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

Maori carving showing tattoo styles.

The journey to receive a tattoo can follow many different roads.

When you think of someone with a tattoo, what comes to mind? A biker? A sailor? A rebellious teen? These are all stereotypes of tattoos in American culture, but in reality tattoo began in the Polynesian islands, with a cultural tradition and meaning Westerners are only beginning to understand.

Tattoo, or tatau, has deeps roots among the indigenous peoples of Polynesia. As the tradition spread through the sea-faring cultures, each island brought its own style to this physical art form.

After Captain Cook arived in the islands in the late 1700s, missionaries were soon to follow. They denounced tattoo as "the Devil's art," and acted swiftly to abolish tattoo, which was condemned as a symbol of superstition and sorcery. The sophisticated body art form which had developed over thousands of years was nearly destroyed in just a few decades, preserved only in old paintings and photographs.

Today, tattoo has come full circle. Around the Pacific, indigenous people are reclaiming their heritage by permanently decorating their bodies. But these tattoo are not merely little pictures of roses or hearts; they are living hieroglyphics which tell stories of life, lineage, history and culture.

Meet three Pacific Islanders, and one San Diego woman, and learn from their own words just what this their tattoo means to them.

Manu Neho Manu Neho, Aotearoa (New Zealand)

What is beauty? Neho rediscovers a nearly lost Maori art form, and finds herself in the process.
Tupuola Savea Tupuola Savea, Samoa

Can a tattoo save a life? Savea was a P.O.W. in Vietnam, and his Samoan tattoo changed his experience in unexpected ways.
Kyle Nakanelua Kyle Nakanelua, Hawai'i

When are you ready to receive a tattoo? Nakanelua finds that learning about yourself and your heritage can take longer than expected.
Mary Lynn Price Mary Lynn Price, San Diego

A meaningful and beautiful tattoo hides a scar, and restores a feeling of beauty and art to a California attorney.