One of the first things visitors to Tahiti are apt to notice about the people of the French Polynesian islands of Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora, and more significantly, the Marquesas, is their elaborate and beautiful tattoos. Many of these designs encircle entire arms or legs or gracefully wind around the torso. The art form dates back to ancient times and the word tattoo even comes from the Tahitian word tatau, which means "to strike or to hit."
As is still the case with most skin art today, Polynesian tattoos were intended to make a statement about the person adorned with them. Not only a decoration, they were designed as a language, a symbol of power, a means of distinguishing the bearer's social importance, geographic origin, family lineage and courage-a kind of permanent identity card.
Tattooing in ancient Polynesia had a scared nature, too, giving the bearer supernatural powers. Some designs were meant to protect a person from losing their mana (the divine force responsible for health and fertility) as well as for fighting off evil forces.
The Tattoo Ritual
It was the job of the tattoo artist-known as the tahua'a tatau in the Society Islands and the tahuka patu tiki in the Marqueas Islands-to mark every member of their community through each stage of his or her life, often beginning with the passage from adolescence to adulthood. An art form passed from father to son, these tattoos were created using sharp combs made from bone, shell or teeth and a mallet with which they would pound candle-nut resin mixed with coconut oil or water into the skin.
The tattoo ritual was played out to a melody of drums, flutes and conch horns. Styles varied, from geometric patterns with wide use of the tiki (the man-god) in the Marquesas, where entire bodies and faces were frequently tattooed, to more abstract and figurative (lizards, rays, eels, palm fronds) on the arms, legs, shoulders and buttocks in the Society Islands.
The Tattoo as a Modern-Day Symbol and Souvenir
After being banned for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, tattooing had a major resurgence in the 1980s and today and it is quite fashionable among young Tahitians. The ritual aspect has diminished, but the symbolic one has not. A tattoo's meaning often relates to an important memory or experience and a claim to Polynesian identity.
A fair number of visitors to Tahiti (including young couples getting married or on a honeymoon) feel intrigued and inspired by the strikingly unique Polynesian tattoos they see on locals and decide to get tattooed themselves. To accommodate these requests, the Manea Spas at the Bora Bora Pearl Beach Resort & Spa has a resident tattoo artist, Jean-Yves "Matatiki" Tamarii, who will create a lasting memory of your time in Tahiti.