by Betty Fullard-Leo
A Man from Noukahiwa
bearing designs of early Polynesian body art.
Images: The copperline engravings of the Polynesians
originated from sketches done by european artists visiting
various islands in the South Pacific during the early
Queen Kamamalu had a tattoo applied to her tongue as
an expression of her deep grief when her mother-in-law
died in the 1820s. Missionary William Ellis watched
the procedure, commenting to the queen that she must
be undergoing great pain. The queen replied, He eha
nui no, he nui roa ra kuu aroha. (Great pain indeed,
greater is my affection.)
Early explorers found that both men and women wore
tattoos in old Hawaii for a variety of reasons.
Sometimes the tattoos were purely decorative. Jacques
Arago, who visited the Islands in 1819 as a draftsman
with the Freycinet expedition, noted that some men were
heavily tattooed on only one side of their bodies. He
wrote, They looked like men half burnt, or daubed with
ink, from the top of the head to the sole of the foot.
Hawaiian historian Samuel Kamakau noted that this solid
black tattooing was called pahupahu. It was commonly
applied to warriors in the Marquesas as a disguise,
and it is thought that such tattooing may have set apart
Hawaiian warriors as well.
A Man from Noukahiwa
bearing designs of early Polynesian body art.
Oral traditions tell of warriors defeated in battle
who were taken prisoner, then beaten and tattooed. As
a final indignity, their eyelids were turned up and
tattooed on the inside, called maka uhi. Sometimes outcasts
born into the kauwa (slave) class were permanently marked
with a curved line above the bridge of the nose, or
a circular spot in the middle of the forehead, with
curved lines like brackets on either side of the eyes.
Tattooing was an art unknown in the western world prior
to Captain Cooks first voyage through Polynesia.
The word tattoo is one of only a few words used internationally
that have a Polynesian origin coming from the word tatau
used in Tahiti, Tonga, and Samoa. In Hawaii the
word became kakau.
A Man named Mokua. Mokua
was the personal guide for the Reverand William
Ellis who was an early missionary in Hawaii. Ellis
wrote extensively of his travels through Hawaii.
Interestingly, tattoo designs are thought to supply
one more clue to the origin of the Polynesian peoples,
as they bear close resemblance to the geometrical designs
found on Lapita pottery. The Lapita people originated
in Melanesia and Southeast Asia about 3,000 B.C., and
early Lapita voyagers reached Tonga about 1,300 B.C.,
later settling Samoa and eastward into the Pacific.
Shards of pottery they carried with them have been found
throughout the Pacific, pottery whose curvilinear and
rectilinear shapes, spirals, chevrons and interlocking
elements are so similar to Polynesian tattoo designs,
historians are certain there was an ancient connection.
Even stylized masks and sea creatures appeared on Lapita
pottery, as it did in early Polynesian tattoo forms.
Other Hawaiian tattoo designs might depict squares,
triangles, crescents and figures of aumakua (personal
gods), such as the lizard or shark. As recently as 1923,
publisher Lorin Thurston told of seeing a woman with
a row of triangular dots around her ankle as a charm
against sharks, applied because a legend tells of a
woman who was bitten by her aumakua, a shark.
When the woman cried out that he was supposed to protect
her, the shark let her go and replied, I will not make
that mistake again, for I will see the marks on your
After Western contact, tattoo designs evolved to include
more fanciful shapes such as figures of birds, goats,
fans, guns, etc. When King Kamehameha died, many Hawaiians
had Kamehameha, 1819 tattooed on themselves to show
their respect for the great king.
Men from Noukahiwa bearing
designs of early Polynesian body art.
Tattoos were applied with needles, sometimes made of
beaks and claws of birds, but more often made of the
knife-like barbs on the sides of the tails of certain
fish, such as palani, kala and pualu. Some bones were
split to form double pointed needles. Some were grooved
from the base to the point of the barb with the dull
upper end wrapped in fiber to hold ink in reserve. Needles
could be bound together to form multi-points when large
areas were to be covered with designs. Some needles
were attached to wooden handles.
Ink was made by several methods. Some plants produce
a highly acidic juice, which could be used for tattoos
marking the death of a loved one, that would last six
months to a year. If permanent tattoos were desired,
an intense black ink would be made of the burned soot
of the kukui nut. Arago noted in 1819 that kukui soot
was mixed with juice from coconuts and sugar cane to
attain a workable consistency. Fish bones charred with
kukui oil and burning sandalwood chips might also be
pounded into ash and added to the juice from the root
of a plant called naneleau to make a pigment for tattooing.
In his journal, Arago described the process of applying
a tattoo: They fix the bone of some bird to a stick,
slit the bone in the middle, so as to give it two or
three points, which they dip in a black colour...they
apply these points to the part to be tattooed, and then
they strike gently on the stick, to which the bone is
attached, with a wand, two feet in length. Moli (tattoo
needles) dating from 1200 to 1300 were discovered in
a shelter near Hanauma Bay on Oahu in 1958, but such
artifacts are extremely rare.
Historians have determined that anyone could have a
tattoo, but often it was the more affluent who were
the most extensively adorned, possibly because a skilled
tattoo master had to be paid, and poor people could
not afford his services. Hula dancers, both men and
women were usually generously tattooed. Women often
had tattoos on their fingers, hands, and wrists and
frequently wore band-type decorations on their ankles
and lower calves. Queen Kaahumanu was known to
be tattooed on her legs, the palm of her left hand and
her tongue. Palm tattoos have been recovered on mummified
Jacques Arago wrote (The women) make drawings of necklaces
and garters on the skin in a manner really wonderful;
their other devises consist of the horns, helmets, muskets,
rings, but more particularly fans and goats. Those of
the men were muskets, cannon, goats and dominos; together
with the name of Tammeahmah (Kamehameha), and the day
of his death.
Hawaiian tattoos were applied under strict religious
rules. It was an art attended by ritualistic ceremony,
and often the designs chosen had kaona, or hidden meaning
and power. Today, with a resurgence of Hawaiian pride,
tattoos are becoming increasingly common. Its
one of the few ancient art forms that is truly Polynesian
in origin which has spread throughout the world.
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