Arms of concentration camp inmates discussion

Tahitian Tattoos

Tattoos have had a long and varied history. In the past, they have been used as symbols of courage and as status symbols. They have also been used as marks for criminals and slaves, and during World War II, the Nazis tattooed numbers on the arms of concentration camp inmates. Moreover, SS soldiers had their blood type tattooed on their forearm for medical emergency purposes. While over the course of its history, the technique of tattooing has changed very little, its popularity has been a roller coaster, falling in and out of favor with public opinion. Today, the tattoo world has become the ultimate in chic (Saltz 2006).

The history of tattoos dates back some five thousand years. For example, in 1991, when “Ice Man,” the five-thousand-year-old frozen corpse that was found on an Italian mountaintop, his well-preserved skin bore fifty-seven tattoos (Saltz 2006). In Egypt, mummified remains from roughly 2000 BCE revealed tattoos, and in Japan, clay figurines dated 3000 BCE and older were found to have faces painted to represent tattoos (Saltz 2006). Tattooing has played an important role in almost every ancient culture, whether the tattooing of slaves and criminals in ancient Rome, to tattoos representing signs of courage, such as in the Incan and Mayan cultures (Saltz 2006). When explorer Captain Cook returned to England with tattooed Polynesians, tattooing became popular throughout Europe. In 1862, the soon to be King Edward VII received his first tattoo, resulting in many British aristocrats getting tattoos, usually of their family crests (Saltz 2006). Others in the elite social circles who had tattoos were the Vanderbilts, Emperor Wilhelm II, Lady Randolph Churchill, and the Furstenbergs (Saltz 2006). By the beginning of the twentieth century, tattooing began to fall out of favor with the upper classes, and became associated with those in the military and people on the fringe of society, such as prostitutes, prisoners, and gang members (Saltz 2006). Over the last four decades, tattooing has regained popularity and is now embraced by the young and old, the famous and the average Joe.

The earliest inhabitants of Tahiti were Polynesians who came there from Asia centuries ago. The first European to the island was British sea captain Samuel Wallis in 1767, who claimed it for Britain, followed a year later by French navigator Louis Antoine de Bougainville, who claimed it for France (Tahiti 1996). It became a French protectorate in 1842, a French colony in 1880, and in 1946, France declared Tahiti and the other islands of French Polynesia to be French overseas territory. Today it remains under French rule (Tahiti 1996).

No one knows for certain, but it is most likely that the art of Polynesian tattooing was brought to the islands by the migrant population from Asia. Because there was no written language in Polynesian culture, this art form was sued to express personality and family identity (History 2006). Tattoos were used to indicate an individual’s status in society, such as sexual maturity, genealogy and rank within society, thus the majority of all ancient Polynesians were tattooed (History 2006).

When the European missionaries arrived during the late eighteenth century, a ban on the practice of tattooing was strictly enforced, for the Christians referred to passages in the Old Testament that forbade it (History 2006). Recently, however, this ancient art form began to enjoy a renaissance beginning in the early 1980’s, and once again Polynesians are experiencing interest and taking pride in their ancient heritage (History 2006).

The technique of tattooing involves forcing various pigments under the skin by means of a pointed object, and requires a certain level of craftsmanship in applying the correct amount of the pigment, and determining the proper level of dermal penetration to avoid scars or ruptured blood vessels (Saltz 2006). In early cultures, tattooing instruments were generally sharpened sticks, pieces of ivory or bone, and the pigments were probably soot, ash, plants or other organic materials, or even earthen minerals (Saltz 2006). In 1891, Samuel O’Reilly patented the electric tattooing machine, which is the basis for the model of today’s tattooing machines (Saltz 2006). In 1986, tattooing with traditional tools was banned in French Polynesia by the Ministry of Health due to the fact that sterilizing the wooden and bone equipment was too difficult, and thus posed a health risk (History 2006). Traditional tools consisted of a “comb with needles carved from bone or tortoiseshell, fixed to a wooden handle,” the needles of which were “dipped into a pigment made from soot of burnt candlenut mixed with water or oil” (History 2006). The needles were then placed on the skin and the handle was tapped with another wooden stick, which caused the comb to pierce the skin and inset the pigment (History 2006). The name “tatau” come from the sound of this tapping (History 2006).

The distinction between ancient Tahitian and Marquesan tattoos is generally misunderstood. Tricia Allen, scholar of Polynesian culture notes:

They were very different in ancient times. Today few know or realize the difference. Very few know anything about the Tahitian tradition – even in Tahiti. In fact, in 13 trips to Tahiti, I have yet to meet anyone wearing

Tahitian designs! Except one mark on Raymond Graff’s torso. (Raymond Graffe is a ‘tahua,’ a Tahitian shaman” (History 2006).

Although the Marquises Islands were discovered by Spanish explorer, Mendana in 1595, it was some two hundred years later before the first descriptions of Polynesian tattooing were written by Wallis, Bougainville, and Cook (History 2006). In 1767, Wallis noted 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” (History 2006). In 1768, Bougainville wrote that that “the women of Tahiti dye their — and buttocks a deep blue” (History 2006). In 1774, Cook wrote, “they print signs on people’s body and call this tattow” (History 2006). It was Ma’i whom Cook brought back with him, and who spread the popularity of tattoos throughout Europe (History 2006).

According to the mythology, the art of tattooing was taught to humans by the two sons of Ta’aroa, the God of Creation (History 2006). Therefore, tattooing was considered a ‘tapu’ or sacred art form, a religious ritual that was to be performed by ‘tahua,’ or shamans who were trained in the meaning of the designs and technical aspects of the art (History 2006). The designs, along with where they were placed on the individual’s body, was determined by his or her genealogy, status in society, and personal achievements (History 2006). Because it was considered a religious ritual, special preparation was taken before the tattooing was begun. The individual had to go through a period of cleansing, which involved fasting for a certain length of time, and he had to abstain from sexual intercourse or contact with the opposite sex (History 2006). According to Dr. Rollin:

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 tattooer, accompanied by his assistants, sang a sort of chant of 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), so that none be allowed to fall to the ground” (History 2006).

Although the majority of the traditional tattoo designs were lost when they were banned by the European missionaries, one missionary, Karl Von Steinen, is responsible for over 400 drawings and notes, which have allowed the traditional designs to once again be embraced by the Polynesian culture (History 2006).

These designs are generally divided into two groups, Enata and Etua. Enata are natural symbols that represent an individual’s life history, his island of origin, social status, work and activities (History 2006). These motives were also related to seduction, for example, a fisherman might have symbols that would protect him from sharks, or a warrior would have symbols that would protect him in battle against his enemies (History 2006). Etua were mystic symbols that represented past ancestors, such as chiefs, shamans, or the gods (History 2006). These symbols represented the individual’s place of honor among the tribe as well as protection from the gods, evil spirits and natural dangers (History 2006). Etua symbols are similar to the ‘mana,’ the spiritual force which was inherited from one’s ancestors but one was expected to develop and master this power (History 2006). Joseph Banks, the naturalist who was aboard Cook’s first voyage, wrote: “Men and women usually carry Z-mark on each articulation of their toes and fingers and sometimes around their feet. They also have signs representing squares, circles, human faces, birds, dogs painted on their arms and legs” (History 2006).

Tattooing was generally begun around the age of twelve years as a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood, and then different tattoos would be added with the passing years, thus the more tattoos a man had, the more prestige he had and the more honored he was regarded by society (History 2006). Because tattooing was not only a symbolic of wealth, but also represented strength and power, chiefs and warriors usually had the most elaborate tattoos (History 2006). Therefore, men who had no tattoos were held in little regard and even despised, while men whose bodies were totally tattooed, “the to-oata,” were held in great esteem (History 2006).

When a female reached the age of twelve years, her right hand was tattooed, after which she was then allowed to prepare meals and participate in the rubbing of dead bodies with coconut oil (History 2006). Female tattoos were generally less extensive than those for men, and were usually “limited to the hand, arm, feet, ears and lips,” however, women of social status and wealth might also have their legs tattooed (History 2006).

Author Steve Gilbert writes that because religion was such an integral part of all daily activities, “it was not that tattooing in and of itself was religious, but all activity was defined, controlled and limited by taboos, and overseen by spirits” (Hawthorne 2001). Therefore, tattooing was considered to serve as a “symbolic connection between the individual, the group and the Gods” (Hawthorne 2001). This would be especially potent due to the letting of blood and the permanent changing of the body, and the fact that the designs were strictly prescribed by tradition (Hawthorne 2001). According to Mark Hawthorne, “anthropologists believe tattoos are part of the evolution of a tradition that views the voluntary endurance of pain as a way to tap into a primal urge for meaning and belonging,” thus have always had a religious and spiritual significance (Hawthorne 2001). Moreover, they claim to have found instruments in Europe that were most likely used for tattooing that date back some 40,000 years (Hawthorne 2001). Tattoos were viewed as just another step in spiritual development, and most likely began as cuts into the skin to form scars, and then later the color from soot and plants were used (Hawthorn 2001).

Today, the most popular designs in French Polynesia are the “tiki, the turtle, the gecko, the ray, the shark, the dolphin,” and various abstract symbolic designs (History 2006). In April 2000, the first international tattooing festival was organized on the ‘sacred island’ of Raiatea, and drew some 50 tattoo master from around the globe (History 2006).

Works Cited

Hawthorne, Mark. (2001 August 31). The Tale of Tattoos: The history and culture of body art in India and abroad. Hinduism Today. Retrieved February 14, 2007 from HighBeam Research Library.

History of Polynesian Tattoos. (2006). Retrieved February 14, 2007 at

Saltz, Ina. (2006). Body Type. Abrams Image. New York. Pp.12,13.

Tahiti. (1996). The World Book Encyclopedia. World Book, Inc. Pp. 14.

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