The tattoos of Oceania have their origins in antiquity, their designs in mythology and are a reflection of the social status of the wearer.
The Maori legend states that tattoo was created by Ruaumoko, the god of earthquake, as a memorial to his despair 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 hit 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, words spread that he was a handsome man - made more handsome by his 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 throughout Polynesia.
The most spectacular way the Polynesians had of decorating themselves was the process of tattooing. It was highly skilled work for specialists, who had to be a combination of artists, doctor and sometimes even priests. These experts work with little combs made of bone or wood, which were rested on the skin, then tapped in with a smart stroke from a hammer. The result was a neat line of punches which the artists rubbed with a special dye. Some of it settled under the skin in a mark which stayed for good.
Most Polynesians had only a few small designs on their hands and feet. The Marquesas islanders, however, were enthusiastic about tattooing and in spite of the pain involved, every man's ambition was to be tattooed over his entire body. Not many achieved this, as the specialists and their assistants charged big fees. Even a wealthy man had to take thirty or forty years to pay for a complete coat of tattooing which included work on the top of his head and the inside of his mouth.
The Maoris tattooed their legs and faces, with their own favourite swirling design, by a method which was even more severe than an used in other islands. The tattooing instrument was shaped not so much like a comb as a small chisel. Also, the man who was being tattooed, was also put under a very strict taboo until he healed, which meant he could not feed himself. The only way he could eat was the help of friends or relatives who dripped liquids between his swollen lips through a carved wooden funnel.
Each important Maori chief had his own special face tattoo, and was extremely proud of it. An old chief was once seen drawing his son's tattoo pattern, and then staring at it affectionately as if the result had been the young man's portrait. When the time came that the Maoris sold their tribal lands to the whites, since they could not read or write, they could not sign their names on the legal documents. Instead, they drew their face tattoos, at the foot of the pages of copperplate script, written out by the English lawyers.
1. Represents new growth for being born again. Some observers believe that it was originally a woman's tattoo representing the young shoots that spout around the main taro plant. The spouts were harvested by women and these were symbols representing the woman's domain.
2. Maritime symbols representing the seabirds (above) and frigate bird below.
3. The triangular design represents symbols of strength and usually symbolize shark's teeth which were used to instill fear into enemies.
4. Symbolizes rain clouds or a dark period in the life of the person tattooed.
5. Representing people holding hands as a symbol of unity. It comes in many forms.
6. Thought to be a lucky star. It was tattooed on the wrist or thumb of young Mangaian men who dug phosphate on the island of Makatea in the 1940s and 1950s.
Tattooed Tahitian in uniform, 1900
Marquesas Islander, 1900
Oceania Tattoo Home Page