Tatau - Polynesian Tattoos

When Captain Cook's ships the Resolution and the Adventure arrived in Tahiti in 1773 many came out from the island to board the ships. At that time the art of tattoo was known and prevalent throughout Polynesia, the small island of Manuae in the Cook Islands being the only place where this ancient art was not practiced. Little wonder the disbelief that such pasty canvas was left unadorned. But with the advent of the missionary all of this changed.

In the Cook Islands the missionaries drove the ariki (chiefs) to enshrine the prohibition on tattooing - The fine being 4 dollars. In 1906 four extensively tattooed men from the island of Mangaia travelled to the International Exhibition in Christchurch, New Zealand. They were tattooed on their arms, legs, shoulders, upper arm, forearm, abdomen and back (Blanc 1959:44). However, by the time Te Rangi Hiroa (Sir Peter Buck), the famous New Zealand Maori ethnologist, began his research in the Cook Islands in the 1920s, only a handful of living tattooed Cook Islands Maori remained. The works of these great artisans disappeared not long after they did.

What we know of these tattoos comes from the records of the first visitors to the islands. While the extent of the body which was tattooed varied between the islands, tattoo patterns in Polynesia show a similarity. Most feature geometric designs – checks, triangles, arches and spirals. But representations of human ancestors, and plants and animals were also popular. The motifs traditionally tattooed in the Cook Islands were lightly spread over the entire body.

Each tribe, according to its island of origin or place from which it departed….had its distinctive sign…"which were used to distinguish one tribe from another. These included a pandanus flower, the komua motif, the paeko motif and the punarua motif. However, there may have been as many as nine motifs.

One of the most painful tattoos, called rau-teve (representing a native arrowroot leaf), is found in the Cook Islands. It begins behind the ear descending the neck along the cervical vertebrae. The most famous Cook Islands tattoo is that worn by Te Pou, a Rarotongan chief who was tattooed from neck to toe.

Tattooing may have marked initiation for youths into adulthood and they were thought to be talisman adding power to the bearer. In choosing what to imprint on the human canvas, genealogy, age, gender, social rank, personality and personal experiences were all important. While Maori had no written language 'a picture could paint a thousand words'.

In the Cook Islands, the method of tattooing was to use combs made of the bones of birds and rats tied at right angles to a short piece of wood. It was known as the u'i tatau in Rarotonga. A short piece of wood was used as a mallet to tap the comb and make the incision. A piece of bark cloth, wrapped around the fourth and fifth fingers of the left hand was used to wipe away the blood. The comb was, before incision, dipped in dye. The pigment used came from holding half a coconut shell over a fire consisting of burning kernels of candlenut. The charcoal was then scraped from the coconut shell.

It revived in a distinctly Polynesian way, drawing from what is known of traditional Cook Islands designs, art throughout Polynesia and the inventiveness of Cook Islanders. This, combined with a new generation of artists, has produced a renaissance in this ancient art. Today, local tattooists improvise blending the old motifs with new concepts, ideas and designs.

If you are visiting Rarotonga and would like to see local tattoo artwork and maybe thinking of getting a Polynesian tattoo, then meet Ti, our most famous tattoo artist. Write an email to [email protected] or call +682 23 576 to make an appointment.

Article by Jean Tekura Mason Cook Islands Libary , images by South Pacific Publishing, Cook Islands