Tattoos as a Tribal Identity

Give me, O my God
As beautiful as silence
That paint like a divine brush
That sing and dance
Your beauty
Words in my heart
Words in my hands
Words in my eyes
Give me, O my God
The words among the clouds from Heaven
~Rai A. Mai

This is how the history of tattoos begins. It does not begin as a teenager on their 18th birthday or as a couple professing their love for each other for eternity. The story of tātau, the Samoan word for tattoo, begins in a deep need for storytelling. With no paper and pen to tell the tales of their culture, the tribes of Polynesia turned to tattoo art to make these stories permanent. They etched history and culture and society into their skins in black ink. As Rai Mai’s grandmother recounts in her article Manoa, “We used to tell our story on our body. And people and heavens would know who we were.” (Mai 181) For the people from which tribal tattooing originated, tattoos were not about style or fashion, they were about words and stories. Traditional tattoos would indicate one’s social status, age, maturity, and many other characteristics. Alongside this, tattoos would tell an individual’s story and the story of their people and their culture. (Allen)

Tattoo: Po’oino Yrondi

As the Western world expanded and tribal islands became modernized, these magnificent works of art and history began to disappear. Why? Because the introduction of pen and paper made etching culture’s history into one’s skin unnecessary and Western colonization of the Polynesian islands instilled the fear of God, and the sin of tattooing, into the people of Polynesia. But it wasn’t the same. What was lost in the disappearance of tribal tattooing was a strong sense of identity.  Not only did they connect individuals to their history, but they connected them to their community.

Now, there has been a resurgence into tattooing among members of the Polynesian islands. Some from older generations that lived through colonization and felt the effects of Christian conversion still spite the act of tattooing, but younger people have escaped this mindset. For them, it is about feeling connected to their heritage and their culture. As Mai says, “Every Polynesian wanted, stamped into the skin, a sign of cultural belonging.” (Mai 183) And in some sense, that is what tattoos mean for many different cultures. Our culture is tied into our identity and tattoos are a form of self expression that reflects that. Although the meaning of tattoos has drastically changed throughout history, the root of the intent comes back to that reflection of identity. For the Samoans, and related island tribes, self identity ultimately reflects one’s culture and history. The distinct permanence of this art sets this form of storytelling apart from any other culture’s. To have your history inked on you forever is a form of self expression that does not present itself in many cultures, save tribal ones. Because so much history was lost in the colonial era, we do not know that much about the history of traditional tattoos, but much history was remained. We know that it is a tapu, a sacred art form. (Allen) One’s identity and history were etched into their skin, leaving a permanent tapestry of all the things that made them unique.

Visit for more information on tribal tattoos and to view more images of examples courtesy of Tahitian tattoo artist Po’oino Yrondi.

Works Cited:

 Rai A. Mai. “Tattoo.” Manoa, vol. 17, no. 2, 2005, pp. 178–186.,

Allen, Tricia. “Tatau: The Tahitian Revival.” N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2017.

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