The ancestral art of tattooing is a way of immortalizing your voyage to French Polynesia. Take a piece of traditional Polynesian culture home with you, and wear it with pride forever.

Cultural heritage

A symbol etched in the skin

Tattoo © Grégoire Le Bacon

The mythical and historical origins

The word tattoo comes from the Tahitian word ‘tatau’. Legend has it that the very first tattoos were etched into the skin of the god T’a’aroa, the great creator. His two sons, Matamata and Tū Ra’i Pō then transmitted the art of tattooing to man and became the protective divinities of tattooing.

Historically, the origins of Polynesian tattooing go back to the first waves of migrations from Southeast Asia in about 200 years BC. The art spread everywhere throughout the Polynesian triangle except in the Gambier and Tuamotu Islands. The designs of Marquesan tattoos are world famous and are particularly complex and detailed.

Polynesian tattoos – Origins and significance
Tattooed man

The sacred role of tattooing in traditional society

In pre-European Polynesian society, tattooing played a fundamental role as a social marker and sacred symbol. It was widespread and had many social significations. It wasn’t only a sign of belonging to a particular tribe and territory, it also defined the social rank of the wearer. Tattoos were also linked to important rituals, such as the passage from puberty to adulthood and marriage.

As well as its social aspect, tattooing also had a sacred dimension, rooted in Polynesian culture. Tattoos were considered as a gift from the gods that bestowed a supernatural power on the wearer. Certain designs were specially conceived to protect the wearer and preserve his Mana. They represented prestige and the divine spirit that guaranteed good health, well-being and fertility, while also offering protection from harm.

Unlike the modern fashion of body art, traditional Polynesian tattoos were a powerful means of communication and expression in traditional ma’ohi society.

Their social importance was sacred. Tattoos were an essential element of a Polynesian’s identity, conveying the history, culture and values of the ancient civilization to which he belonged.

The Islands of Tahiti, birthplace of the tattoo
Old-fashioned tattooing © Tahiti Tourisme

Unique designs and traditional tools

In traditional Polynesian tattooing, each archipelago developed its own distinct designs. In Fenua Enata (the Marquesa Islands) the traditional tattooing is known as ‘patutiki’ which means strike an image. Marquesan tattoos would cover the whole body and face, unlike those of the Society Islands where the face was never tattooed.

Traditional tattooing tools were a small bone comb, a piece of tortoise shell and a fishbone. The ink was produced from charcoal made from the ti’a’iri, or candlenut tree, diluted in oil or water. The teeth of the comb were dipped in the ink and the placed on the skin. The ‘comb’ was tapped repeatedly to pierce the skin and let the ink penetrate. It was a painful process which could take several days, weeks, months or even years, depending on the complexity and volume of the designs.

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Beyond the grave

You can find tattoo artists in almost all of the islands of French Polynesia. The reputation of Polynesian tattooing attracts visitors from all over the world. See the list of tattooing fairs.

In ancient Polynesia, tattooing had an importance that stretched beyond the grave. It was an eternal mark on the skin that “bore witness to the wearer’s origins, social rank and heroic acts, when he was summoned to appear before his ancestors”, according to German ethnologist Karl Von Den Steinen, who analyzed the different forms of artistic expression of the inhabitants of the Marquesas Islands in 1897.

Tatoo © Stéphane Mailion Photography
Tattoo session

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