“They call me Tahitian, but I refuse this. I am not
Tahitian. This denomination has an essentially
demagogic, touristic, snobbish, and rubbish
vocation. ‘Tahitian’ is the pareu skirt whose
material is printed in Lyon or in Japan; it is the
Marquesan tiki called Tahitian as well as the tapa
of Tonga, Uvea, or Samoa sold in Pape’ete under
the Tahitian label… Tahiti is an exotic product made
by the Western World for the consumption of their
fellow-countrymen… the product ‘Tahiti’, which the
Bureau of Tourism sells to the world, isn’t it a place
of prostitution where the women are easy and cost
nothing?… We have ceased being since we’ve been
the product of others… An entire people is dying
comfortably because other make the effort of speaking
for them, on their behalf… I am maohi.”

The revival of traditional tattooing in French Polynesia not only coincides with total cultural revival, but a political one as well. As one of the few remaining legal colonies of France, French Polynesia maintains a perpetually tumultuous relationship with France. Loss of traditional Polynesian culture began during colonization, namely when missionaries abolished traditional tattooing practices, naming the process barbaric and condemning the practice as sinful idolization of the nude body. Although this prompted native resentment towards the colonizers, general sentiment remained peaceful and compliant until the de Gaulle era of governance in France. Under Charles de Gaulle, nuclear arms testing began in the Polynesian islands, specifically Mururoa and Fangtafua (Robinson 69). Previous to French Polynesia, France had used Algeria as a base for nuclear arms testing, only to lose the country to independence in the late 1950’s. Being already behind other countries, such as the United States and Russia, France was hasty in finding an alternative testing site. Though Polynesia had been crying for independence for years, the installment of these testing sites, plus a base in Hao and a recreational and political base in Tahiti, essentially made the idea of independence impossible. As a result of de Gaulle’s new policies, thousands of natives flooded into Pape’ete, Tahiti’s capital, creating a population overflow and thus a surge of slums and poverty.

One of the first instances of tattooing being used as a political statement was when the Te Toto Tupuna gang murdered former French naval officer, Pierre d’Anglejean. The gang left an unmistakably clear message at the scene, “We do not want any more Frenchmen in our country,” further signing the message “Te Toto Tupuna” which translates to “The Blood of Our Ancestors” (Robinson 75). When put on trial for the murder, gang members explicitly blamed French colonialism for the racial divide in Tahiti, proudly presenting their logo inked into their skin. Maohi was the political movement, spearheaded by activists like Pouvanaa a Oopa, that sought independence from the Gaullist regime that forced natives into poverty and then exploited them for their own homeland security needs.

In nationalistic movements, tradition becomes a rallying cry and a political symbol. Cultural revivalists look for an authentic heritage as a basis for ethnic distinctions; as they rediscover a culture, they also create it. (Linnekin)

However, the revival of traditional tattooing practices was both a blessing and a curse. While it boosted the cultural renaissance of Polynesia that inches them closer to independence, it also spread the practice around the rest of the world. Through globalization and increased tourism in French Polynesia, tourism being its primary source of revenue, traditional tribal tattooing has been both commodified and fetishized (Robinson 98). While the tattoo renaissance represented a strong desire, within Polynesians, to rediscover their heritage that had been taken away from them and buried under years of colonial rule, for tourists, the revival of traditional tattoo practices was just another souvenir to bring back from an exotic place. Not only was it made into a product to be bought and sold, stripping it of its inherent cultural value, it was also made into something that was viewed largely as a fetish of the first world. Tourists sought out “authenticity” in such an exotic destination. However, tattoo revival in the Polynesian spectrum represents something far more important than commodification and economic prosperity. As Rachel Robinson articulates it, “Tattoo revival signifies this pan-Polynesian effort to revivify traditional culture and livelihood as political statements that reflect the current situation of these island groups” (Robinson 115). Need for independence has been a long time coming and the vehement cultural resurgence in Polynesia reflects this.

Click this link to read an in-depth dissertation concentrated on the commodification of traditional Polynesian tattooing:

Works Cited:

Robinson, Rachel. “The Commodification of Polynesian Tattooing: Change, Persistence, and Reinvention of a Cultural Tradition.” Order No. 1490524 University of Kansas, 2010. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web. 22 Mar. 2017.

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