Polynesian TattoosThis is a featured page

Create Your Own Tattoo NOW!The Origins of the Word "Tattoo"

The word "tattoo" is a borrowing of the Samoan word tatau, meaning to mark or strike twice (the latter referring to traditional methods of applying the designs). The first syllable "ta", meaning "hand", is repeated twice as an onomatopoeic reference to the repetitive nature of the action, and the final syllable "U" translates to "color". The instrument used to pierce the skin in Polynesian tattoo making is called a hahau, the syllable "ha" meaning to "strike or pierce". You can create your own Polynesian tattoo NOW!

Traditional tattooing tools consist of a comb with needles carved from bone or tortoiseshell, fixed to a wooden handle. The needles are dipped into a pigment made from the soot of burnt candlenut mixed with water or oil. The needles are then placed on the skin and the handle is tapped with a second wooden stick, causing the comb to pierce the skin and insert the pigment. The name tatau comes from the sound of this tapping.

Historic Background and the Role of Tattooing

The early Spanish explorer Mendaña “discovered” the Fenua Enana Islands in 1595 and baptized this archipelago Marquises Islands. But the first descriptions of Polynesian tattooing were written almost two centuries later by English Captain Samuel Wallis, French explorer Bougainville and English Captain Cook. In 1767, Wallis had noticed that it was a “universal custom among men and women to get their buttocks and the back of their thighs painted with thin black lines representing different figures”.

The next year (1768) Bougainville reported in that "the women of Tahiti dye their loins and buttocks a deep blue”. Later in 1774, Captain Cook returning from his trip to the Marquises Islands, wrote in his diary “they print signs on people’s body and call this ‘tattow’.”
Polynesian Tattoos - PhilWikiWiki
As there was no writing in the Polynesian culture, the Polynesians used this type art and distinctive signs to express their identity and personality. Tattoos would indicate status in a hierarchy society, sexual maturity, genealogy, and one's rank within society. Nearly everyone in ancient Polynesian society was tattooed. Tattooing was begun at adolescence. Teenagers (around 12 years) were tattooed to mark the passage between childhood and adulthood. Different tattoos were added with the passing of years. The more a man was tattooed, the more prestige he had. Tattooing was not only a sign of wealth, but also a sign of strength and power. Therefore chiefs andwarriors generally had the most elaborate tattoos. Men without any tattoo were despised, whereas those whose bodies were completely tattooed – the to’oata – were greatly admired.

A girl’s right hand was tattooed by the age of twelve. Only after that were they allowed to prepare the meals and to participate in the rubbing of dead bodies with coconut oil. The tattoos of women were less extensive than the tattoos seen on men; generally being limited to the hand, arms, feet, ears and lips. Women of rank or wealth may have their legs tattooed as well.

The Sacred Art

According to the mythology, the two sons of the God of Creation Ta’aroa taught the art of tattooing to humans. It was a ‘tapu’, or sacred art form, performed by shamans (tahua) who were highly trained in the religious ritual, the meaning of the designs, and technical aspects of the art.

The designs and their location on the body were determined by one's genealogy, position within the society and personal achievements. In preparation for the tattooing, one would have to undergo a period of cleansing. This generally involved fasting for a specified length of time and abstaining from sexual intercourse or contact with women.

The process at which tattoos were administered is as follows:

The patient was immobilized most frequently in a sort of vise composed of two trunks of banana trees between which he was attached and held tight. The shaman, accompanied by his assistants, sang a sort of chant for the occasion syncopated to the rhythm of the tapping of his little mallet. Each drop of blood was rapidly wiped up with a scrap of tapa (a piece of cloth made out of the bark of a tree beaten with a heavy stick), because not a single drop of blood would be allowed to fall to the ground.

Designs and Meanings

There are two different types of Polynesian (or Tahitian, words we’ll use interchangeably) tattoo. The first is Enata. Enata designs are natural designs that come to symbolize a person’s life history, island of origin, social level, type of work done, etc. For example, if you were a fisherman, you might have a symbol that is there to protect you from dangerous sharks, or to protect your fishing vessel.

Another type of Polynesian tattoo is the Etua. This form has a much stronger spiritual, magical or religious meaning to it. These symbols might show particular honor to one or more people in a tribe, or offer protection from (as in, “by”) the gods against natural and evil spirits. These mystic symbols are closely related to the mana – the spiritual force – that is inherited from ancestors.

The most popular and appreciated designs are the tiki, the turtle, the gecko, the ray, the shark, the dolphin, as well as a lot of abstract symbolic designs. Below are some examples of popular designs and their meanings.

Polynesian Tattoos - PhilWikiWiki

iki: Tiki is a god, most often depicted with his eyes closed. His eyes are closed because Tiki is reported to smell trouble
before he sees it.

Polynesian Tattoos - PhilWikiWiki

Shells: Shells represent wealth to the
Polynesian cultures,most likely because theywere used as a type of currency.
Polynesian Tattoos - PhilWikiWiki

Sharks’ teeth: Tattoos of sharks’ teeth, usually represented as rows of triangles, denote protection.

Polynesian Tattoos - PhilWikiWiki

Sharks were sacred animals. Powerful and mighty, Polynesian shark tattoos were often used as a protection from enemies.
Turtles: Turtles symbolized fertility and long life.
Polynesian Tattoos - PhilWikiWiki

Polynesian Tattoos - PhilWikiWiki

Gecko: The gecko is supposed to have supernatural powers, and is regarded by Polynesians with fear and awe. It is rumored that if a green gecko “laughs” at you, it’s a terrible omen of illness and bad fortune.

Interested in getting a tattoo after all this juicy reading?
check out this comprehensive tattoo directory now!

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