When you say the word Polynesian to people, they immediately start talking about beautiful islands, ritualistic dancing and food, but not too much time will pass without vivid descriptions of large, intimidating looking men sporting extensive, if not full body tattoos. The art of Polynesian tattooing is a product of a culture that has no written language. Information and stories were passed down through oral tradition from generation to generation. The tattoos were used as a kind of record book to keep track of a person’s personal history. There were specific markings to denote one’s social status, occupation, lineage, and sexual development.
In the late 1700s, Christian missionaries came to the Pacific Islands and made quite a mark. Quite a bit of the native population converted to Christianity, and felt they had to give up their culture to do so. The things that made the people who they were gradually started to fade, and the practice of tattooing was probably one of the first things to go since it is expressly forbidden in the Old Testament.
Eventually the Polynesians resurrected their way of life, and reverted to some of their old customs and practices. The ink once again began to flow and the
traditional methods and designs of tattooing became popular again. However, using the traditional tools of the trade was banned in French Polynesia in the late ‘80s because the Ministry of health didn’t feel the wooded and bon instruments could be sufficiently sterilized.
The tools are made from needles carved sharply out of bone or tortoise shell and fastened to a wooden piece so that the finished tool looks somewhat like a hair comb. Like the tattoo ink used in the modern day Untied States, what the Polynesians used wasn’t really ink at all, but soot from burning candlenut, and like modern ink, it was combined with a carrier solution to keep it mixed well and make it easier to apply. They usually used water or oil. The needle end of the comb is then dipped into the ink and tapped into in the skin with a hammer-like instrument.
A person usually started participating in the tattooing rituals to around the age of 12 to mark their transition from childhood into adult hood. The design and placement of a person’s tattoos was largely determined by their bloodline. You social status was directly proportionate to how many tattoos you had. A man with no tattoos was an outcast, and those with extensive tattoos were revered and held high stations in the community.
Polynesian women are also tattooed, though not as heavily as men. Like boys, girls typically began their tattooing around the age of 12. Until a girl was tattooed, she was not allowed to prepare food or participate fully in society. Women were only allowed to get tattooed in certain places on their bodies, mostly the hands, feel and lips. We now know these to be the most painful areas.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the tattooed community in the United States was in the throws of the “tribal” trend. These tattoos are characterized by their solid blackness and distinctive shapes. However, many people don’t realize they have none of the significance of the Polynesian art they’re inspired by. That dosen’t make them fake Polynesian tattoo, it makes them a perfectly legitimate, but separate category of tattoo possibility. Just because it doesn’t mean the same thing as its more rootsy counterparts, doesn’t make it void. The real symbolism is the sentimental value the wearer attaches to it, and that’s the same with any body art.