The exportation of traditional Polynesian tattooing to the West is very multifaceted. In the beginning, it was practiced by the sailors aboard exploration vessels, as a way of signifying their time spent in the islands and their experiences. While the natives did tattoo them in traditional patterns and designs, it was not this or the cultural aspect of tattooing that interested Westerners, it was simply the act (Cummings). Getting a tattoo symbolized their journey, hardships and struggle included. And a lot of the time, it was a marker of one’s profession. Sailors returned home with aged skin, grey hair, and injuries of all sorts, but what was most notable and evocative of their time overseas were their tattoos. Where this practice flourished, once exported back home, was within the lower socioeconomic groups that inhabited ports and harbors (Cummings). This was where tattooing began to represent marginalized groups within the Western worlds. As William Cummings notes,
“Recognizing the presence of this distinctive minority on the fringes of society calls to our attention how the process of representing and defining external others was closely tied to the parallel process of representing and defining internal others such as criminals, outcasts, and the ‘lower orders.’” (Cummings)
Another outcome of tattoo exportation into the “Occident” during the 18th century was tattooing as an exotic novelty, recognizing only the visual aspects of the practice. Hundreds of people gathered to watch performers like the Greek Constantine and the Englishman Horace Ridler recount mythical stories of dangerous encounters with ritualistic tribes. Ridler actually tattooed his entire body, going by the stage name “The Great Omi,” harkening back to the famous Tahitian, Omai, who travelled to Europe with Captain Cook in 1774 (Cummings). Upon arrival in Europe, Omai was immediately exhibited for the public, displayed as an oddity or a “delightful curiosity” (Cummings). He was a flesh and blood representation of the exotic places that the public could only begin to imagine. Tattooing became a practice that separated the “Occident” from the “Orient” that was just being explored, it began the Western fascination with “race and racialized bodies” (Cummings). “Headhunters”, fascinated with traditional Maori moko facial tattooing, brought heads back to Westerners as trophies or artifacts for collectors to flaunt.
While the reactions to traditional Polynesian tattooing are representative of 18th and 19th century attitudes, the lay the base for how treatment of those islands and their culture continued in the future. For Western culture, traditional tribal culture continues to be exotic and most often misunderstood or misrepresented. While the appropriation of Polynesian tattooing began as sailors marking their journeys, it developed into Western culture disregarding the social significance and cultural importance of the practice. As with many appropriated trends, it transformed from something with great significance and meaning, into something that focused entirely on aesthetic and visual appeal. It is vital that, centuries later, we stray away from the notion of the “external other” and using their practices as fashion statements for our own pleasure. We have come a long way since when Captain Cook first discovered the Pacific islands, but our ignorance and unwillingness to understand other cultures is disturbingly the same.
Cummings, W. “Orientalism’s Corporeal Dimension: Tattooed Bodies and Eighteenth-Century Oceans.” Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, vol. 4 no. 2, 2003. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/cch.2003.0039