Cook Islands tribes or clans each usually recognized a particular fish, bird, insect or plant that was sacred to that tribe and symbolized its unity. The ritual association requires members of the clan to treat the totem with respect. Its supernatural help could also be sought in times of distress.

To the left is the symbol for the centipede with a poisonous bite is a common totem of chiefs and is normally tattooed on the chief's back.   

Normally, the totem represented one clan's affiliation while they can also show one's specific role as ariki or otherwise within the clan.

While body decoration has been a phenomenon of many societies, the art of tattooing - engraving the skin - reached its zenith in Polynesian societies, particularly New Zealand and the Marquesas. Few cultures exhibited such adornment for all to see. The prevalence of the tattoo has been attributed in part, to the relatively warm climate in which the Polynesians lived and to their light skin.

The relief of the tattoo is less impressive on dark skin. That may explain why face painting was more prevalent amongst Pacific people with darker skins. In the warm climes that the Polynesians inhabited, clothing was traditionally sparse and consequently bodily tattoos were always on display. The cooler New Zealand climate may explain, at least in part, why the face moko developed of its highest level in that country.


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The word

Their distinctive tattoos may have been the defining emblem of Maori people, but the precise origin word itself - tattoo - remains unclear. It is generally accepted that the English word derived from the Polynesian tatau but the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary of Historical Principles says tattoo was adopted into English in the mid 1600s (i.e. before any English contact with Polynesia) with meanings including to tap, to strike, to thump and to beat a drum. cook recorded tatau as the Tahitian term when he arrived there in 1769, so it is possible that it came into English through another Austronesian language - most likely Malay - with which the English were in contact much earlier. Some have speculated the art is called tatau because it also means 'to read', but reading was not introduced until the 1820s. The tattoo was not only a source of decoration, but often recorded a man's tribal affiliations, lineage and achievements. The inflection of the word when spoken differs depending on whether one is talking about reading or tattooing, suggesting the link between the two words may be coincidental. both Te Rangi Hiroa' and Gotz claim 'tatau' comes from the word 'ta', meaning to strike, thus tatau is the result of this tapping process.

Tatau is not the only word for this art form. In some French Polyensian islands and some Cook Islands it was known as nana'o.

A blend of contemporary and Polynesian tattoos

Skin as a canvas

The first missionaries played their part in obliterating the practice, and to some extent the memory of the art of tattooing. However, throughout Polynesia, renditions of the artists' works survive in the manuscripts of early explorers. Few originals survive, for the Maori artist's canvas was the most perishable of them all. Unlike wood or the hide of animals, human skin did not fair well on the death of its host. Besides, while some Polynesian cultures believed that man would be separated at death from the tattoos that he carried when when alive, it was never thought important they be retained. When the missionaries obliterated what they perceived a barbaric practice, they had little interest in preserving for posterity these remarkable works of art.

Cultures seek artistic expression in the materials available. The geometrical shapes of Marquesan tattoos echo those of Lapita earthenware which can be traced from origins in the islands off eastern Papua New Guinea, down the Melanesian chain and into Polynesia. but pottery faded out in Polynesia, although fragments of pottery are commonly found in archaeological sites in Polynesia. The craft seems to have become virtually lost due to the shortage of its fundamental raw material, clay. but remarkably, although the raw material has altered, the designs have survived over thousands of kilometres in distance and millennia in time. Tattoo patterns in Polynesia show a similarity of patterns using geometric designs - checks, triangles, arches and spirals. But representations of human ancestors, and plants and animals were also popular. This similarity in designs was accentuated by the limited licence given to the tattooist, who was an artisan able to express himself only within very limited boundaries for the "motifs and their locations on the body were codified by a mass of tradition" In new Zealand, however, the tattooist had much greater licence with the facial tattoo or moko.

Motives for tattoo

The purposes of tattooing in traditional Polynesian society were multiple. One was, particularly, for males, to enhance the body's erotic attractiveness. No doubt women found tattoos on males attractive. Because the process of obtaining a tattoo was painful, it was also a symbol of manliness. A tattoo also symbolised initiation - generally a child entering into the adult world. One writer describes the ordeal of tattooing as having much in common with the beatings, circumcision and nose-piercing that are often important within initiation cycles. Tattoos were thought to enhance power and act as a talisman. Tattoo signified the status of the person tattooed and sometimes portrayed a person's genealogy. Even daily life could be depicted on the skin. When it came to the choice of tattoos "age, gender, social rank, the personality of the tattooed person and his/her membership of a specific group; were all factors which contributed to the choice of motifs", and, in some societies, the extent of the tattooing. Indeed, so strong did the practice of tattooing become that it was considered abnormal for one's skin to remain in its natural state beyond puberty.

Tattoo in the cosmos

Scarification was not restricted to tattooing and ornamentation. For example, in the cook Islands it was customary for intimate friends and next of kin to express their grief for the deceased by cutting their skin with sharp shells and to let the blood flow freely. such cutting was not random, but done in a way which left a scar of a particular pattern. This culture of scarification may be partly explicable by the cosmic view of Polynesians who had a dualistic view of the world distinguishing the realm of the Po (representing darkness, death and the gods) from the living world and the light. The Po was the source of fertility and children, and closely associated with tapu. Children newly born, having just emerged from the po were threateningly tapu and various rites were performed to lift this tapu, which in a sense brought the child from Te Po to Te Ao (the world and light). In the Marquesas this was done by mixing the child's blood with that of less sacred people. In this context tattooing helped to reduce and attract the tapu of others. It rendered the body less contagious while at the same time deconsecrating it from the tapu which came from Te Po. some societies, such as the Marquesas, saw the process reversed at death and for this reason painstakingly wore away the skin of the deceased until the tattoos were removed.

The origins of tattoo

The legend of the origin of the tattoo most consistent with this cosmological view (and the most convincing) is that held by the New Zealand Maori. Tattoo was created by Ruamoko, the god of earthquakes, as a memorial to his desire and awe at the separation of his father Ranginui, the god of the sky, and his mother Papatuanuku, the god of the earth. Uetonga, the grandson of Ruaumoko and Hine nui te Po, the goddess of the underworld, was a master tattooist and of a pale skinned and fair haired people known as the turehu. The legend goes that Mataora, a handsome young chief, met and fell in love with Niwareka, daughter of Uetonga. Mataora persuaded Niwareka to live with him but one day he it her. She left him and returned to the underworld Mataora, grief struck by what he had done, followed. In his travels he met Uetonga who was carving the face of a chief with tools - blood was flowing from the incisions. Mataora's face was painted with ochre and Uetonga told him that such a tattoo was only fit for wood - he smudged the tattoo on Mataora's face. Mataora then asked that his face be tattooed. Although Mataora's face was so swollen he had to be fed and could only drink through a funnel, word spread that he was a handsome man - made more handsome by the tattoos. Niwareka came to see and discovered that the man was her lover. They returned to the world we know and he and his descendants spread the art of tattoo from Havaiki to Tonga nui, Ra'iatea, and New Zealand. According to an East Coast genealogical table Niwareka lived seven generations before the great Maui and 63 generations ago or about 1600 years ago.

The all seeing eye was normally tattooed on the leg
usually behind the knee symbolizing watching behind you. 

Tattoo motifs

The most heavily tattooed were those from the Marquesas where the whole body was tattooed. Next were the Society Islands, the Tuamotu and Hawai'i where the torso was tattooed. In New Zealand the focus was on the face. Samoan men were tattooed from the ribs to the knees, and women from the thigh to the knees and legs. Traditionally the tattoos of the Tongans were extensive and similar to those of the Samoan. The motifs traditionally tattooed in the Cook Island were lightly spread over the entire body. Chevrons were grouped into intricate patterns around the wrists, and long vertical and parallel lines containing broken, saw tooth lines are to be found the length of the back. "Frequently, one finds tattooed on the back of the hand a shooting star with five tails, perhaps a souvenir of the star that guided the first navigators to their destinations. Each tribe, according to its island of origin or place from which it departed - had its distinctive sign..." In 1905 Gudgeon recorded four motifs which he attributed as distinctive ;patterns brought by the canoes so they arrived in Aitutaki and which were used to distinguish one tribe from another. These included a pandanus flower, the komua motif, the paeko motif and the punarua motif. However, there may have been as many as nine motifs.

The art of the southern Cook islands revolves around the human figure. The iconography, although differing from island to island, is basically similar. Several fishing god figures are painted with tattoo-like designs which heighten the plasticity of the otherwise rough-hewn surface. Two known medium-sized figures exhibit smaller figures carved directly on their chests, arms and buttocks.  

One of the most painful tattoos, called rau-teve (representing a native arrowroot leaf), is found in the cook Islands. It begins behind the ear descending the neck along the cervical vertebrae. The pain was so great that even men of high rank recall their inability to have the tattoo completed. This needs to be seen in context, for all tattooing was painful and for one European in the Marquesas in the first half of the 1800s the nearest comparison he could think of to tattooing was a visit to the dentist - an excruciating experience in those days.

The only island in the Cook Islands where tattooing wasn't practised was Manuae (which had a moderate population at the time of Captain cook's visit, although tattooing was not in evidence. In contrast, Captain cook recalls on the island of Mangaia the arms of men between the elbow and the shoulder were tattooed so they were black. when dancing, the men wore beautiful white shells fastened with sennit on their shoulders. The tattoo further highlighted the beauty of these objects. In 1906 four tattooed Mangaians travelled to the International Exhibition in Christchurch, New Zealand. They were tattooed on their arms, legs, shoulders, upper arm, forearms, abdomen and back. On the island of Atiu the men were tattooed from knee to heel, which made them appear as if they were boots, while those of higher rank, and some women, were also tattooed on their sides and back "in an uncommon manner."

A distinctive traditional Rarotongan identity motif

Most striking were the Aitutakians whom the first missionary John Williams recalls as being tattooed from head to foot and the ariki being lightly covered with a preparation of turmeric and ginger which was thought to add much to the beauty of his appearance. Make Ariki of Rarotonga was also beautifully tattooed. However, the most famous cook Islands tattoo is that worn by Te Pou, a Rarotongan chief who, while tattooed from neck to toe, his face was unmarked. Unfortunately, there are few renditions of Cook Islands tattoos and even this, the most famous was drawn in London on verbal information given by missionaries. Therefore it cannot be accepted as accurate. That drawing depicts on Te Pou's knees the turtle, the most sacred of "fish", reserved for the diet of chiefs only.

The 'carver's' tools

In the Cook Islands the tattoo 'carving' equipment consisted of combs made of the bones of birds and rats tied at right angles to a short piece of wood. It was known as u'i tatau in Rarotonga and ivi tatipatipa in Mangaia. A short piece of wood was used as a mallet to tap the comb and make the incision. A piece of bark cloth, wrapped around the fourth and fifth fingers of the left hand was used to wipe away blood. The comb was, before incision, dipped in a dye. The pigment used came from holding half a coconut shell over a fire consisting of burning kernels of candlenut. The charcoal was then scraped from the coconut shell.

Symbolizes the protective matting worn by warriors

The Vanishing art

The art of tattooing generally died out after the missionaries gained enough influence to have it banned. The exception is in Samoa. Why tattooing survived there is probably because there were proportionally fewer missionaries there, and the tattoo were usually hidden from public view. by contrast in Tonga tattooing was obliterated so successfully it shows few of the signs of revival seen in almost all other Polynesian societies today.  For the missionaries, tattooing was a pagan custom. They argued that Jesus Christ had already spilt blood for mankind and it was inappropriate for others to follow in this fashion. Cited as authority was the bible's references in Leviticus 19-28 to prohibition on making cuttings in the flesh 'for the dead' and the printing of any marks on the body (see also Deuteronomy 1:14). The Egyptians tattooed the names or symbols of their gods on their breasts or arms and for the Jews the absence of such marks distinguished them from the pagans. It is difficult to blame Leviticus for, although a prophet, he could hardly have anticipated this decree would be applied to a people and lands then unknown, over 3000 years later.

From an early stage in the cook islands, the missionaries endeavoured to prohibit tattooing although initially their success was limited as the following quote from Reverend Charels Pitman's diary reveals: "I am much grieved at the disposition of the Chiefs sons have been marking themselves". Interestingly, while condemning the tattoo on religious grounds, even Pitman was able to acknowledge it was not without artistic merit. "Many of the chiefs are very tastefully Tatau'd, far more so than the Natives of the society Islands". Eventually in 1879 the missionaries persuaded the chiefs to prohibit tattooing in "law". "It is forbidden for men and women to tattoo each other's names or marks upon themselves. The fine is $4".


The art of tattoo revived but was restricted to people seen as "marginal". While gang fights over patches may seem extraordinary to New Zealanders other than Maori, and Americans other than Tongans and Samoans, such conflict is consistent with the cultural tradition of the island of Aitutaki where if the mark of one tribe was stolen by another, a fight ensued.

It is remarkable how recent the revival of the art of tattooing is. In Rarotonga it is only since the 1900s that tattoos have become, once again, culturally acceptable and socially tolerated. This rebirth of the art in the cook Islands was stimulated and legitimatized by the presence of tattooists from other Pacific nations exhibiting their techniques and designs at the 1992 South Pacific Festival of the Arts held on Rarotonga. This late development may be attributed in substantial measure to be continuing influence of the Christian churches in the country. The revival came a decade earlier in French Polynesia prompted by Teve, a Marquesan performer. he persuaded Tavana Salmon, an entrepreneur marketing Polynesian creative arts in Hawai'i, to fund an expedition to Samoa where the uninterrupted preservation of the tradition in led to some of its master craftsmen tattooing Maori. Teve received a full body tattoo and became one of the highlights of Tavana's Polynesian shows in Hawai'i. The reasons for the revival are varied but undoubtedly relate to some degree to the reclaiming of political rights and making a statement about cultural identity, as well as aesthetic choice. No doubt it is in part a consequence of the achievement of self-determination for Pacific nations which were formerly colonies, but it is also a symbol of nationalism and identity for those countries which remain under an umbrella of de facto, if not actual, colonial rule. This could help explain why Tongans, who were never colonised, have now felt that need to reassert this aspect of ancient identity.

The revival has also been stimulated by a contemporary appreciation for cultural diversity in contrast to contempt for such differences during the colonial era. Along with an appreciation for the value of indigenous languages has come a greater respect for traditional cultural practices. This appreciation has been accentuated by forces of globalization which threaten those  redeeming cultural differences. For some, in the absence of an actual prohibition, tattooing is as natural as circumcision, baptism, consecration and other initiations in Western culture. It required neither nostalgia nor a political cause to motivate them. It is almost as if the suspension of the practice was but a brief hiatus in a tradition so many countries old that it is imbued within the genes of the people who practice it.

The range of motifs available to the traditional ta'unga tatau was limited by strict traditions and customs. The modern Polynesian tattooist feels less constrained and consequently with the revival there has also come something of renaissance in the art of the Polynesian tattoo. contemporary tattooists improvise blending the old designs with new concepts, ideas and designs.


Ironically, although Christian missionaries tried to annihilate the art of tattoo from Polynesia and relegate it, not just to history but to oblivion, the tattoo became the trademark of sailors throughout the world. A cruder form of this noble art became familiar to cultures to which it had previously been unknown. Now this tradition millennia old is being revived by the peoples who are versed in its traditions and are able to give this art form a cultural context and, once again, true meaning.    

An abbreviated extract from Cook Islands Culture published by the Institute of Pacific Studies in association with the Cook Islands Extension Centre, University of the South Pacific; the Cook Islands Cultural and Historic Places Trust,  and the Ministry of Cultural Development, Rarotonga - 2003

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