Polinesian Tattoo









The tattoos of Oceania have their origins in antiquity, their designs in mythology and are a reflection of the social status of the wearer.

The Maori legend states that tattoo was created by Ruaumoko, the god of earthquake, as a memorial to his despair and awe at the separation of his father Ranginui, the god of the sky, and his mother Papatuanuku, the god of the earth. Uetonga, the grandson of Ruaumoko and Hine nui te Po, the goddess of the underworld was a master tattooist and of a pale skinned and fair haired peopel known as the turehu. The legend goes that Mataora, a handsome young chief, met and fell in love with Niwareka, daughter of Uetonga. Mataora persuaded Niwareka to live with him but one day he hit her.

She left him and returned to the underworld. Mataora, grief struck by what he had done, followed. In his travels he met Uetonga who was carving the face of a chief with tools - blood was flowing from the incisions. Mataora's face was painted with ochre and Uetonga told him that such a tattoo was only fit for wood - he smudged the tattoo on Mataora's face. Mataora then asked that his face be tattooed. Although Mataora's face was so swollen, he had to be fed and could only drink through a funnel, words spread that he was a handsome man - made more handsome by his tattoos. Niwareka came to see and discovered that the man was her lover. They returned to the world we know and he and his descendants spread the art of tattoo throughout Polynesia.

The most spectacular way the Polynesians had of decorating themselves was the process of tattooing. It was highly skilled work for specialists, who had to be a combination of artists, doctor and sometimes even priests. These experts work with little combs made of bone or wood, which were rested on the skin, then tapped in with a smart stroke from a hammer. The result was a neat line of punches which the artists rubbed with a special dye. Some of it settled under the skin in a mark which stayed for good.

Most Polynesians had only a few small designs on their hands and feet. The Marquesas islanders, however, were enthusiastic about tattooing and in spite of the pain involved, every man's ambition was to be tattooed over his entire body. Not many achieved this, as the specialists and their assistants charged big fees. Even a wealthy man had to take thirty or forty years to pay for a complete coat of tattooing which included work on the top of his head and the inside of his mouth.
The Maoris tattooed their legs and faces, with their own favourite swirling design, by a method which was even more severe than an used in other islands. The tattooing instrument was shaped not so much like a comb as a small chisel. Also, the man who was being tattooed, was also put under a very strict taboo until he healed, which meant he could not feed himself. The only way he could eat was the help of friends or relatives who dripped liquids between his swollen lips through a carved wooden funnel.

Each important Maori chief had his own special face tattoo, and was extremely proud of it. An old chief was once seen drawing his son's tattoo pattern, and then staring at it affectionately as if the result had been the young man's portrait. When the time came that the Maoris sold their tribal lands to the whites, since they could not read or write, they could not sign their names on the legal documents. Instead, they drew their face tattoos, at the foot of the pages of copperplate script, written out by the English lawyers.




Body adornment by the process of tattooing was widespread in Polynesia and highly developed in New Zealand, where every warrior's face, and sometimes his thighs, were tattooed in intricate scrolls and spirals. Women usually had only the lips and chin decorated. A pigment of soot and oil was mixed in a small stone pot; the pattern was traced on the skin, and driven in by smart taps with a rod on a small boned comb lashed to a wooden handle. Intricately designed funnels were also used for when a chief was being tattooed, he was tapu, and was not allowed to take food in the ordinary way nor was it allowed for the food to touch his lips. It was therefore delivered to him through one of these funnels.

Left: New Zealand Maori Chief Anehana.
Right: Tattooed Maori chief.





Traditionally, tattooing in Tahiti has always been a privilege of the more eminent social classes. Social ranking allowed tattoos corresponding to the wearer's position in the community under the supervision of the Ari'i.

Tahiti tattoo - Warrior

Men often had tattoos all over their body, including on the neck and ears. Only the face was left untattooed except for the occasional warrior or priest who might wear a special emblem on his forehead or lips.

Tattoos for the men fall into four categories; those belonging to the social class of gods, priests and Ari'i, which were hereditary and restricted to their descendants; tattoos of the Hui Ari'i class, Arioi'i, exclusively for chiefs (male and female); tattoos of the Hui To'a, Hui Ra'atira, Ia To'ai class, reserved for leaders of war parties, warriors, and so on; and Menehune class tattoos, for individual with no pedigree or an unremarkable family history.

The supernatural origin of tattooing was attributed to the sons of the god Ta'aroa (Tangaroa or Tangaloa), the principal Tahitian divinities. They taught the art to mortals who found it extremely attractive to be tattooed and used it widely. The two sons of the god Ta'aroa were Mata Mata Arahu and Tu Ra'i Po' who became the patron spirits of the art. They were always invoked before a tattooing session began so that the operation would be successful, the scars will heal quickly, and the patterns will be pleasing to the eye.

As a reminder of this legend, images of the two gods were conserved in the Marae of the Tahu'a, the skilled practitioners of the art. This particular form of traditional culture has been handed down from one generation to the next and no outside influence has been able to alter the methods used or the way in which designs are applied to the skin.

In ancient Tahitian society all women were tattooed. Young girls were tattooed at a very young age with marks on the inside of their arms to show that they were free from food tabus. Until that time they could only accept food prepared by their mothers - no-one else. There are no illustrations of these marks, just a few descriptions. Young women were again tattooed and they began to wear clothes as they reached puberty.




Originally, tattooing of women in Samoa was done only on women of rank. Because of this distinction, tattooing became very popular among the youths of Samoa who considered tattoos to be a mark of their manhood.

The legends of Samoa describe how two sisters, Tilafaiga and Taema were sent from Manu'a to Fiji to visit the daughter of King Tuimanu'a. While there, they were presented with a gift from the royal family of King Tuifiti which was a tattooing instrument. While swimming home they carefully held onto their precious gift while singing a chant that the Fijians had taught them translating it into Samoan. In English, the chant would say "women are tattooed and men are not."
They were very exhausted when they arrived home and in their confusion they reversed the chant singing the first part last. When they reached Savai'i, they were carried into the high chief's guest house and were treated like royalty until they have recovered from their swim. Before continuing their swim to Manu'a, they offered to the chiefs and the people of Savai'i the tattooing instruments that have been a gift from King Tuifiti.

The people of Savai'i started at once to tattoo the young men as they had learned from the reversed chant. Tattooing became the mark of distinction among the youths of Samoa except Manu'a where the king ruled against the practice.  The right to perform tattoos in Samoa can be traced back to a person's ancestors and if the person's forefathers were known to be a member of a tattoo guild, then the person was permitted by hereditary to enjoy the same privileges. An experienced tattooed artist trains apprentice tattooers who worked under their supervision until they are allowed to perform independently. The wife of the tattooer is also greatly honoured in her position of wiping the blood of the tattooed person. She is known and addressed as the Meana'i (artist's helper). She is very well paid by the family of the youth and at the completion of a job which normally takes more than three months, she shares the payment and many gifts with her husband.

Samoan winger, Lome Fa'atau, shows off his traditional Samoan
tattoo (pe'a) during the Rugby World Cup 2003 held in Australia. Lome
said, that the pe'a was a way for young Samoan men to honour their heritage
and show respect for their culture. The pe'a took nine days to complete with the
entire operation being carried out with a pig's tooth attached to a drum stick.




Extensive body tattoos are not now an integral part of Kiribati life although limited tattooing is still done. The following rare information was compiled in about 1930 and indicates the extensive tattooing that was done in certain parts of Kiribati at this time.  The tattooing instrument was called Te Wii n Taitai, the tattoo marks being termed Taitai.

The handle of the wii n taitai was made of tarine wood (the wild almond) and the points of sharpened turtle shell. When tattooing, the wii n taitai was hit with any suitable piece of ba (midrib of the coconut frond), the hammer being termed Te Kai n Oro.

The turtle shell was cut with a large Te Batino (sea urchin) which had previously been sharpened by rubbing it against a stone from the reef known as Te Em. The wii n taitai was then inserted into a slot in the tarine wood. It was not bound at all with string, but the inserted end was wasted.  The tattooing ink is made from the ashes of the coconut known as Te Wae, which has no kernel, mixed with salt, or occasionally fresh water.  The pattern is drawn by a straight length of Te Noko (the midrib of the coconut leaf) being pressed on the skin.

The ink is put on with a length of Te Noko bent into a triangle.  One side of the triangle is dipped into the ink and drawn along the line already made. The wii n taitai is then hit down with the hammer along the inked lines.

The designs are as follows:

Te Atu Ni Kua
Four feathered lines from the shoulder blades to the top of the thigh, ending on the back of the thighs.

Te Kana Ni Kua
Extending from where the Atu ni Kua leaves off to the top of the ankle, going down the side of the thighs and legs.

Te Manoku Ni Wae
Extending from the back of the ankle, straight up the back of the leg and thigh to the top of the buttock.

Te Moa Ni Wae
Extending from the chest above the breasts to half way down the thighs. Only the ends at the thighs are known as Te Moa ni Wae, the continuation upwards being called Te Kua n Nanoa.

Te Kua N Tarawa or Te Moani Kua is the continutation upwards of Te Atu ni Kua as only the ends at the back of the thighs are rightfully called Te Atu ni Kua.
Te Kuan Nanoa
The continuation of the Moani Wae upwards.

Te Nanon Nange
Situated on the inside of each thigh.

Te Uba
Ran up the shin bone of each leg, starting at the top of the ankle and going straight over the knee and ceasing at the top of the thigh.

A properly tattooed man would also have three or four lines running up his foot from his toes to below the ankle. There was always a gap at the ankle, or around. The face was also tattooed and if the man was bald, the top of his head. There was also a necklace line tattooed around his neck. Women were also tattooed. They had no Te Nanon Nange but instead had a line going right around their legs at the bottom of their riri and known as Te Korea N Riri.  A well tattooed man or woman was termed Aekia and if tattooed all over as Bonotia (shut).  All tattooing consisted of a single or a double straight line with feathers going out on either side, sometimes straight and sometimes bent.

The reason given for tattooing is to beautify the person.When a man or woman dies and his spirit is wandering on the way to the lands in the west, his part is blocked by Nei Karamakuna who had a face like a bird and pecks out the man's tattoo marks. Should the man not be tattooed the bird pecks out his eyes instead and he has to proceed on his way blind.  There were only tattooed men and no women on Banaba (Kiribati) in 1931: Te Baiti, Na Ewantabuariki and Kabunginteiti.






Cook Islands tribes or clans each usually recognized a particular fish, bird, insect or plant that was sacred to that tribe and symbolized its unity. The ritual association requires members of the clan to treat the totem with respect. Its supernatural help could also be sought in times of distress. To the left is the symbol for the centipede with a poisonous bite is a common totem of chiefs and is normally tattooed on the chief's back. Normally, the totem represented one clan's affiliation while they can also show one's specific role as ariki or otherwise within the clan.

While body decoration has been a phenomenon of many societies, the art of tattooing - engraving the skin - reached its zenith in Polynesian societies, particularly New Zealand and the Marquesas. Few cultures exhibited such adornment for all to see. the prevalence of the tattoo has been attributed in part, to the relatively warm climate in which the Polynesians lived and to their light skin. the relief of the tattoo is less impressive on dark skin. that may explain why face painting was more prevalent amongst Pacific people with darker skins. In the warm climes that the Polynesians inhabited, clothing was traditionally sparse and consequently bodily tattoos were always on display. the cooler New Zealand climate may explain, at least in part, why the face moko developed of its highest level in that country. .

Their distinctive tattoos may have been the defining emblem of Maori people, but the precise origin word itself =- tattoo - remains unclear. It is generally accepted that the English word derived from the Polynesian tatau but the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary of Historical Principles says tattoo was adopted into English in the mid 1600s (i.e. before any English contact with Polynesia) with meanings including to tap, to strike, to thump and to beat a drum. cook recorded tatau as the Tahitian term when he arrived there in 1769, so it is possible that it came into English through another Austronesian language - most likely Malay - with which the English were in contact much earlier. Some have speculated the art is called tatau because it also means 'to read', but reading was not introduced until the 1820s. The tattoo was not only a source of decoration, but often recorded a man's tribal affiliations, lineage and achievements. The inflection of the word when spoken differs depending on whether one is talking about reading or tattooing, suggesting the link between the two words may be coincidental. both Te Rangi Hiroa' and Gotz claim 'tatau' comes from the word 'ta', meaning to strike, thus tatau is the result of this tapping process. Tatau is not the only word for this art form. In some French Polyensian islands and some Cook Islands it was known as nana'o. .

Motives for tattoo.

The purposes of tattooing in traditional Polynesian society were multiple. One was, particularly, for males, to enhance the body's erotic attractiveness. No doubt women found tattoos on males attractive. Because the process of obtaining a tattoo was painful, it was also a symbol of manliness. A tattoo also symbolised initiation - generally a child entering into the adult world. One writer describes the ordeal of tattooing as having much in common with the beatings, circumcision and nose-piercing that are often important within initiation cycles. Tattoos were thought to enhance power and act as a talisman. Tattoo signified the status of the person tattooed and sometimes portrayed a person's genealogy. Even daily life could be depicted on the skin. When it came to the choice of tattoos "age, gender, social rank, the personality of the tattooed person and his/her membership of a specific group; were all factors which contributed to the choice of motifs", and, in some societies, the extent of the tattooing. Indeed, so strong did the practice of tattooing become that it was considered abnormal for one's skin to remain in its natural state beyond puberty. .

The legend of the origin of the tattoo most consistent with this cosmological view (and the most convincing) is that hld by the New Zealand Maori. Tattoo was created by Ruamoko, the god of earthquakes, as a memorial to his desire and awe at the separation of his father Ranginui, the god of the sky, and his mother Papatuanuku, the god of the earth. Uetonga, the grandson of Ruaumoko and Hine nui te Po, the goddess of the underworld, was a master tattooist and of a pale skinned and fair haired people known as the turehu. The legend goes that Mataora, a handsome young chief, met and fell in love with Niwareka, daughter of Uetonga. Mataora persuaded Niwareka to live with him but one day he it her. She left him and returned to the underworld Mataora, grief struck by what he had done, followed. In his travels he met Uetonga who was carving the face of a chief with tools - blood was flowing from the incisions.

Mataora's face was painted with ochre and Uetonga told him that such a tattoo was only fit for wood - he smudged the tattoo on Mataora's face. Mataora then asked that his face be tattooed. Although Mataora's face was so swollen he had to be fed and could only drink through a funnel, word spread that he was a handsome man - made more handsome by the tattoos. Niwareka came to see and discovered that the man was her lover. They returned to the world we know and he and his descendants spread the art of tattoo from Havaiki to Tonga nui, Ra'iatea, and New Zealand. According to an East Coast genealogical table Niwareka lived seven generations before the great Maui and 63 generations ago or about 1600 years ago. .

Tattoo motifs.

The most heavily tattooed were those from the Marquesas where the whole body was tattooed. Next were the Society Islands, the Tuamotu and Hawai'i where the torso was tattooed. In New Zealand the focus was on the face. Samoan men were tattooed from the ribs to the knees, and women from the thigh to the knees and legs. Traditionally the tattoos of the Tongans were extensive and similar to those of the Samoan. The motifs traditionally tattooed in the Cook Island were lightly spread over the entire body. Chevrons were grouped into intricate patterns around the wrists, and long vertical and parallel lines containing broken, saw tooth lines are to be found the length of the back. "Frequently, one finds tattooed on the back of the hand a shooting star with five tails, perhaps a souvenir of the star that guided the first navigators to their destinations. Each tribe, according to its island of origin or place from which it departed - had its distinctive sign..." In 1905 Gudgeon recorded four motifs which he attributed as distinctive ;patterns brought by the canoes so they arrived in Aitutaki and which were used to distinguish one tribe from another. These included a pandanus flower, the komua motif, the paeko motif and the punarua motif. However, there may have been as many as nine motifs. The art of the southern Cook islands revolves around the human figure. The iconography, although differing from island to island, is basically similar. Several fishing god figures are painted with tattoo-like designs which heighten the plasticity of the otherwise rough-hewn surface. Two known medium-sized figures exhibit smaller figures carved directly on their chests, arms and buttocks. .

One of the most painful tattoos, called rau-teve (representing a native arrowroot leaf), is found in the cook Islands. It begins behind the ear descending the neck along the cervical vertebrae. The pain was so great that even men of high rank recall their inability to have the tattoo completed. This needs to be seen in context, for all tattooing was painful and for one European in the Marquesas in the first half of the 1800s the nearest comparison he could think of to tattooing was a visit to the dentist - an excruciating experience in those days. The only island in the Cook Islands where tattooing wasn't practised was Manuae (which had a moderate population at the time of Captain cook's visit, although tattooing was not in evidence. In contrast, Captain cook recalls on the island of Mangaia the arms of men between the elbow and the shoulder were tattooed so they were black. when dancing, the men wore beautiful white shells fastened with sennit on their shoulders. The tattoo further highlighted the beauty of these objects. In 1906 four tattooed Mangaians travelled to the International Exhibition in Christchurch, New Zealand. They were tattooed on their arms, legs, shoulders, upper arm, forearms, abdomen and back. On the island of Atiu the men were tattooed from knee to heel, which made them appear as if they were boots, while those of higher rank, and some women, were also tattooed on their sides and back "in an uncommon manner.".

Most striking were the Aitutakians whom the first missionary John Williams recalls as being tattooed from head to foot and the ariki being lightly covered with a preparation of turmeric and ginger which was thought to add much to the beauty of his appearance. Make Ariki of Rarotonga was also beautifully tattooed. However, the most famous cook Islands tattoo is that worn by Te Pou, a Rarotongan chief who, while tattooed from neck to toe, his face was unmarked. Unfortunately, there are few renditions of Cook Islands tattoos and even this, the most famous was drawn in London on verbal information given by missionaries. therefore it cannot be accepted as accurate. That drawing depicts on Te Pou's knees the turtle, the most sacred of "fish", reserved for the diet of chiefs only. .

The 'carver's' tools.

In the Cook Islands the tattoo 'carving' equipment consisted of combs made of the bones of birds and rats tied at right angles to a short piece of wood. It was known as u'i tatau in Rarotonga and ivi tatipatipa in Mangaia. A short piece of wood was used as a mallet to tap the comb and make the incision. A piece of bark cloth, wrapped around the fourth and fifth fingers of the left hand was used to wipe away blood. The comb was, before incision, dipped in a dye. The pigment used came from holding half a coconut shell over a fire consisting of burning kernels of candlenut. The charcoal was then scraped from the coconut shell. .

Ironically, although Christian missionaries tried to annihilate the art of tattoo from Polynesia and relegate it, not just to history but to oblivion, the tattoo became the trademark of sailors throughout the world. A cruder form of this noble art became familiar to cultures to which it had previously been unknown. Now this tradition millennia old is being revived by the peoples who are versed in its traditions and are able to give this art form a cultural context and, once again, true meaning. .



A Melanesian woman receiving a tattoo, 1940.
Engraving of a tattooed Fijian couple, 1887.
A tattooed Rennell Island chief.


Father Sebastian Englert made the following observations about tattooing on Easter Island:

"Tattooing was also of great importance. It was done by experts under the supervision of the ariki henua. A small bone punch with several very tiny comb like prongs on the end was dipped in black pigment made of burned ti leaves and driven into the skin. It was a painful and lengthy process, repeated at various times during an individual's life. Designed in great variety were made on all parts of the body and the work was excellent. We know little about the social significance of the tattooing or the symbolic value of the designs".


Easter island lithograph showing
two tattooed Easter Islanders,1860.







The tradition of tattooing in Tonga was abandoned soon after European contact and the arrival of missionaries. At one time, nearly all Tongan males would have worn tattoos very similar to the pea, or traditional tattoo worn by Samoan men. Women were tattoooed as well in ancient Tonga, however the designs were limited to the arms and the inside of the hands and fingers. Tattooing was officially outlawed in 1838. Today, few Tongans even realize that their ancestors bore tattoos-- not only has the art been lost over the past two centuries, but even the knowledge of it is gone as well.

Tongas story is interesting, and quite different from the other Island groups in Polynesia, as Tonga has always remained independent. It seems Tongans were amazingly smart. Very soon after European contact Tongans styled their own monarchy after that of their visitors. They retained their own land and rule, and readily adopted Christianity. Although they retained many aspects of their traditional culture, other aspects have been lost entirely; lost even in the memories of the last elders. Knowledge of the old gods, the ancient religion, and the tattoo are gone forever. Fortunately one of the early French explorers, Dumont dUrville included a detailed illustration of a Tongan mans tattoo in his journal. If it were not for this drawing we would know little about the appearance of the tattoo in Tonga. There are brief descriptions of tattooing found in other explorers journals, and a short article published in 1900 by H. Ling Roth, but little else was recorded or written on the Tongan tattoo.

The mans tattoo in Tonga was done in the same manner as the Samoan tattoo. The tool itself was a sharpened comb, made of either bone or shell. This was hafted onto a wooden handle. A second wooden tool served as a mallet, tapping the primary tool repeatedly, driving the comb into the skin. The pigment was soot collected from burning candlenut, a nut with a flameable oil. The soot was then mixed with either water or a fat until it reached the desired consistancy. The process of tatttooing in ancient Tonga was a long and painful one, particularly considering the amount of heavy black coverage in the tattoo. It was definately a mark of manhood.




Introduction General Mithology Culture Language Islands Pictures Videos Pacific Links Other