The Art of Tattooing in Tahiti

The decorative arts of Tahiti and the Society Islands in general were very limited. Tapa was decorated only minimally with plant forms, the carving was less elaborate than carvings from the neighboring island groups and the tattoo designs were very limited. As a result, resource material for contemporary artists is limited. Marquesan tattooing, on the other hand, was well documented  and included a wealth of interesting & artistic motifs, thus tattooists today are finding their inspiration in the arts of the Marquesas.

  The Tattooing of Women

Nearly everyone in Tahitian society was  tattooed, particularly all women. Women's tattoos were absolutely mandatory whereas boy's tattoos were desired but not required. The first tattoo that all young girls bore from a very early age were marks on the inside of their arms to show that they were free from food tabus. Until that time they could only accept  food prepared by their mothers - no one else. There are no illustrations of these marks, just a few descriptions. Young girls were again tattooed as they reached puberty. These tattoos are often described as heavy black patches on their buttocks. As they grew slightly older the smaller designs in arch shapes across the top were added. Young women were reported to lift their barkcloth  skirts showing their tattoos as a sign that they were sexually mature and available. Quite often this was directed at the Europeans who were surprised, if not shocked, particularly the missionaries. One early observer reported:

"The young females are more remarkable for bearing [tattooing] than the Males tho they cannot suffer more then one side to be done at a time and the other may remain perhaps for a Twelvemonth after before it is finishd, till which time  they never Conceive themselves Company for Weomen -- being only Counted as  Children till they have their tattowing done." (Morrison 1935:221).

The artists of the Captain Cook voyages are credited with the first illustrations of Tahitian tattooing. In  a sketch by Parkinson, we see the typical women's tattoo as described by so many  of the early explorers. (see picture on the right)

One of Cook's men wrote  the following description of the process:

"This morn I saw the operation of Tattowing the buttocks performd upon a girl of about 12 years old,  it provd as I have always suspected a most painfull one. It was done with a  large instrument about 2 inches long containing about 30 teeth, every stroke of  this - hundreds of which were made in a minnute - drew blood. The patient bore this for about 1/4 of an hour which most stoical resolution; by that time however the pain began to operate too stron(g)ly to be peacably endurd, she  began to complain and soon burst out into loud lamentations and would faint she might have persuaded the operator to cease; she was however held down by two  women who sometimes scolded, sometimes beat, and at others coaxd her. I was setting the adjacent house with Tomio for an hour, all which time it lasted and was not finishd when I went away tho very near. This was one side only of her buttocks for the other had been done some time before. The arches upon the loins  upon which they value themselves much were not yet done, the doing of which they  told causd more pain than what I had seen." (Beaglehole 1962: I, 309)

  The Tattooing of Men

Tahitian men were tattooed as well, but  less commonly and it was less a social obligation than was the case with women. Boys were tattooed at a later age, most likely their early teens. The process  took place at the same time, and was performed by the same person that supercised (a procedure similar to circumcision) boys. Morrison recorded that  both the tattooing and supercision were performed "by a particular set of men who make it a Trade and subsist partly by it always getting well paid for their  Work" It took place at a marae, or open air stone temple. Traditional circumcision still takes place on the outer islands, but tattooing is no longer a part of this right of passage.
Men's tattooing in ancient times consisted primarily of large rectangular blocks, often described as broad horizontal stripes, on the sides of the torso and the inner arms. Occasionally the hands  were tattooed with tiny repetitious geometric shapes, resembling the letters "x"  and "w". Women wore similar marks on their hands, and feet as well.

Source: Tricia Allen, academic and tattooist, specialized in Polynesian culture.

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