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

Tattooed man walking in parade.

Tradition Unbound: Tattoos beyond Polynesia

Tattoos are the mark of the colonized other: the difference between the colonizer and the colonized is in the texture of the skin.

Marc Blanchard, Post-Bourgeois Tattoo
As reports and images from European explorers' travels in Polynesia reached Europe, the modern fascination with tattoos began to take hold. Although the ancient peoples of Europe had practiced some forms of tattooing, it had disappeared long before the mid-1700s. Explorers returned home with tattooed Polynesians to exhibit at world fairs, in lecture halls and in dime museums, to demonstrate the height of European civilization compared to the "primitive natives" of Polynesia. But the sailors on their ships also returned home with their own tattoos.

Native practitioners found an eager clientele among sailors and others visitors to Polynesia. Colonial ideology dictated that the tattoos of the Polynesians were a mark of their primitiveness. The mortification of their skin and the ritual of spilling blood ran contrary to the values and beliefs of European missionaries, who largely condemned tattoos. Although many forms of traditional Polynesian tattoo declined sharply after the arrival of Europeans, the art form, unbound from tradition, flourished on the fringes of European society.

Machinery, design, and color led to an all-American form of tattoo.
Machinery, design, and color led to an all-American form of tattoo.

In the United States, technological advances in machinery, design and color led to a unique, all-American, mass-produced form of tattoo. Martin Hildebrandt set up a permanent tattoo shop in New York City in 1846 and began a tradition by tattooing sailors and military servicemen from both sides of the Civil War. In England, youthful King Edward VII started a tattoo fad among the aristocracy when he was tattooed before ascending to the throne. Both these trends mirror the cultural beliefs that inspired Polynesian tattoos: to show loyalty and devotion, to commemorate a great feat in battle, or simply to beautify the body with a distinctive work of art.

The World War II era of the 1940s was considered the Golden Age of tattoo due to the patriotic mood and the preponderance of men in uniform. But would-be sailors with tattoos of naked women weren't allowed into the navy and tattoo artists clothed many of them with nurses' dresses, Native-American costumes or the like during the war. By the 1950s, tattooing had an established place in Western culture, but was generally viewed with distain by the higher reaches of society. Back alley and boardwalk tattoo parlors continued to do brisk business with sailors and soldiers. But they often refused to tattoo women unless they were twenty-one, married and accompanied by their spouse, to spare tattoo artists the wrath of a father, boyfriend or unwitting husband.

Today tattooing is recognized as a legitimate art form.
Today tattooing is recognized as a legitimate art form.

Today, tattooing is recognized as a legitimate art form that attracts people of all walks of life and both sexes. Each individual has his or her own reasons for getting a tattoo; to mark themselves as a member a group, to honor loved ones, to express an image of themselves to others. With the greater acceptance of tattoos in the West, many tattoo artists in Polynesia are incorporating ancient symbols and patterns into modern designs. Others are using the technical advances in tattooing to make traditional tattooing safer and more accessible to Polynesians who want to identify themselves with their culture's past.