Polynesia and the Tale of Tribal Tattooing

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Tattooing in the modern era is widespread, but each artist has their own style, and each design is personal and unique. Though tattoos have a long history, tribal designs are noticeable across all styles, showing the lasting impact of this particular style on the whole industry.

But just what were these styles? How did they come to be such an important part of modern tattooing? For that, we must travel back a bit, to the early expeditions of British sailors and colonizers who sailed far and wide and found themselves in cultures more ancient than they could have ever imagined!


Polynesian Tattoos: The origins of tribal art

Polynesia is a part of Oceania, a massive region consisting of thousands of islands — including Australia and New Zealand! Its history is as expansive as its culture is diverse, but the art of tattooing is common across all parts of this region. By the time colonizers and missionaries showed up, tattooing already existed in the West, but the styles differed significantly to the ones they encountered in Polynesia.


Western styles included religious tattoos among Christian pilgrims, spiritual tattoos among native Americans, and influences from Asian tattoo styles. But when they were introduced to the Polynesian styles of tattooing, the British sailors found a style unlike anything they had seen before – a style as complex and meaningful as the Asian and Native American styles they had come across before, but entirely different in so many ways.

James Cook and his crew approaching Tahiti
The second voyage of James Cook approaches Tahiti


The Art of ‘Tatau’

The expedition of James Cook is often credited with introducing the term ‘tattoo’ into English vocabulary. It comes from the Polynesian word for tattoo, ‘tatau’, which Cook mispronounced as ‘tattaw’. Tatau has many meanings, including ‘rightness’ and ‘balance’.

  • Tā means ‘to strike’, and in ‘tatau’  it stands for the tapping sound a tattooist’s wooden tools make.
  • Tau means ‘to reach an end’ or a conclusion, as well as ‘battle’.
  • Tata means ‘to repeatedly strike or perform a rhythm’, such as in tātā le ukulele which means ‘to play the ukulele.’

Tatau, therefore, is a word that refers to everything from the art of tattooing itself to the method used when striking rhythmically with a wooden tool, to the sound made during the process, to the significance it has as a symbol of honour and victory.


Tattoos for Polynesians, as the name itself tells us, are full of meaning, culture, and tradition.


When Cook and his men met the Polynesians, they found each tribe was marked differently. Some, such as the Māori wore extensive face tattoos or Ta Moko, while the Marquesan style included elaborate full-body tattoos. The foreigners didn’t understand this style of tattooing and believed it to be ‘savage’, as they often did with cultures unknown to them.

Maori face tattoos
A Māori chief with a full-face tattoo, called Tā Moko, as seen by Cook and his crew


Marquesan man with Polynesian tattoos
A Marquesan man with traditional tattoos


Traditional Ink or Silk Stockings?

When they came across the Samoans, Cook and his men thought of them as ‘civilized’ because they wore what was perceived to be silk clothing that covered their bodies from the waist down. The travelers eventually realized it was not clothing at all, but an extensive tattoo called pe’a worn by Samoan men that starts at the navel, goes down and around their thighs, and ends on their back.

Tribal tattoos
Tribal clothing or traditional pe’a?


Traditional pe'a often mistaken for silk stockings
An elaborate tattoo or silk stockings?


This Samoan style of tattooing which shocked the foreign sailors belonged to an ancient Polynesian art that had existed for thousands of years. Some believe the style was brought to the region by the early ancestors from southeast Asia that traveled further south and settled on the islands.


The Tale of the Twin Goddesses

The Samoan mythology around tatau tells the story of twin sisters Tilafaiga and Taema who swam from Fiji to Samoa, carrying with them a basket of tattooing tools. They sang a song of how only women get tattooed. As they swam, they spotted a clam underwater near the village of Falealupo on the island of Savai’i and dove down to get it, but when they resurfaced, their song was being sung with the lyrics changed to say only men get tattooed. This song is now known as the Pese o le Pe’a or Pese o le Tatau.

Goddesses of tattoo and war, Tilafaiga and Taema
Twin goddesses Tilafaiga and Taema


Tatau: A mark of honour

The Samoan tatau is performed by highly skilled masters called ‘tufuga ta tatau’  and done with handmade tools including pieces of bone, turtle shell, and wood. The process of getting tattooed in the Polynesian style is extremely painful and can take weeks and sometimes even years to complete, but brings with it great honour.


In Samoa, the prestigious title of tufuga ta tatau is passed down through two specific clans, and tufuga ta tatau often train under an elder in their clan for years as apprentice tattooists called ‘solo’, which is Samoan for the act of wiping the blood off the skin.

Traditional tatau session
A Samoan tufuga ta tatau and his solo inking a tatau with traditional tools, ca. 1895


The excruciating process of getting one’s tattoos is viewed with pride among Samoans. The pe’a is a rite of passage for men, as it requires courage and strength to endure, and those who have acquired their p’ea are respected and called soga’imiti. Those without their tattoos are called telefua or telenoa, Samoan for ‘naked’. And men who do not complete their pe’a, whether due to the pain or a lack of money to pay for the expensive process wear it like a mark of shame and are called pe’a mutu.


Trouble in the Water: Suppression of the arts

After the sudden entrance of the Western colonizers and missionaries, the Polynesian style of tattooing found itself in a dangerous spot. Religious suppression threatened its survival for 150 years, beginning in the 1800s.


Even with the restrictions, however, the sailors that reached Polynesia were enamoured with the style. Some got inked while on the islands, while others got inked by amateur tattoo artists on their ships using local tools and designs. They would return from their voyages sporting fresh ink in the tribal style, which introduced a whole new art form to the Western tattoo scene. The trend for sailors to get inked from the various lands they travel to continues till today.

Nautical tattoos were an eclectic mix of all the places a sailor had voyaged to
A tattooed sailor sporting ink inspired from various parts of the world, 1943 


While religious suppression threatened the tatau in Polynesia, the West had begun seeing a crackdown on tattooing after the spread of diseases from unhygienic equipment, and the potential hazards from the handmade equipment used for tatau made it difficult to revive the art for a long time.

Maori face tattoo session
A traditional Maori tattoo session, ca. 1910


Tools used for traditional tribal tattoos
Traditional Samoan tatau tools


Rebirth and Revival of Traditions

While some parts of Polynesia managed to retain their art and continue practicing it in its original form, other parts lost some of their traditions. The tufuga ta tatau of the Samoan Su’a Sulu’ape family helped revive many of these traditions and raised a new generation of master tattooists that continue to keep the art alive.


At the same time in the West, artists began drawing inspiration from tribal ink even more and tattooing found its footing as an established art form. Eventually, this style took root and tribal ink became one of the most popular designs among tattoo enthusiasts. To this day, tribal tattoos remain in demand and most tattoo studios offer a variation of this ancient style — minus the handmade tools and cultural significance, of course! Blackwork, for instance, is a style that draws heavily from tribal tattoo art.

Blackwork tribal tattoo
Extensive blackwork tattoo with tribal influence


Modern Tatau: A fusion of cultures

Polynesians themselves no longer view it as a mark of shame to not be tattooed, but it is still considered a mark of strength to get one’s traditional tattoos done. For many, it helps them maintain a connection to their culture and reclaim their identity after it was suppressed for so long. Polynesians now wear a combination of tribal and modern ink, a perfect representation of what it means to belong to an ancient culture in a modern world!


Tatau using modern tools
Traditional Marquesan tattoos representing strength and courage, done using modern methods


Tribal Tattooing in South Asia

Tribal ink has also found a place as one of the most sought-after styles in south Asia, where similar ancient styles of tattooing exist among tribal populations. Modern south Asian tattooing fuses local tribal styles with Polynesian ones to create something entirely unique.

Tribal tattoo using south Asian designs
Indian tribal tattoo, done by Birthmark Tattoo ’n’ Customs, Bangalore, India


Much like their Polynesian counterparts, these south Asian styles also dealt with their fair share of suppression from colonizers and missionaries, but many have since been revived.

Modern tribal tattoos
Tribal tattoos designs or ‘batek’ from Goa, India


Since its introduction to the larger world, tribal ink has continued to inspire tattoo enthusiasts from all walks of life. It is an art form that represents who you truly are, using symbols that tell your story and remind you of where you come from — and where you’re going.


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