took place during the tattooing process. For the Tongan people, the tattoo carried profound social and cultural significance, as mentioned previously.
In ancient Samoa, tattooing also played a hugely important role in both reglious rituals and warfare. The tattoo artist held a hereditary and by the same vein, a very highly privileged position. He usually tattooed groups of six to eight (usually men) during a ceremony attended by friends and relatives. The Samoan warrior’s tattoo began at the waist and extended to just below the knee.
However, it was not unusual for Samoan women to be tattoo too. But the images were limited to things such as a series of delicate flower-like patterns (usually geometrical), on the hands and lower parts of the body.
Around 200AD voyageurs from Samoa and Tonga settled in the area of Marquesas. Over a period of more than 1000 years one of the most complex Polynesian cultures evolved – Marquesan.
Marquesan art and architecture were highly developed and Marquesan tattoo designs, which often covered the whole body, were the most elaborate in Polynesia.
Tools of the trade
Although many years have passed, the tools and techniques of Polynesian tattooing have changed very little. For a very traditional design the skill of tattoo art was usually handed down through generations. Each tattoo artist, or tufaga, was said to have learned the craft over many years of serving as an apprentice.
The advent of Christianity in Tonga witnessed the loss of several indigenous practices such as the practice of tattooing. Although the art of tattooing was retained in the nation if Samoa, it was completely erased in Tonga.
In Samoa, the tradition of applying the tattoo by hand has been unbroken for over 2000 years. Tools and techniques have hardly differed whatsoever. The skill is often passed from father to son, each artist learning the art after many years of serving as an apprentice.
A young artist in training often spent hours at a time, or even days, tapping designs into sand or bark-cloth using a special tattooing comb or au. Honouring their highly revered tradition, Samoan tattoo artists made this tool from sharpened boars teeth fastened together with a portion of the turtle shell and to a wooden handle.
James Samuela tattooing a man in the traditional Tahitian way in French Polynesia
The permanent marks left on someone after they have been tattooed would forever remember and commemorate their endurance and dedication to cultural traditions. The pain was extreme and the risk of death by infection was a huge concern for many people. However, to shy away from tattooing was to risk being labeled a coward or a pala’ai and to then be hated and insulted by the rest of the tribe or clan. The men who could not endure the pain and abandoned their tattooing were left incomplete, wearing their mark of shame throughout their life.
There were few men who refused the traditional pe’a, the intricate tattoo that covered their body from mid-torso to the knees. The artist would use a mallet to tap the teeth of the ink-laden comb into the man’s flesh, following only simple marks as guidelines.
A tattooing session typically lasted until dusk or until the men could no longer stand the pain and would resume the following day, unless the inflamed skin needed a few days to heal. The entire process could last up to three or even four months. Afterwards, the man’s family would help him to celebrate, despite the pain, by throwing a party and the tufuga smashed a water vessel at his feet, marking the end of the painful ordeal.
The healing process
This process usually took months. The tattooed skin would have to be washed in salt water, to keep infection at bay and then the body area had to be massaged to keep out impurities. Family and friends would assist in the healing process because even extremely simple tasks e.g. walking and sitting, could irritate the inflamed skin and cause great pain. Within six months, the distinctive designs would begin to appear on their skin but it would take almost a year to completely heal.
Placement on the body
Placement on the body plays a very important role in Polynesian tattooing. There are a few elements that are related to specific meanings based on where they are placed. So in short, their placement has an influence on the meaning of a Polynesian tattoo.
Humans are said to be descendants or children of Rangi (Heaven) and Papa (Earth), which were said to once be united. Man’s quest in Polynesian legend is to find that union again, so the body is seen as a link between Rangi and Papa. The upper part of the body is related to the spiritual world and heaven, whilst the lower part of the body is related to the world and to earth.
The placements of some elements on the body, such as genealogy tracks on the back of the arms, suggest that the back may be related to the past and the front to the future.
Gender-wise, left is usually associated with women and the right to men.
The head is said to be the contact point to Rangi, and so is related to themes such as spirituality, knowledge, wisdom and intuition.
2. Higher trunk
This area is from just above the navel to the chest and is related to themes such as generosity, sincerity, honour and reconciliation. Some may have noticed that this area is placed directly between Rangi and Papa, in order to have harmony between them balance must exist in this area.
3. Lower trunk
This area goes from the thighs to the navel. This part of the body directly relates to life’s energy, courage, procreation, independence and sexuality. In particular, thighs relate to strength and marriage. The stomach or mid area, is where mana originates form and the navel represents independence due to the symbolic meaning associated to the cutting of the umbilical cord.
Independence is a trait that is valued highly in Polynesian society (as in most others), however individualism is not. All people depending on the sea for sustenance know the important of sociality and socialising. Polynesian people built their culture around this. Family thus becomes a larger group of people that includes all relatives, friends and neighbours, all of which play an important role.
A famous word to define this larger family, comes from Hawaii, the word is ‘Ohana which indicates the familiar group of people who cooperate in the growing, teaching and feeding of children.
4. Upper arms and shoulders
The shoulders and upper arms above the elbow are associated with strength and bravery and they relate to people such as warriors and chiefs. The Maori word kikopuku used to designate this part of the union of the words kiko (flesh, body) and puku (swollen). Puku as a prefix or suffix is also used as an intensifier of the word it qualifies, enforcing the idea of strong arms.
5. Lower arms and hands
From below the elbow, the same word is used to refer both to arm and hand. This part of the body relates to creativity, creation and making things.
6. Legs and feet
The same word is used to refer both to leg and foot. Legs and feet represent moving forward, transformation and progress. They are also related to separation and choice. The feet, being our contact with Papa, Mother Nature, are also related to concreteness and material matters.
Joints often represent union, contact. If we look at the body as a reflection of society, we can understand why joints, being the points where different bones meet, represent different degrees of relation between individuals: the farther from the head (the chief of the family) the greater the distance in kinship, or the lower the status. Ankles and wrists represent a tie and bracelets placed there often symbolise commitment.Knees are often related to chiefs (to kneel before them).
Traditional positioning should not keep you from placing your tattoos on any part of the body you may feel appropriate for you: we believe a design should be meaningful to his owner before anyone else.
Polynesian images and motifs
1. Enata (singular)
Human figures, otherwise known as enata in Marquesan language, represent men, women and sometimes gods. They can be placed within a tattoo to represent people and their relations. If they are placed upside down then they can be used to represent defeated enemies. This is one example of the Enata in its singular form.
2. Enata (pattern)
Over-stylised enata joined together in a row of people holding hands form the motif called ani ata, which translates to “cloudy sky”.
Polynesian languages and a row of enata in a semi-circular form often represent the sky as well as the ancestors guarding their descendants.
3. Shark teeth (simplified)
Shark teeth or niho mano deserve a space of their own. Sharks are one of the favourite forms that aumakua choose to appear to man. They represent protection, guidance and strength as well as fierocity however, they are also symbols of adaptability in many cultures. This is an example of simplified shark teeth.
4. Shark teeth (complex)
Below are stylisations of shark teeth, in their more complex form as they may be seen in a tattoo.
Another classic symbol that is used to represent the warrior nature is the spear. Spear-heads are very symbolic in relation to sharp items too and they can be used to represent the sting of some animals.
6. Spearhead (pattern)
Often, this is stylised as a row of spear-heads, below is one variant.
7. Ocean (simplified)
The ocean is a second home to Polynesian people and the place of rest when they leave for their last voyage. Coincidentally, turtles are said to join the departed guiding them to their destinations. So sometimes, the ocean can be used to represent death and the beyond. Since the ocean is the primary source of food, it is no wonder it impacts so much tradition and myth. All the creatures living in the ocean are associated with several meanings, usually mutated from their characteristic traits and habits. The ocean and the sea can be represented by waves. Here is the simplified version.
The stylisations of the ocean can often represent ideas such as life, change and continuity through change. Waves can also be used to represent the world beyond or the place where the departed go and rest on their last voyage.
One meaning of the word tiki is figure, so tiki is the name given to human-like figures that usually represent semi-gods as opposed to atua, who usually appear to men under the shape of animals such as lizards.
The tiki can also represent deified ancestors, priests and chiefs who became semi-gods after their passing. They symbolise protection, fertility and they serve as guardians.
By stylizing the figure over and over there has been a simplified version that has been reached, called the “brilliant eye” where the eyes, nostrils and ears appear to be the prominent elements.
Here is an example of a tiki face
10. Tiki eyes
Tiki figures can be portrayed in a front view (sometimes with their tongue stretched out as a symbol of defiance to enemies). Here is a close up of one of the most important elements of the tiki, the eyes.
The turtle or honu is another important creature throughout all Polynesian cultures and has been associated with several meanings. The first being the fact that turtles symbolise health, fertility, longevity in life, foundation, peace and rest.
The word hono, meaning turtle in Marquesan language, has other meanings which encompass things such as joining and stitching together families and representing the idea of unity.
Contrary to what is sometimes believed, turtles drawn upwards do not imply that they are taking the soul of a dead person into the other world. To represent this, a human figured must be placed on or near the shell of the turtle.
12. Turtle (shell pattern)
Other patterns can be derived by the inlay of the shell, this is one example of a shell-stylisation…
Lizards and geckos are often called mo’o or moko and they play an important role in Polynesian myth. Gods (atua) and minor spirits often appeared to men in the form of lizards and this may explain why the stylised element used to represent the lizard is very similar to the stylised symbol used to represent man.
Lizards are very powerful creatures who bring good luck, communicate between the humans and the gods and who can access the invisible world. On the other hand, they can also bring death and bad omens to people who are disrespectful.
14. Lizard (pattern)
This is a pattern or stylisation of the lizard symbol, and as mentioned above it does look rather similar to the human-form stylisation (enata).
Stingray tattoos come in several variations and styles, the image can hold symbolic meanings. The stingray has the ability to hide in the underwater sands, mainly from sharks and is able to cover up with sand and lay still. Most sharks can sense prey in the sand based on movement but for the most part the stingray is able to hide and for this reason, it’s image is classed as a symbol of protection. Other themes that go hand in hand with the sting-ray image are adaptation, gracefulness, peacefulness, danger, agility, speed and stealth.