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.

Male hand tattoos
Female hand tattoos.

Marquesan Motifs

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

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

Ear Tattooing

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

Common ear tattoo motifs
Omuo Piana is 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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