Cultural Appropriation in the Tribal Tattoo Renaissance

Although the so-called “tribal tattoo renaissance” has been viewed as, for the most part, a positive reflection of Samoan culture, there is a serious downside. While it’s admirable that young Samoans, and young people descended from other Polynesian islands, have begun to reclaim the tribal tattoo as a form of expressing their pride for their heritage, this is only great because it is their heritage.

Cultural appropriation as we understand it today is when one group of people borrows or copies another group of people’s elements of culture. This can include clothing, makeup, music, dance, and, yes, tattoos. Now, it is important to establish when “borrowing” turns into cultural appropriation. As an article from the Huffington Post asserts, “[…] borrowing may become appropriation when it reinforces historically exploitative relationships.” (Arewa) So how does this tie into tribal tattoos? The resurgence of traditional Polynesian tribal tattooing, starting in the early 1980’s, did not just remain within the Polynesian islands. Many “Western” people, especially Americans, travelled to places like Samoa and Tahiti and upon experiencing Polynesian tribal culture, and thus tribal tattoos, brought these ideas back to their home countries. Soon enough, tattoo shops all over the United States had at least a few tribal patterns in their repertoire. Historically, Polynesia has been oppressed by imperialism from all over the globe, most notably France and Spain. As I noted in my previous blog post, the only reason why traditional tattoos lost favor in most Polynesian islands is because missionaries that were introduced to the islands viewed tattooing as sinful tribute to human flesh. So the idea that, generations later, these same cultures want to use traditional tattooing as a fashion statement, is certainly cultural appropriation.

(Job Hattur)

So what’s wrong with cultural appropriation? Cultural appropriation establishes a relationship of power and dominance between two countries or cultures. In this instance, we can view an opposition between Western countries and cultures and those cultures of the Polynesian islands. It is not to say that culture can’t be fluid, because it most certainly is, but the line must be drawn when elements of one culture are taken as the result of one or more cultures having established dominance over another. Another issue arises when considering credit. As we have seen in the more heated debates of cultural appropriation of African culture, credit is rarely given to those disadvantaged cultures from which Western culture steals. During imperial times, empires would rampage entire countries and steal artifacts, such as the theft of the Benin Bronzes during an British imperial raid in the late 1800’s. (Arewa) The artifacts were then sold in European art markets and high-end auctions. They would end up in an English museum or in someone’s living room, every day losing more and more of the cultural value that tied it to its home.

When Western cultures appropriate Polynesian tribal traditions, it changes the entire meaning and understanding of those traditions. Traditional Polynesian tribal tattoos hold endless amounts of culture and history. Especially in modern day context, tatau gives Polynesian people a sense of identity, “in an international context the distinctiveness of the tatau makes it valuable as a marker of ethnic and cultural identity” (Forsyth 12). They quite literally wrote the history of their culture on their skin, memorializing their community’s identity forever in ink. When someone from the other side of the world uses those same patterns and markings as just a fashion statement, it strips all of the cultural importance that rests in those tattoos. As Mai’s grandmother says in her article Manoa, “Our word tātau has travelled all over the world and is known by all the nations. It has become such a part of everyone’s language that people have forgotten that originally this word was a Polynesian word: tātau! Tātau has disappeared from our memories…” It is of utmost importance that the memory of this great culture is kept alive, not through the fashion statements of young American kids, but by the youth of Polynesia who hold their culture and heritage close to their hearts.

If you want to read more about cultural appropriation click here:

If you’re interested in hearing someone else’s opinion on the appropriation of traditional Polynesian tribal tattoos, click here:

 Works Cited

Arewa, Olufunmilayo. “Cultural Appropriation: When ‘Borrowing’ Becomes Exploitation.” Huffington Post. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2017.
Forsyth, Miranda. “Lifting the Lid on “the Community”: Who has the Right to Control Access to Traditional Knowledge and Expressions of Culture?” International Journal of Cultural Property 19.1 (2012): 1-31. ProQuest. Web. 12 Apr. 2017.
Rai A. Mai. “Tattoo.” Manoa, vol. 17, no. 2, 2005, pp. 178–186.,

Ribadeneyera, Imani. “How the ‘Civilized’ West Muddied the Meaning of Tribal Tattoos.” Fashion and Power 2014. N.p., 29 Apr. 2014. Web. 16 Mar. 2017.



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