Marquesan Tattoo

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The Marquesas Islands are an island group in French Polynesia. The islands are approximately 1,000 miles (1,600 km) northeast of Tahiti, and were first settled almost 2000 years ago by the Polynesians.

The islands deserve a mention here as the Marquesan tattooing tradition has had a great influence on today's artists.

Marquesan Tattoo Tradition

Boys received their first tattoos in their teens in a ritual setting, and by old age often had tattoos all over their bodies. Women were also tattooed, but nowhere near as extensively as the men.

The designs share many symbolic motifs, but were never copied entirely; every individual's tattoos were different and signified his position in the family.

The sailors on board the ships of Captain James Cook and other explorers from the West brought tattooing back with them, influenced by the designs they had seen on the inhabitants of these islands. These early tattoos, on the bodies of sailors, began the reintroduction of tattooing to the West.

While tattooing is still performed on the Marquesas Islands, the images no longer carry their former significance, and are generally done with a Tattoo Machine rather than by the traditional method.

Hand Tattoos

Hand tattooing is an important part of Marquesan tattooing, containing both specific iconography and individualized application. While some designs are male or female oriented, there is some interchange between the two.

Marquesan hand tattoo-1.gif Marquesan hand tattoo-2.gif
Male hand tattoos Female hand tattoos

Marquesan Motifs

The following are a few examples on hands of Marquesan tattoo motifs:

Fanaua-1.gif Nutu Kaha-1.gif Piaotiu-1.gif
Fanaua, an evil spirit Nutu Kaha, a mouth or muzzle, with many different versions Piaotiu means "to fold or to make into bundles"
Pohu-1.gif Poka'a-1.gif Ka'ava-1.gif
Pohu, a legendary character Poka'a, a wooden shoulder rest used for carrying a pole Ka'ava, meaning "ridge pole," often running centrally down the hand
Ka'ake-1.gif Kea-1.gif Koua'ehi-1.gif
Ka'ake, represents the armpit, but it is not tattooed on the armpit per se Kea, representing a woodlouse, the tortoise or a carved plaque of a tortoise shell, with many variations Koua'ehi, representing coconut leaves
Po'i'i-1.gif Hei ta'vahna-1.gif Mata-1.gif
Poi'i, representing a coiled shellfish, with many versions Hei ta'vahna, representing a crown of cock's feathers, sometimes tattooed across the palm Mata represents eyes, with many variations

Ear Tattooing

Tattooing of the ear (puaina) was usually, but certainly not always, limited to women.

Marquesan ear tattoo-1.gif Omuo puaina-1.gif
Common ear tattoo motifs Omuo Piana, similar to a carved bone earring

Other Tattoo Traditions

Shoulders were commonly tattooed in Marquesan culture. This particular one is a band across the arm, just below the fall of the shoulder, on a woman of Tai-Pi Vai, Nuku Hiva.

(based on a sketch by E. S. Handy)

Traditionally some Marquesan women tatttoed their lips, also called koniho.


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