Traditionally, tattooing in Tahiti has always been a privilege of the more eminent social classes. Social ranking allowed tattoos corresponding to the wearer's position in the community under the supervision of the Ari'i.
Men often had tattoos all over their body, including on the neck and ears. Only the face was left untattooed except for the occasional warrior or priest who might wear a special emblem on his forehead or lips.
Tattoos for the men fall into four categories; those belonging to the social class of gods, priests and Ari'i, which were hereditary and restricted to their descendants; tattoos of the Hui Ari'i class, Arioi'i, exclusively for chiefs (male and female); tattoos of the Hui To'a, Hui Ra'atira, Ia To'ai class, reserved for leaders of war parties, warriors, and so on; and Menehune class tattoos, for individual with no pedigree or an unremarkable family history.
The supernatural origin of tattooing was attributed to the sons of the god Ta'aroa (Tangaroa or Tangaloa), the principal Tahitian divinities. They taught the art to mortals who found it extremely attractive to be tattooed and used it widely. The two sons of the god Ta'aroa were Mata Mata Arahu and Tu Ra'i Po' who became the patron spirits of the art. They were always invoked before a tattooing session began so that the operation would be successful, the scars will heal quickly, and the patterns will be pleasing to the eye.
As a reminder of this legend, images of the two gods were conserved in the Marae of the Tahu'a, the skilled practitioners of the art. This particular form of traditional culture has been handed down from one generation to the next and no outside influence has been able to alter the methods used or the way in which designs are applied to the skin.
In ancient Tahitian society all women were tattooed. Young girls were tattooed at a very young age with marks on the inside of their arms to show that they were free from food tabus. Until that time they could only accept food prepared by their mothers - no-one else. There are no illustrations of these marks, just a few descriptions. Young women were again tattooed and they began to wear clothes as they reached puberty.
Tahiti tattoo - Warrior
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These tattoos are often described as heavy black patches on their posteriors, and were absolutely required before a woman was permitted to engage in intercourse. As a young woman grew slightly older, the smaller designs in arch shapes across the top were added. As a sign that they were sexually mature and desired a man, women were reported to lift their bark cloth skirts showing their tattoos. Quite often this was directed at the Europeans who were surprised, if not shocked, particularly the missionaries.
One early observer reported:
"The young females are more remarkable for bearing [tattooing] than the Males tho they cannot suffer more than one side to be done at a time and the other may remain perhaps for a Twelvemonth after before it is finished, till which time they never Conceive themselves Company for Women -- being only Counted as Children till they have their tattooing done." (Morrison 1935:221).
The artists of the Captain Cook voyages can again be credited with the first illustrations of Tahitian tattooing. In a sketch by Parkinson, we see the typical women's tattoo as described by so many of the early explorers.
The following are some examples of Tahitian tattoos
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Early images of tattooed Marquesas Islanders
A contemporary image of tattooed Tahiti men
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