Maori man with full moko tattoo
Maori man with full moko tattoo
Role of Tattoo
Tattoo Stories

Skin Stories: The Art and Culture of Polynesian Tattoo

Image shows the various patterns used in a man's tattoo on the backside.

KEALALOKAHI LOSCH is currently an Instructor in Hawaiian and Pacific Islands Studies at Kapi’olani Community College, a campus of the University of Hawai’i. His research into Polynesian tattooing focuses on the revival of Hawaiian uhi and Maori moko. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Sociology and Pacific Islands Studies on the identity issues faced by Hapa-Haole (aboriginal Hawaiian/Caucasian half-castes) in Hawai’i.
An Ancient Polynesian Tradition

For centuries, various arts of tattooing have graced the bodies and satisfied the souls of the aboriginal peoples of Oceania. The vast majority of what we know today about these ancient arts has been passed down through legends, songs, and ritual ceremonies. The roles, techniques and motifs of the arts of tatau, moko, and uhi have continued to exist for over 2,000 years. The oldest of these traditions is in Samoa, and the youngest is in Aotearoa/Te Waipounamu. However, every Polynesian culture had similar traditions. In Tahiti, the Arioi, a class of professional entertainers, used tattoos (tatau) to mark the various ranks and status within their troupes. In fact, 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. Unfortunately, while Tonga once had a strong tradition of tattoo (tatatau), the missionary presence of the 19th century completely extinguished the art. In Rapanui, tattoos (ta') were used extensively as well, although not much is known by the outside world today about their meanings or usages.

Common Elements

In Samoa, Aotearoa/Te Waipounamu, and Hawai'i, there were many shared elements, both traditional and contemporary. The status of the master, the general motifs used, and the methods of application were common elements to all of the cultures of Polynesia.

The roles, techniques and motifs of the arts of tatau, moko, and uhi have continued to exist for over 2,000 years.
The master: Within Polynesian societies, the masters of various arts and skills were held in high esteem by the general population, including the sacred chiefs (ali'i/ariki) who ruled the society. These masters were known as tufuga in Samoa, tohunga in Aotearoa/Te Waipounamu, and kahuna in Hawai'i.

The master of tattooing was a highly trained individual, usually male, who was knowledgeable of both literal and figurative meanings of motifs, placement, and associated responsibilities or consequences. In most cases, it was the master who determined not only what designs were appropriate, but also who could be tattooed and when. The master might also instruct the subject on what protocols and prohibitions needed to be observed before proceeding. Some of these requirements were fasting or a special diet or refraining from certain activities that might "taint" the person spiritually.

The master was well compensated for his efforts. Because most of the tattooing tended to be done on those of the higher social strata, the master was often fed and housed during the duration of the tattooing session. In addition, the master was often given various cultural treasures such as fine mats in Samoa or wood or jade (pounamu/greenstone) carvings and weapons in Aotearoa/Te Waipounamu.

With great gifts come great sacrifices and the master often had to give up having a family or other permanent relationships for their craft. The master's lifestyle was also restricted to avoid tainting themselves or their work. There were spiritual responsibilities as well. It was often a patron god who was credited for giving the master the necessary skills. The master always had to take care not to offend their gods lest their gift of tattooing others be taken away.

Linear geometric motifs are common throughout Polynesian tattoo.
Linear geometric motifs are common throughout Polynesian tattoo.

Common Motifs: Some design elements that were common throughout Polynesia were linear geometric motifs, petroglyphs, and very basic pictographic representations of men, animals, birds or other man-made objects. Each of the geometric designs, including lines; triangles; circles and other polygonal symbols had multiple meanings based on placement on the body, incorporation with other designs, and the person being tattooed. It was usually up to the master to determine what was appropriate for each person and to then explain the story to that person.

The role of the master in the contemporary revival has been greatly affected by the wealth of information on tattooing and general culture that is available to any that are willing to look for it. The days of apprenticeships and the preservation of privileged or sacred knowledge are nearly gone from the mainstream tattoo industry and may also be a thing of the past for indigenous practices.

Techniques: With the exception of the Maori moko, the process of tattooing in Polynesia has not changed much. First, the design was marked and major sections were outlined on the skin, usually with charcoal or colored earth. Then, the master began work with the needles, which were often made of bird bone, turtle shell, bamboo, and occasionally shark teeth. The tattooing itself was a process of multiple taps. The implement used to cut the skin and inject the ink was similar in form to an adze, with the needles mounted on the end of a wooden haft. The soot from the burned candlenut (Aleurites moluccana) was collected and mixed with a variety of liquids including candlenut oil, sugar cane juice, coconut milk/water, other plant-based liquids or water to produce the ink. In Hawai'i, there was occasionally a fourth step in the process between the inking and the healing. After the ink was inserted the first time, the uhi was sometimes darkened with the juices or saps of other plants, most notably the 'ilie'e (Plumbago zeylanica).

Aside from continued rinsing with seawater, there are no specific details given in most written sources regarding the healing processes used in Polynesia, but it can be assumed that the vast pharmacological knowledge of the master would have been applied to assist in the healing.

Samoan Tatau

Samoan women's malu.
Samoan women's malu.

Two sisters, Taema and Tilafaiga, are credited with bringing the art of the tatau from Fiji. However, the tradition they had been taught in Fiji of "the women get tattooed and the men do not," got reversed on their journey home. From this mix-up evolved the current Samoan tradition and saying, "women have children and men get tattooed." Thus, in ancient Samoa, the most extensive tatau, in the form of the pe'a, were applied to the men. However, the women did share in the art as well. The pe'a covers the thighs, butt, and lower back, with a final "locking" piece applied just around the navel. The pe'a as a whole is a representation of a bat, its wings wrapping around the legs of the man. In ancient times, the pe'a was a sign to the village and larger community that a young man was committed to serving his aiga, or extended family. In fact, getting the pe'a was a prerequisite for a man to receive a matai (chief's) title. In general, a young man with a pe'a was deemed to be more attractive to women because he had shown his dedication and bravery by undergoing the very painful process of the pe'a. What then of the women? In Samoa, the women were not excluded from tatau; in fact the tattooing of women was considered to be more sacred in some ways than tattooing the men. There were separate styles for the women, including designs on the hand and the malu on the thighs. The malu, applied only to a woman's thighs, was far less extensive than the male pe'a and more of a lace web than solid patterning. The malu is sometimes flashed when Samoan women dance the traditional siva.

Ironically, the most predominant style of tattooing, the armband, was originally developed as a "souvenir" for American Peace Corps workers returning to the United States.
The pe'a and malu are still applied today just as they were centuries ago, making Samoa the last bastion of an unbroken tradition of tattooing in Polynesia. However, the art is also evolving to suit the needs and tastes of a younger, often urban transplanted generation. Ironically, the most predominant style of tattooing, the armband, was originally developed as a "souvenir" for American Peace Corps workers returning to the United States. The band started on the wrist or ankle and eventually migrated to other parts of the body. Today, the band is most often found on the bicep and features not only traditional geometric motifs but also images of Samoan cultural artifacts, namely the tanoa ('ava bowl), the to'oto'o (orator's staff) and the fue (fly whisk). Due to the intricacy of the latter designs, much of the armband work, especially in diasporic communities, is done with the tattooing machine.