Despite having become a world-wide phenomenon, tattoos often have vastly differing meanings in different cultures. While in the West a tattoo can be a means of self-expression, a symbol of rebellion against authority or a simple “fashion accessory”; in other cultures, and notably the Marquesas Islands, it is a tradition with a long history. In the past few decades, young Marquesans have started to reclaim this facet of their cultural heritage that had all but disappeared during European dominance.

The Polynesian Garden of Eden and the noble savage

The first Europeans to step foot on Polynesia, after sailing half-way across the world, were immediately spellbound by the enchanting land that appeared to them as a lost Garden of Eden. That particular myth is mainly due to one Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, whose widely read books spread the tale throughout Europe, most notably A Voyage Around the World (published 1771). Bougainville describes Polynesia thus:

“This people know only repose and the pleasure of the senses. Venus is the goddess worshiped here. From the mild weather, beautiful landscapes and fertile soil watered from a myriad of streams and waterfalls to the pure air, not even soured by mosquitoes, the habitual plague of exotic climates, everything invites to voluptuousness.”

The Europeans found in this idyllic land everything that the “Enlightened” philosophers had always revered in the “noble savage” concept: beauty, a simple lifestyle, nudity and freedom from modesty and propriety.

Europe’s fascination with tattoos

This idyllic nudity revealed one intriguing particularity: tattoos. Bougainville describes the practice thus:

“The islanders wear different markings on their skin in an almost blue dye. I do not know exactly how these indelible patterns are created but I believe it is by pricking the surface of the skin and pouring dye, made from the sap of certain herbs, into the punctures, in the same manner as I have seen done amongst the American Indians.[…]. In regards to the markings indicative of status, I believe (and I am very serious) that the foremost one distinguishing free men from slaves is that free men have their buttocks painted. Afterwards, the amount of paint on the buttocks or other parts of the body, the presence of beards or moustaches, the length of the nails and hair, these nuances, I believe, indicate positions.”

The Europeans quickly learned that the tattoo represented a strong and positive social identifier, the differing patterns and colours indicative of not only the identity and personality of the wearer but also of his or her social status, genealogy, etc. The arrival of the Europeans was to disrupt these time-honoured traditions.

The term “tattoo” was first coined by British-born James Cook (1728-1779). He described a custom called “tattow” from the Polynesian word “tatau” – meaning "to hit or strike (ta) with a tool (au)". A few adventurous sailors tried it and returned to Europe freshly tattooed. Paradoxically, while in Polynesia tattoos were a sign of positive social distinction, in Europe, because they were first adopted by sailors, prostitutes and convicts, they quickly became associated with marginality and had negative connotations.

The acculturation process

y the end of the 19C, the acculturation process of the natives was well on its way and the practice of tattooing in Polynesia had almost disappeared. A few scientists, travellers or artists had the presence of mind to record whatever remained from the Elders. Artist Paul Gauguin’s reproductions on paper, canvas and wood and Lucien Gauthier’ photographs have, for example, remained.

In his encyclopaedia Universal Geography, published in 1908, geographer Elisée Reclus came to a damning conclusion. He analysed the role played by colonists, and especially missionaries, in the loss of traditional customs:

“...How very much are the Polynesians described by Cook, Bougainville, Moerenhout and Fornarder now other! And so it is that the custom of tattooing, taken to the level of high art by the Maori of New Zealand, the people of Tahiti, Samoa and the Sandwich islands, has almost completely disappeared, except in the least fortunate of islands, the Marquesas. [...] These days, Polynesians wishing to express their coquetry will do so in their garments instead of freely on their naked body as in the past.”

The tattoo as a renewal of identity

Since the 1970s-80s, in the wake of the development of concepts such as “alterity” and “otherness”, the younger generations have embarked on an identity revival of which the tattoo is one of the main emblems. However, the knowledge passed down orally had been lost over the generations.

The tattoos of Polynesia were rediscovered thanks, in particular, to the notes and sketches of German ethnologist and explorer Karl von den Steinen (1855-1929), who drew over 400 Marquesian tattoos. This discovery gave new life to the practice during the 1980s and copies of his sketches now circulate in Polynesia and on the internet and are considered references.

For health reasons, Marquesian tattooists no longer use the ancient manual tapé technique, but a dermograph. In fact, most tattooists can no longer earn a living just from local business and have to diversify with tourists, sculpture, etc. The modern-day tattooed can now choose his or her own message, leaving the tattooist to interpret and transcribe, seeking a difficult balance between ancient customs and rituals and a new socio-economic reality. Some look to their roots to recapture the art of their ancestors, while others let their creativity run free and incorporate ancient patterns with newer designs to satisfy the desires of a disparate and multicultural clientele.

The tourist attractions mentioned

Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands
Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands