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Science And Nature

In Polynesia, tattoos tend to be more than skin deep

Published August 3, 2022

12 min read

Ta-tau, ta-tau, ta-tau. The sounds of traditional Polynesian tattoo tools echo because the needle-sharp bone bites into my skin. Whiletattoo artist James Samuelas assistant holds my leg steady, I gaze out the studio window to the verdant interior of Moorea and time decreases. Ive considered this tattoo for 3 years. From my initial in-person discussion in the studios garden to the tattoos completion, its been significantly less than three hours.

The legacy of Polynesian tatau, the onomatopoeic name for the practice of tattoo, began 3,000 years agothe designs as diverse because the people who put them on. The Polynesian Triangle includes greater than a thousand individual islands in the South Pacific Ocean forming several dozen cultural groups, the majority of which have their very own distinct tattoo traditions.

Around the world, tattoos have grown to be more popularno longer an individual interest to be covered up at the job. Indigenous tattoo traditions have recently are more visible: In 2021, a Mori journalist became the initial person with traditional face markings to host a primetime news program on New Zealand television. On the cover of the July 2022 problem of National Geographic, Quannah Rose Chasinghorsea model with Hn Gwichin and Oglala Lakota heritageis photographed close to the red rock formations in TseBiiNdzisgaii, or Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park (the portrait by Kiliii Yyan is section of an attribute package on the Native sovereignty movement).

The initial quality of Polynesian tattoo designs has inspired visitors, including me, to collect a far more permanent souvenir. But once we think about the difference between honoring and appropriating a culture, how should travelers who arent section of that culture get yourself a tattoo respectfully?

As the practice is interwoven with the Polynesian life-style, an important approach requires consideration behind the objective of your tattoo and communication with the tattoo artist.

Tattoos as cultural communication

In ancient times, Polynesian cultural practice was passed on verbally, but tattoos also played a component in the transfer of knowledge with your body as a canvas. Traditionally, tatau served as a kind of ID or social rank, monitoring the genealogy of the household, and representing important milestones, says Samuela, whose parents hailed from French Polynesiahis mother from the Marquesas island chain and his father from the island of Tahiti, the administrative centre of French Polynesia.

According to the archipelago where you originated from, tatau was practiced differently and symbols had different meanings, notes Samuela. For instance, people living on [an] island with mountains or an atoll with only coconut trees use different earth symbols predicated on their very own experience.

Across many Pacific islands, traditional cultural practices were discouraged and outright banned from enough time of early Western contact. Tattooing was often done in defiance of colonial powers, so that it was among the first things white men tried to suppress, says Tricia Allen, an Oahu-based tattooist having an extensive background in Polynesian history and writer of The Polynesian Tattoo Today and Tattoo Traditions of Hawaii. During recent decades Pacific Islanders have revived a lot of their traditional arts and take pride within their cultural heritage, its understandable why tattoo could be a sensitive topic for Indigenous people.

(Understand how Marquesans are preserving their rich cultural heritage.)

Telling your personal story

To numerous Polynesian tattoo artists, the comfortable response to the question of respect versus appropriation is based on the truth that each tattoo is totally unique, from the conversation between your customer and the artist.

I ask clients about themselves, their very own story, and what they need their tattoo to represent, says Eddy Tata, a Marquesan tattoo artist who practices his work aboard the Aranui 5, the half-passenger, half-freighter ship that sails from Tahiti to the Marquesas, Tuamotu, and Society Islands. Because they talk, Im already making the look in my own head. If your client shows me an image, wanting that exact design, I wont copy it. Replicating something thats personalized is really a type of appropriationlike stealing someone elses story. I explain that when i adapt the look so that it corresponds to the customers narrative.

Rather than first drawing a tattoo stencil in writing and transferring it onto your skin, many Polynesian artists sketch the look directly on your body with a pen. That freehand sketch allows the tattooist the flexibleness to shape a one-of-a-kind composition because they go.

(This former Buddhist monk spreads positivity through his tattoo art.)

While you can find online sources that list this is of different images and patterns, a lot of the info isnt accurate, which explains why its necessary to talk to the artist concerning the purpose behind the tattoo and what you would like represented.

For many individuals, their tattoos have a deep meaning and so are personally linked to them. Due to tattoos history as a canvas for family lineage and accomplishments, there remain designs which are traditionally guarded for appropriate use which are tapu, or forbidden, for others. Additionally, different island groups have long traditions about where tattoos are put on your body, like Tongan warriors, whose tattoos were placed from the waist to the knees.

While its acceptable as a traveler to be inspired by something, it can help to get a link with the look you ultimately chooseafter all, youll be coping with it for the near future. It must be a representation of one’s individual journey and accomplishments.

Every tattoo I’ve took me three yearsfrom enough time I started great deal of thought, to enough time it took to get the right artist, to talking with that artist concerning the symbolism behind it, says Tahiarii Yoram Pariente, a Polynesian cultural advisor and conservator predicated on Raitea. The pain and symbolism in the act of the tattoo is quite internal, and everything you see isnt necessarily everything you get. People dont automatically understand your story simply by considering your tattoo. Its only the exterior cover of the book which makes up the complete person.

(This woman sailed the Pacific without maps, reviving a Polynesian tradition.)

Being intentional

When people recognize that theres always a meaning and story behind Polynesian tattoos, Samuela believes they save money time considering what they need and how they would like to memorialize their journey. Tattoos are section of our lives. Its cultural, rather than fashion, he says. Ive been thinking about sharing the original art of tatau with other folks.

Much like many things to take into account as a visitor in a destination, it ultimately boils down to respecting the wishes of the Indigenous people. Several cultures are alive and thriving. Should they believe that components of their art ought to be left alone, that feeling warrants respect.

People dont realize the principal difference between traditional tattoo and modern tattooing is that within traditional cultures, it had been a mark of conformity to ones cultural norms, says Allen. That is quite unique of in Western culture, in which a tattoo generally marks individuality.

While tattoo artists advise care and consideration in choosing how exactly to commemorate your individual story, they encourage travelers never to weary. Tata stresses the positivity in being curious and sensitive to tataus traditional origins. Dont hesitate of tattoos, he says. I believe its an honor to talk about my culture with others, and its own in a manner that carries my culture across the world.

(In Europes icy north, locals are undoing decades of stereotype-fueled tourism.)

Back Samuelas studio, a gecko runs in sporadic bursts across the wall and a curious horse sticks its head on view window. I gaze at the new symbol on my leg. To a stranger, the undulating symbol in black can happen merely as a lovely design. If you ask me, it tells a significant tale of my entire life: my link with water and voyaging, along with might work as a writer sharing stories of individuals and places.

The Polynesian culture, and its own invest the tale your tattoos tell, becomes an enduring section of you. Youre born naked with nothing. Throughout your life you accumulate memories, and finally once you die, you let everything go, says Pariente. The thing you acquire throughout your lifetime that complements you once you die can be your tattoos.

Everything you see on your skin is really a byproduct of the tattooits your skin you make. You carve the story you will ever have into your skin layer, adds Pariente. Its a small amount of eternity.

Jill K. Robinson is really a San Francisco-based travel and adventure writer. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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