In Polynesia, tattoos are more than skin deep

Across the Pacific, tattoos are etched into the culture. Finding meaning in your own ‘story on skin’ helps honour the tradition.

By Jill K. Robinson
Published 3 Aug 2022, 17:37 BST
Tattoo Tapping
A young man in Oahu, Hawai‘i, gets a tattoo the traditional way, with a sharp comb dipped in ink tapped into the skin. The art of tattoo is practiced across the Polynesian Triangle, with designs and meanings that vary from culture to culture.
Photograph by Paul Nicklen, Nat Geo Image Collection

Ta-tau, ta-tau, ta-tau. The sounds of traditional Polynesian tattoo tools echo as the needle-sharp bone bites into my skin. While tattoo artist James Samuela’s assistant holds my leg steady, I gaze out the studio window to the verdant interior of Moʻorea and time slows down. I’ve thought about this tattoo for three years. From my initial in-person discussion in the studio’s garden to the tattoo’s completion, it’s been less than three hours.

Papeete, the capital of Tahiti, greets cruise ships. Tahiti is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the region.
Photograph by Shutterstock, Nat Geo Image Collection

The legacy of Polynesian tatau, the onomatopoeic name for the practice of tattoo, began 3,000 years ago—the designs as diverse as the people who wear them. The Polynesian Triangle includes more than a thousand individual islands in the South Pacific Ocean forming several dozen cultural groups, most of which have their own distinct tattoo traditions.

Across the world, tattoos have become more popular—no longer a personal interest to be covered up at work. Indigenous tattoo traditions have recently become more visible: In 2021, a Māori journalist became the first person with traditional face markings to host a primetime news program on New Zealand television.

A man with a tattoo on his arm fishes in Fakarava, the largest atoll in French Polynesia that’s part of a UNESCO biosphere reserve.
Photograph by Robert Harding Picture Library, Nat Geo Image Collection

The unique quality of Polynesian tattoo designs has inspired visitors, including me, to take home a more permanent souvenir. But as we consider the difference between honouring and appropriating a culture, how should travellers who aren’t part of that culture get a tattoo respectfully?

Because the practice is interwoven with the Polynesian way of life, an essential approach requires consideration behind the purpose of your tattoo and communication with the tattoo artist.

Tattoos as cultural communication

In ancient times, Polynesian cultural practice was passed down verbally, but tattoos also played a part in the transfer of knowledge with the body as a canvas. “Traditionally, tatau served as a form of ID or social rank, keeping track of the genealogy of the family, and representing important milestones,” says Samuela, whose parents hailed from French Polynesia—his mother from the Marquesas island chain and his father from the island of Tahiti, the capital of French Polynesia.

The islands that make up Polynesia are culturally diverse with unique tattoo traditions and symbols. This graphic from Teiki Huukena’s Polynesian Tattoo Dictionary: Marquesas Islands shows a peka ‘enana cross. One of the most popular Marquesan motifs, it represents a human form with the four limbs depicted as curving lines inside of a block shape.
Photograph by Illustration by National Geographic
The Marquesan dancing flame symbolizes the light that keeps death at bay.
Photograph by Illustration by National Geographic

“Depending on the archipelago where you came from, tatau was practiced differently and symbols had different meanings,” notes Samuela. “For example, people living on [an] island with mountains or an atoll with only coconut trees use different earth symbols based on their own experience.”

This spiral shape represents a fiddlehead fern, symbolizing the start of a new life in Marquesan tattoo culture.
Photograph by Illustration by National Geographic
This Marquesan design includes repeated forms conveying the immensity of a clear sky and a great journey.
Photograph by Illustration by National Geographic

Across many Pacific islands, traditional cultural practices were discouraged and outright banned from the time of early Western contact. “Tattooing was often done in defiance of colonial powers, so it was one of the first things white men tried to suppress,” says Tricia Allen, an Oahu-based tattooist with an extensive background in Polynesian history and author of The Polynesian Tattoo Today and Tattoo Traditions of Hawaiʻi. “While in recent decades Pacific Islanders have revived many of their traditional arts and take pride in their cultural heritage, it’s understandable why tattoo can be a sensitive topic for Indigenous people.”

To many Polynesian tattoo artists, the comfortable answer to the question of respect versus appropriation lies in the fact that each tattoo is completely unique, coming from a conversation between the customer and the artist.

A tourist receives a traditional Samoan tattoo in his hotel room at Annie Grey’s Lagoon Beach Resort, in Apia, Samoa.
Photograph by Kent Kobersteen, Nat Geo Image Collection

“I ask clients about themselves, their own story, and what they want their tattoo to represent,” says Eddy Tata, a Marquesan tattoo artist who practices his work aboard the Aranui 5, the half-passenger, half-freighter ship that sails from Tahiti to the Marquesas, Tuamotu, and Society Islands. “As they talk, I’m already making the design in my head. If the client shows me a picture, wanting that exact design, I won’t copy it. Replicating something that’s personalised is a form of appropriation—like stealing someone else’s story. I explain that as I adapt the design so it corresponds to the client’s narrative.”

Instead of first drawing a tattoo stencil on paper and transferring it onto the skin, many Polynesian artists sketch the design directly on the body with a pen. That freehand sketch allows the tattooist the flexibility to shape a one-of-a-kind composition as they go.

While there are online sources that list the meaning of different images and patterns, much of the information isn’t accurate, which is why it’s essential to communicate with the artist about the purpose behind the tattoo and what you want represented.

For many people, their tattoos have a deep meaning and are personally connected to them. Because of tattoo’s history as a canvas for family lineage and accomplishments, there remain designs that are traditionally guarded for appropriate use that are tapu, or forbidden, for others. Additionally, different island groups have long traditions about where tattoos are placed on the body, like Tongan warriors, whose tattoos were placed from the waist to the knees.

A man displays a typical Polynesian full body and face tattoo, in Mo‘orea, French Polynesia.
Photograph by Aaron Huey, Nat Geo Image Collection

While it’s acceptable as a traveller to be inspired by something, it helps to have a connection to the design you ultimately choose—after all, you’ll be living with it for the foreseeable future. It should be a representation of your individual journey and accomplishments.

“Every tattoo I have took me three years—from the time I started thinking about it, to the time it took to find the right artist, to talking with that artist about the symbolism behind it,” says Tahiarii Yoram Pariente, a Polynesian cultural advisor and conservator based on Raʻiātea. “The pain and symbolism in the act of the tattoo is very internal, and what you see isn’t necessarily what you get. People don’t automatically understand your story just by looking at your tattoo. It’s only the outside cover of the book that makes up the whole person.”

When people understand that there’s always a meaning and story behind Polynesian tattoos, Samuela believes they spend more time thinking about what they want and how they want to memorialise their journey. “Tattoos are part of our lives. It’s cultural, and not fashion,” he says. “I’ve always been interested in sharing the traditional art of tatau with other people.”

As with many things to consider as a visitor in a destination, it ultimately comes down to respecting the wishes of the Indigenous people. Many of these cultures are alive and thriving. If they believe that elements of their art should be left alone, that feeling warrants respect.

“People don’t realise the primary difference between traditional tattoo and modern tattooing is that within traditional cultures, it was a mark of conformity to one’s cultural norms,” says Allen. “This is quite different than in Western culture, where a tattoo generally marks individuality.”

While tattoo artists advise care and consideration in choosing how to commemorate your personal story, they encourage travellers to not lose interest. Tata stresses the positivity in being curious and sensitive to tatau’s traditional origins. “Don’t be afraid of tattoos,” he says. “I think it’s an honour to share my culture with others, and it’s in a way that carries my culture throughout the world.”

Back in Samuela’s studio, a gecko runs in sporadic bursts along the wall and a curious horse sticks its head in the open window. I gaze at the fresh symbol on my leg. To a stranger, the undulating symbol in black may appear merely as a beautiful design. To me, it tells an important tale of my life: my connection to water and voyaging, as well as my work as a writer sharing stories of people and places.

The Polynesian culture, and its place in the tale your tattoos tell, becomes an enduring part of you. “You’re born naked with nothing. During your life you accumulate memories, and eventually when you die, you let everything go,” says Pariente. “The one thing you acquire during your lifetime that goes with you after you die is your tattoos.”

“What you see on the skin is a byproduct of the tattoo—it’s the skin you make. You carve the story of your life into your skin,” adds Pariente. “It’s a little bit of eternity.”

Jill K. Robinson is a San Francisco-based travel and adventure writer. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.


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