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Body Art
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 1800's.

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 ku‘u aroha. (Great pain indeed, greater is my affection.)

Early explorers found that both men and women wore tattoos in old Hawai‘i 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 Cook’s 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 Hawai‘i 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 ankle.

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 Ka‘ahumanu was known to be tattooed on her legs, the palm of her left hand and her tongue. Palm tattoos have been recovered on mummified remains.

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. It’s one of the few ancient art forms that is truly Polynesian in origin which has spread throughout the world.


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Story appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and appears online for archival purposes only. Any use or reprinting of these stories without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited.

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