It’s not unreasonable to say that Polynesian and Western (namely American) cultures are distinctly different. This difference extends to tattoos unambiguously. Although tattooing began in the Polynesian islands, colonization spread the custom to the rest of the world, specifically Western countries like the United States. Like many other cases of cultural appropriation, the meaning and significance was changed and diluted when it entered Western culture.
The drummers do not beat the drums
So the artists do not soil their fingers with paint.
They shall not hear, not hear the drumming
While they design the lines, the lines, the lines.
Design well the lines, you tattooers.
(a Marshallese tattooing chant)
For Polynesian and Micronesian cultures, tattooing was an essential part of society that tied them to their gods, nature, their community, and themselves and their individuality. In Micronesia, the intent of tattooing was equal parts aesthetic and socio economic. Those of the Marshall Islands believed in tattooing as the gods giving beauty to the islanders, tying the practice back to the culture’s profound spirituality. An excerpt from Adorning the Adorned, a chapter in the Oxford History of Art: Pacific Arts of Polynesia and Micronesia, articulates this as, “Permanent ornamentation indexes one’s place in society and enhances the body as an object to be admired and evaluated apart from its temporary ornaments and clothing” (Kaeppler 113). This extends to Polynesia as well, as the meaning behind their tattoo customs are virtually the same. For instance, entire-body tattooing in the Marquesas was affiliated with gender, wealth, and status. In large part, tattoos were tied both to one’s social identity and their place in the tribe. Māori designs were designed to be distinctive and personal to individual, later being used as signatures for important documents in the nineteenth century. In addition to identity and society, tattoos showed the Polynesians’ strong tie to their spirituality. In the majority of Polynesian cultures, the body was divided into sections by which these sections were symmetric. This symmetry was said to represent the tie between life/death and tapu/noa. This notion demonstrates the Polynesian idea of unity in nature and community. While the placement of tattoos was symmetric, within the defined sections, the tattoos were notably asymmetric, serving to represent one’s individuality, an autograph of sorts.
The significance behind American tattooing is very distinctly “American,” focused on individual identity and aesthetic value. The history of American tattoos is also extensive, especially noting the fact that the culture surrounding them has changed vastly since when it first became a cultural phenomenon. In the United States, tattooing has been largely the poor man’s art form. Tattoos were labelled as socially deviant, with the most part of participants being “bikers, punks and thugs” (Roberts). Its evolution into a mainstream sensation warped this history, transforming it into a form of self-expression that is mainly focused on the visual aspects of tattoos. Furthermore, many people nowadays use tattoos as a purposeful act of social deviance, getting inked to “walk on the wild side” (Roberts). This goes to say that tattoos in the western world are used chiefly as a means to express one’s identity, but the concentration on aesthetics and social deviance completely diminishes the original significance of the art form.
It is easy to note that the difference between Polynesian and American tattooing boils down to significance. While in Polynesia, the meaning is deeply social and spiritual, connecting individuals to their gods and their place in society, American tattooing is heavily focused on visual appearance. In the cases that American tattooing extends beyond just aesthetics, it has much to do with social deviance and being different. This is a stark contrast from Polynesian communities where tattooing is very much what ties individuals to their community. This is not to say that American tattooing is inherently problematic because of the focus on aesthetics, but problems arise when traditional Polynesian designs and motifs are used in the art. In using these designs and failing to understand the meaning and importance behind them, it equates American tattooing to the traditional practice of tatau, while tatau brings with it much social and cultural significance.
Kaeppler, Adrienne L.. Oxford History of Art : Pacific Arts of Polynesia and Micronesia. Oxford, GB: OUP Oxford, 2008. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 20 March 2017.
John Roberts, Derek. “Secret Ink: Tattoo’s Place in Contemporary American Culture.” Journal of American Culture, vol. 35, no. 2, June 2012, pp. 153-165. Web. 20 March 2017.