Polynesian Tattoos

Pacific Island Tattoos as Global Practice

In is widely believed that through the early explorations of the Pacific Islands that tattooing entered into European consciousness. Nowadays the tufaga ta tatao or priests of tattooing are almost cult-like figures in an increasingly globalized and wired body modified world.

Sydney Parkin an artist on the first Captain Cook voyage of 1769 wrote:

The natives are accustomed to mark themselves in a very singular manner, which they call tattowing.

There is no doubt that these explorations have made a significant contribution to Western tattooing but in turn has also influenced Polynesian tattoos. In pre-colonial Polynesian society tattooing played an integral part in the organization of such instituions such as politics, warfare and religion. In Polynesia tattoos were considered honorable and decorative in contrast to the western experience of tattoos which was punitive and/or stigmatic for many years.

Tattooing itself is an act of sharing time and space amongst tattooist, tattooed people and others in the outside world. Almost all people compare and observe their bodies and those of other people to some extent. Whether on a conscious or unconsciously level we all include or exclude others based on similaries or differences to one degree or another.

Example of Polynesian tattoos on Steven Ball of Moko Ink in New Zealand


Polynesian Tattoos - © Tao of Tattoos

Tattooing is no different in that regard and it is commonly believed that certain types of tattoos or markings on the skin belong to a certain place or people. So we refer to 'Japanese tattoos' or 'Celtic tattoos'. As a result of hundreds of years of cultural mixing Polynesian tattoos are no longer confined just to Polynesia. This goes for all types of tattoos.

Polynesian tattoos for better or for worse have become influenced and in turn influences on other tattoo cultures. Many critics have argued that tribal tattoos have become commodified whilst others claim that they still represent cultural and personal histories as well as gender differences not just in Polynesia but around the world.

In many ways traditional tattoos were saved from the jaws of extinction by the influence of 'outsiders' who have travelled to places such as Samoa, Marquesian Islands and Aotearoa (New Zealand). There very presence both sought the inhabitants to strenghten their tattoo traditions but allowed the 'outsiders' to receive traditional tattoos from the 'tufaga ta tatao' which were then popularized in Europe and the United States.

Dave getting Polynesian tattoos by Croc of Moko Ink in New Zealand

Polynesian Tattoos - © Tao of Tattoos

Below is a short video I took of Croc and Innia II from Moko Ink in New Zealand. Inia is a respected Maori tattoo artist who was consulted for work on the movie "Once were Warriors". Croc can be seen practicing the traditional ta moko tap tap tattoo style common amongst Pacific Islanders and other forms of ancient tattoo practice.