Tattoos and Their Relationship to Polynesian Culture

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  • Topic: Tattoo, Polynesia, History of tattooing
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  • Published : June 6, 2011
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Tattoos and their Relationship to Polynesian Culture
Denise Lutz
Axia College of University of Phoenix

“They print signs on people’s body and call this tattow”- James Cook (Losch, 2003). What might his first thoughts have been upon anchoring at one of the Polynesian islands, seeing natives covered in markings? What did the markings and designs mean? Could he have wondered what the significance was, who did this to them, and what was used to place those markings on them. Although tattoos were ultimately banned, there was an impact on the Polynesian culture; one could determine ones rank, status, and origin based on the tattoos. Tattoos have existed on the Polynesian islands for over 2000 years, Samoa being the oldest island in the Polynesian chain and Aotearoa-slash-Te Waipounamu being the youngest of the islands that practiced tattooing. Although the Spaniards were the first to discover tattoos in Polynesia in 1595, the first written descriptions regarding tattoos did not appear for almost two centuries (Tahiti Tatou, 2007). Though there were differences between the Polynesian islands that made each island unique there were also similarities that were shared between all the islands. One of the primary differences between the tattoos on Polynesian islands was the traditional names that were used for tattooing. For example, many of the islands used traditional names for tattooing such as Moko from the island Maori, Tatatu from the island of Tonga, and Tatau from the island of Samoa. In fact the term tattoo originated from the Polynesian word “ta” which means to strike something and the Tahitian word “tatau” which means to mark something (Designbloom, 2000-2009). There were two basic design styles that were shared amongst all the Polynesian islands. The first design style was known as Etua and the second style was known as Enata (Hastings, 2009). The designs associated with Etua were of a strong spiritual nature, had a religious connotation, and were looked upon as magical symbols that would provide protection by the gods. The designs associated with Enata were based on natural designs which could be used to determine a native’s status, role, genealogy, occupation, and identity. The following are some examples of symbols based on Polynesian design and their meanings (Hastings 2009). Shark’s Teeth- Shark’s teeth tattoos are for protection

Turtles- A turtle symbol represents long life and fertility Tiki- The god Tiki is often shown with eyes closed. This is because Tiki is able to smell trouble before it is seen. Although Enata and Etua were distinct styles, the patterns and designs used by the various islands, and the tribes of each island were distinct enough to set them apart from one another. The following was noted, “Within the islands currently known as French Polynesia (the Society, Tuamotu, Austral, Gambier and Marquesas groups), the individual island groups or even individual islands had unique designs. Thus, it was possible to identify a person's origins based on their tattoos” (Losch, 2003). An example of the ability to identify natives based on their island of origin was the spiral motif used by the Maori natives of Aotearoa-slash-Te Waipounamu. Not only was it possible to identify the island of origin it was also possible to determine the status that one held within the tribe. The ritual of receiving a tattoo normally began as one reached teenage years; this was looked upon as a rite of passage into adulthood. Additional tattoos were added over time; the more a man was tattooed the more prestige he had (Opusmang, 2008). Tattoos played an important role in determining how one was looked upon within the tribe, tattoos were associated with wealth, strength, and power. Consequently, it was not uncommon for the chief, and the warriors to have the most detailed, and extensive tattoos. Additionally, Tattoos were so important in the culture that those men, who were completely tattooed, known as to’oata, were...
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