French Polynesian tattoos are different from those of other cultures, including Maori. They look great on young Tahitian men and women. The man in the picture had traditional warrior leg tattoos. He told us during a demonstration that allowed Ruth & me to get temporary Tahitian tattoos that his tattoos once meant more power, more kills. He told us that the usual age for males to become tattooed was 12. But then he told us that his dramatic leg tattoos, which he claimed showed his unbreakable link with family, were more about mosquito bites than warrior skills. Before Europeans arrived in this South Pacific paradise, tattoos showed one’s social status, achievements, and community membership. Now they’re more for show.
Our tattoo artist told us that no color other than black is the main trait of Tahitian tattoos and that the ceremony that accompanied their application involved dancing. Lonely Planet points out that these physical adornments “played a part in the seduction process”. The young Tahitian who was using his own tattoos to teach us said that facial tattoos offer protection and that arm tattoos keep evil away. He said that females also get tattooed, that the best tattooers come from the Marquesas Islands, and that a shark tooth and coconut water were once used in the sacred tattooing ceremony. Today’s tattoos are done by machine. He told us that the culture with the most similar tattoos live on Easter Island.
After he finished his remarks, the number of people on the ship for this special presentation grew from 4 to about 50. The 50 included practically every child aboard, all of them eager to get tattooed. Soon their arms and legs were covered with black geometric patterns, and they were eager to have photos taken of them with big grins on their faces.
Marquesans perfected this art. The Marquesas Islands are very far north of Tahiti but still part of French Polynesia. Some of the older tattoo artists have chosen to remain there, but many of the younger ones have migrated to Mo’orea and Tahiti. Mo’orea is said to now be the home of some of French Polynesia’s best tattooers. Tattoos have experienced a strong revival in the past couple of generations, but their social significance had changed. Marquesan men originally became adorned with tattoos to make themselves look terrifying when confronting an enemy.
Many of today’s travelers now leave The Society Islands with a permanent memento of their visit in the form of a traditional dancing flame or black Tahitian ocean wave on their back or on a leg. This is said to please locals who delight in visitors wanting to share their culture with the world.