Polynesian tattoos, commonly known as to us as tribal tattoos play a big role in culture of any Pacific Islander. These sacred markings have a lot of meaning, and may even be seen as offensive if worn by a person that is not of the previously stated land. They can mean a number of things based on location of the body or whether the person is a man or woman.
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Even the slightest discrepancy in shape could change the meaning of the tattoo. In this essay, we will discuss the many elements of Polynesian tattoos, where they came from, and why they mean so much to the people of the Pacific.
In 1778, Captain James Cook sailed to Hawai’i, specifically the island of Kaua’i. Upon arrival, Captain Cook was very surprised by the deep respect that the Hawaiians had for their ancestors. However, while on the island, Cook came across a number of people, and these people mistook him for Lono, a Hawaiian God who is associated with fertility, agriculture, rainfall, music and peace, because his ship’s masts and sails looked like an insignia of the God. Cook was treated well and with respect while he was on the island because of the mistaken identity. After his visit, he went to the Americas and brought tattooing there. That is where the word tattoo comes from. Mainland people couldn’t pronounce tatau, so they just said tattoo.
Nonetheless, things turned around rather quickly when James Cook returned to the Hawaiian Islands for a repair on his ship. The people realized this is not Lono, so they killed Captain Cook right there on the shore. Peace in Hawai’i didn’t last long either, because after that, settlers came and began to colonize the islands, and on May 8, 1819, King Kamehameha I, one one Hawai’i greatest rulers, passed away. This led the Kapu System ” a set of taboos that regulated behaviors ” to slowly disappear. As the colonizers took over the islands, the began to infiltrate other places. Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, and even New Zealand. The Kapu System, traditional dances, celebratory garments, and so many other sacred cultural things, including tatau (tattoos), disappeared.
Inking of the body began within Polynesia specifically for war. Polynesians thought that the tattoos looked scary! Tattoos for war were placed on the head and neck to symbolize knowledge and wisdom, the chest to symbolize honor, the lower torso for courage and independence, and the upper arms to symbolize strength and bravery. These were classic tattoos for men because in those days, they were typically called for war. Men that did not fight in wars were only to be tattooed on the right side of the body. Women would typically get tattooed on the left side of their body on the lower arms and hands for craft or creation,
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