Polynesian Tatau

Searching for Roots

Tataus are considered as a gift from God to the people. The origins of tattooing undoubtedly go back to the beginnings of the Maori culture. Immigrating peoples of South-East Asia brought the art of tattooing to the Polynesian islands. What role did the traditional tattoos play in society and how did the history of tattoos continue? A search for traces.

On all the islands of the Polynesian triangle (French Polynesia, New Zealand, Hawaii, Samoa, Easter Island and the Cook Islands), the practice of tataus was widespread. Before the colonization began, the tattoo itself was a social indicator. Some people´s tattoos described their exact origin by its symbolism, their tribal affiliation or their position in the social scale. In addition, with specific tattoos important social rituals were highlighted, such as the transition from childhood to adolescence, or as an expression of a marriage. For Tahitians it would have been unacceptable to live without tattoo on her or his body.

The tattoos were considered sacred. It was assumed that the tattoos were inherited from the gods and came with a supernatural power. There was, for example symbolism, which should protect people from the loss of their "mana", the divine essence of their health.

Even back in 1897 Karl von den Steinen, a German ethnologist, conducted an analysis with regards to tataus. In this analyses it was said: "This unchanging art on the skin was considered indelibly and therefore eternal. It should bear witness about the origin, rank and heroism in case the people were summoned to appear for their ancestors - the gods of the mythical land Hawaiki".

They used small, jagged ridges of bones, tortoise shell or mother-of-pearl, which was attached to a wooden handle, to create the tataus. The teeth of the comb were soaked with ink and placed on the skin. The tattooist then stroked over the handle with a piece of wood, so that the skin has been punctured. This procedure for a tatau sometimes lasted weeks or months. This way it emphasized the role of tattooing as a kind of transitional rite.

Nowadays, there are tattooists on almost all inhabited islands of French Polynesia, who let the ancient art revive again. Their reputation and the beauty of the Polynesian tatau attract visitors from all around the world.

More on Polynesian Tatau