While in Ua Pou, an island in the Marquesas, we visited a local museum. The museum is small, and changes exhibits occasionally, and while we were there the exhibit was on tattooing. There was a local guide there, and he gave a little talk on tattooing. It's a fascinating procedure, connected with historical facts, and since it's not exactly widely known, I decided to put it on here and share it with y'all.
The word tattoo originally came from the Tahitian word tatau, and tattooing used to be very important in the French Polynesian islands. The designs on one’s body could be used to identify what part of French Polynesia the person was from, or simply as decoration. It is surprising to me that so many people got tattoos, as the process is so painful. Unlike the sanitary and reasonably safe needles used now, the way the French Polynesians did it was somewhat crude and not all that safe.
The process of tattooing was fairly simple, although it took a great deal of time. The tattooer only needed two tools, as well as the ink. Instead of using a needle, they would make a comb of sharp material, sometimes shark teeth. They would dip this comb in the ink, place it on the tattooee’s skin, and hammer it in. Shark teeth are bad enough when you just press lightly against them, but imagine actually getting punctured by lots of them!
The ink was organic, made from soot mixed with water, and sometimes blood. There is a tree that grows all over the Marquesas, with seeds called candle nuts. They are called this for the amazing fact that, stuck on a stick, they will burn for a long time, giving off heat and light. To acquire the soot from them, an upturned bowl is held over the stick as they burn.
Today, when you go to get a tattoo, you can bring your own pattern, or choose one from a tattooing book that will likely be there already. In French Polynesia, they used not to have paper, so that made it a bit more difficult to lay out a pattern. Instead, they used tapa cloth, a cloth made from bark, or wooden carvings of legs and arms with the tattoo designs burnt into them. They don’t use these any more, but many wooden legs and arms were found in archeological sites.
Tattooing was started when a child reached puberty, and usually eventually covered the whole body. The amount of skin covered, and the pattern, was decided by the teenager’s mother, and the tattooing continued for several years. The people did not mix food with tattooing, so when breadfruit season came around, no more tattoos were done. This was one reason why it was so drawn-out, and another is that a person simply cannot stand so much pain all over their body for very long periods of time. Some of the time, you could tell how old a person was by how completed their tattooing was.
Much of the ancient tattooing in the French Polynesian islands has been lost, and tattooing has turned more into simple decorations. It used to be that different patterns were for men and women, but today it’s mostly what people like. For example, designs under the ear were reserved for women, but boys and men today will also wear it, simply because they like the pattern. Very few people in the Marquesas have tattoos anymore, and those that do have small ones, nowhere near what they used to be. Tattoos have grown too expensive, and as it is no longer such a cultural thing, it doesn’t seem to be as big a thing.
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