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Polynesian Tattoos History & Meaning

In the history of Polynesian Tattoos, Bora Bora occupies a special place.

In 1791 when Captain Edwards arrived in Bora Bora aboard the Pandora in search of the mutineers of the ‘Bounty. He was surprised and intrigued to find that certain of the island’s men had certain private areas tattooed.

Unbeknown to Edwards at the time, the number of those so tattooed related to the fact that tattooing was relatively expensive and as such reserved for the families of chiefs and other community leaders. At least the girls knew at a glance if their partner was important or a liar!

The practice was apparently linked to certain fertility rites in Bora Bora’s culture and it was a practice not reported elsewhere in the islands. There are many stories of ancient Polynesians attesting to the sensuality of such markings.

Tattooed swimmer with shark

For those being tattooed, it marked their endurance and dedication to cultural traditions. The pain was extreme, and the risk of death by infection was ever-present.

To back down from tattooing was to risk being labeled a coward. It would point to someone who could not endure the pain and abandoned their tattooing was left to wear an incomplete tattoo. It was a mark of shame for the bearer and his family throughout their lives.

At the time, tattoos were applied using combs of various sizes and various functions made from human and animal bones & teeth. The ink was made from the burnt remains of nuts from the tia’iri tree & ‘tapped’ into the skin via the teeth of the combs. The tattooing itself took many days to allow for the inflammation to subside.

It goes without saying that the tattooing of this area was exceptionally painful. Although records show that the pain when being tattooed in the area around the navel was even more difficult to endure.

Tattooed man drawing

Tattooing was a sacred ceremony in ancient Polynesia linked to key moments in a Polynesian’s life. This includes the coming of age, with the placement of tattoos on the body relating to one’s genealogy, position in society & one’s achievements.

Tattoos were used to transmit knowledge, teach, guarantee certain powers, and recognize privileges. In recognizing one’s background, social standing, and success, they indeed represent a person’s very identity! At times tattoos were even seen as a means to protect one’s inner energy against evil spirits.

Men were extensively tattooed from early in their teens. Women were tattooed essentially on the hands, arms, feet, ears & lips, but the tattooing started earlier.

At a very young age, on the inner arms to indicate they could accept food prepared by other than their mother, then on the buttocks upon reaching a certain age. Designs were subsequently added atop the buttock tattoos.

Tattooed swimmer

The missionaries would ban tattooing and seek to enforce the ban through extreme acts of barbarism.

They would forcibly tattoo marks on the hands and even the faces of men and women who continued their ancestral customs to indicate the bearer was a criminal.

Despite the efforts of the missionaries, so reliable was the system of tattooing that in years gone by, courts have been known to rely upon the tattoos of certain to establish their family links, to determine their rights to lands and so on.

Tattooed canoer

Given the cultural & historical significance of tattoos, the selection of motifs has always been essential for both symbolic and aesthetic reasons. A shark tooth tattoo, for example, signifies guidance, power and adaptability:

In Bora Bora, there are a number of accomplished tattooers. All have substantial detail as to the work they perform.

Before being tattooed, be sure to consider the cultural significance of what you’re to undertake and seek advice on the symbolism of any tattoo that you are seeking to have applied.

Tattooed men