The Art of the Polynesian Tatau

Tattooing is an integral part of the Tahitan culture and has been practiced since 1500 BC.

The Art of the Polynesian Tatau

Tattooing is an integral part of the Tahitan culture and has been practiced since 1500 BC. The western word tattoo is taken from the Tahiti word “tatau” meaning open wound! A tattoo represent a girl’s sexual maturity, tribe rank and other social symbols. Tahiti woman would traditionally tattoo their loins and buttocks deep blue, taken up also by some of the HMS Bounty Mutineers during their wild extended stay on the islands. Missionaries tried to stamp out this sinful celebration of the flesh, but it has recently enjoyed a renaissance on home turf.

The tradition was kept alive in Samoa, and revived in the 1980’s in its old form in Tahiti along with other ancient “supressed” arts like firewalking, chanting and dance.

A traditional tattoo is made from a bone containing between 3 and 20 needles. The needles are then dipped in a pigment made from soot of burnt candlenut mixed with water and oil. The needle is tapped against the skin with a wooden stick causing the skin to be punctured. This practice was banned in 1986 but traditional artists developed a machine constructed from an electric shaver to avoid risk of disease and this practice is in place today.

A traditional Polynesian 'tatau'

A traditional Polynesian ‘tatau’

Designs used in the tattoos were often the same as the other decorative arts like wood carving, decorated gourds and painted barkcloth. Most designs are based around nature like shellfish, birds or shark’s tooth. They may also relate to legends of specific island tribes. Each tribe would carry their own design or body placement of familiar motif, ilke the Maori tribes spiral pattern of a tree fern, unique in the Pacific. Tattoos are ancestral and tribes people do not like to parade their tattoos to outsiders. A higher ranking individual would have more tattoos that an ordinary tribes man.



The Tahitian Revivial
Short history of the Tatau revival in Tahiti by Tricia Allen, the world’s leading expert on Polynesian tattoo culture.
Home of all thing tattooed including galleries, conventions, tattoo artists,

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