Polynesian Tattoo History – The Birth of Tattooing


“I shall now mention the way they mark themselves indelibly, each of them is so marked by their humor or disposition”. Joseph Banks

Before the explanation of the tattooing history itself, it makes sense to explain exactly where it all began and give a brief description of the culture surround Polynesian tattoo history.

Polynesian Culture and its Geographical Area

The origins of Polynesian culture still fuels a large number of debates, but one thing that is certain is that Polynesia is made up of a number of tribes, not just a single one. The Polynesian culture is built up from the following groups including, Marquesans, Samoans, Niuaeans, Tongans, Cook Islanders, Hawaiians, Māori and Tahitians. These are all genetically linked with the native peoples of parts of Southeast Asia.

This is a sub region of Oceania and all the islands that make up Polynesia are within a triangle that has New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island at each of its corners, grouping over 1,000 islands scattered across the ocean.

The people of these islands have similar trends in language, customs, society and culture, causing them to be referred to as Polynesians. This is why you find different designs of what are considered Polynesian tribal tattoos; each sub-tribe has their own subtle features that make them unique.


Why is it Called a Tattoo?

Alvaro de Mendana de Neira, the Spanish navigator and his team of European explorers, first visited the Polynesian Islands in 1595. The first of the islands visited were the Marquesas Islands but the navigators found very little valuable resources so showed very little interest.

However, it was Captain James cook who explored the entire Polynesian Triangle that brought back the word tattoo to Europe. His on board naturalist, Joseph Banks was the first person to mention the word tattoo in his journal. (It was also called ‘Tatau’ by Samoan and ‘Tatu’ by Tahitian tribes). He wrote the quote that is at the top of this post in his journal.

When Captain Cook returned from his first voyage the word ‘tattoo’ had appeared in Europe and he described the behaviour of the Polynesian and called it ‘tattaw’. From his travels he brought back with him a Tahitian named Ma’i and from the tattoos of Ma’i, tattoos started to become rapidly famous.

It is also noted that the Polynesian tattoos were popular with European sailors who would return home from voyages with their bodies decorated with these tattoos.

Development and Inheritance of the Polynesian Tattoo

In the 18th Century the tradition of Polynesian tattooing, which existed from 2000 years ago, was strictly banned by the Old Testament. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that Polynesian tattoos went through a renaissance and since then many of the lost arts have been retrieved by Polynesians. Unfortunately the tools were not sterilised properly to a good standard and led to the ban of tattooing by the Ministry of Health in French Polynesia in 1986. 

Even thought this is an aged tradition, the tools and techniques have hardly changed. The skill gets handed down from master to disciple, father to son, for strictly traditional designs. Like modern tattoo studios, each Polynesian tattoo artist, or tufuga, has to learn the craft by serving many years as his master’s apprentice. Polynesians passed this knowledge vertically to protect it because of its sacred nature.

Role in Culture

A tattoo served a purpose as it delivered information about its owner. It also was considered a method of harnessing spiritual power, strength and protection. It also defined a person and would show their character as well as positions and levels in a hierarchy. A tattoo would display their spiritual power or life force, which they referred to as mana.

Tattoo Masters

The Polynesian masters were crucial tribesmen as they memorised the meaning of every symbol and motif and knew how to beautifully integrate them into meaningful work on the person’s skin. Sea creatures are very common Polynesian symbols and each one has a different meaning, such as mantas, sharks and sea urchins. These tattoo masters can express a number of meanings by combining different symbols and motifs together.

Polynesian Tattoo Styles

The styles of Polynesian designs varied from island to island depending on the degree of the tribes evolution. The original styles would consist of simple repeating patterns on the body, usually straight lines. The meanings of these patterns are almost lost, or hotly debated. The most popular style used these days is from the Marquesas Island and consists of rounded patterns.

The Sacred Art

Tattoos and their location on the body would determine a lot of different things in Polynesian culture and tattooing was considered a sacred ceremony. They could show a person’s genealogy, position in society and even personal achievements. The high ranking members of the Maori Tribe were tattooed and the members of the lowest social level could wear none.

It has been said, from the basis of mythology, that humans learned the art of tattooing from the sons of the God of Creation, Ta’aroa. The origins of tattoo operation were originally handled by highly trained shamans in religious ceremonies as they were experts in the meanings of the tattoos. To qualify for a tattoo a person had to go through a long period of cleansing that would involve a fast for a fixed length of time and no sexual intercourse or contact with women. Warriors that wore these tattoos were considered more attractive to women, as they marked important events and rites of passage the warrior had been through.

These days modern tattooing uses the same basic concept as these fantastic old traditions but the development of modern equipment allows much more intricate designs. It is so much easier now to get hold of good quality, safe tattoo supplies than it was for the Polynesians. If you have any questions or want to discuss anything tattoo related contact us on 01922 744088.