The Problematic Cultural Appropriation of Polynesian Tattooing in the Wave of 21st Century Tattoo Revival

The practice of tattooing has existed for centuries and is certainly not limited to Polynesia and Micronesia, seeing as ancient remains have been recovered in Europe bearing ink inscribed into the skin (Friedman Herlihy), but our modern, European understanding of tattooing originates from Captain Cook’s voyages to the Pacific islands. Prior to these voyages, and the subsequent disappearance of tattooing due the introduction of the missionaries, the act of ta tatau was a vital part of Polynesian culture and society. It tied the tribal people to nature, their individuality, and their spirituality. As a Marshallese saying goes, “everything disappears after death, only the tattoo continues to exist” (Kaeppler 111), showing the utmost importance that tattoos had to islanders. Furthermore, the gift of tattooing was seen as a gift given by the gods, meaning that not anyone could become a tattooer, it was an honor bestowed on few individuals, mostly from a handful of families in the Polynesian islands (Forsyth). When the Western world invaded these Pacific islands in the late 17th century and throughout the 18th century, the practice of tattooing changed drastically. Firstly, it was prohibited under missionary control, as the Christian missionaries saw the act as a sinful glorification of the body (Robinson). Secondly, it was exported to Europe by sailors and the so-called “beachcombers” who attempted to assimilate into native cultures. Upon arrival in the Western world, it was exoticized through performers like “the Great Omi”, a character based on the first Tahitian to return to Europe with Captain Cook, and headhunters who collected Māori heads who had been tattooed with the traditional moko face tattoo (Cummings).

“We have suffered for too long as non-Māori have exploited our culture for their own ends, and in so doing debased the intrinsic value of being Ngati Porou, Aitanga a Hauiti, Ngati Ira and so on” (Gorre 28)

Boye Nicholas

As the antiquated age of colonialism seemingly subsides, traditional cultural practices that had been lost in places like French Polynesia are being revived, one of these being ta tatau. Years of oppression have created strong resentment in Polynesia, and the modern tattoo revival is a strong cry for independence and unity in traditional culture and heritage. As Rai Mai says, “Every Polynesian wanted, stamped into the skin, a sign of cultural belonging” (Mai 183). So it is evident that tattooing holds much more meaning to native Polynesians than the simply aesthetic value. For some, like famous Cook Island ta tatau artist Mike Tavioni, the tattoo revival means regaining a sense of identity through the rich cultural heritage that has existed for hundreds of years in Polynesia (Utanga, Mangos 323). For others, like Tetini Pekepo, Boye Nicholas and Rai Mai, the resurgence is much more personal, representing a need to relearn a lost “language” that connected all of the Pacific islands. To most native islanders, the adaptation of traditional tattooing by, non-native, outsiders is seen as disrespectful and inappropriate (Gorre).  Although so much of the history of traditional tattooing practices was lost during the colonial era, it is understood that ta tatau is a tapu, a sacred art form (Allen), one which should be practiced with utmost care by those whom it originates from.

“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)

The issue of cultural appropriation is an expansive one, originating in four different places: the power struggle that colonialism created between the Polynesian islands and the Western world, consumer ignorance in the West, the Western “tattoo renaissance”, and the concept of primitivism. Not only did the colonial era introduce the Christian missionaries into the Polynesian islands, thus eradicating the practice of ta tatau until just recently, but it also created a dependent relationship between the colonized islands and Western countries. For most of the colonial islands, like Tahiti and the Cook Islands, this dependence means that tourism is their primary source of revenue. It is through this that elements of traditional culture have been commodified (Robinson 98). Tattoos were essentially transformed into tourist souvenirs, stripping them of their cultural value and turning them into exotic products to be bought and sold by foreigners seeking to expand their world view. Furthermore, tattoos have been fetishized in the Western world, products that tourists seek from distant places inhabited by exotic cultures. This idea of the “exotic other” is inherently problematic in that it reflects outdated colonial understandings of the Pacific islands. A concept known as “neo-Primitivism” has heightened this issue parallel to the Western tattoo renaissance. As the consumer base turned from poor, marginalized communities to middle-class individuals who sought out a new art form for self expression, imagery transformed and expanded. In seeking to be more worldly, the, mostly American, public stole an art form native to Polynesia and appropriated it for their own use. There are those who argue that this is just borrowing, an act that is purely innocent and well intentioned, but what makes it appropriative and harmful is that there is an evident power difference between the Western consumer base and the culture from which they are “borrowing” designs and motifs. Not only does this rewrite the history of tattooing in Western culture, but it attempts to “symbolically undo the conquest of the primitive world” (Schildkrout 338) by refusing to understand or appreciate the deep cultural value of ta tatau.

Jude Hoani by Stephen Langdon

The Polynesian tattoo revival is truly a remarkable event, but the beauty in it lies in the Polynesian people’s thirst for the resuscitation of their cultural heritage, one that has been buried underneath years of colonial rule and oppression. The question of ownership is one that is hard to answer, being that there even discrepancies within native communities of Polynesia (Forsyth), but it is not the Western world’s question to answer. For a culture’s traditions to be exoticized and fetishized is almost forgivable in the archaic context of the Captain Cook era, but it is utterly unacceptable in the twenty-first century. It should be the goal of every global citizen to gain a deeper understanding of cultures that seem “exotic,” but it is ultimately up to those cultures to decide whether or not outsiders are allowed to partake in such sacred traditions as ta tatau

E isia le ‘ula, isia le fau,
‘A e le isia siau tatau,
O’ siau ‘ula tutumau,
E te alu ma ‘oe i le tu’ugamau.

The necklace breaks, the cord breaks,
But your tattoo does not break into pieces,
This necklace is forever,
And goes with you to the grave.
~Samoan tattooing chant (Gemori 5)

Works Cited

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

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

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. Print.

Friedman Herlihy, Anna Felicity. “Tattooed Transculturites: Western Expatriates among Amerindian and Pacific Islander Societies, 1500–1900.” Order No. 3517150 The University of Chicago, 2012. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web. 3 Apr. 2017.

Gemori, Roberto. The Polynesian tattoo handbook. Place of publication not identified: Tattootribes, 2011. Print.

Gorre, Ligeia D. “Expression of Identity: Māori Ta Moko and the Utilization of the Internet.” Order No. 1451065 University of Southern California, 2007. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web. 3 Apr. 2017.

Kaeppler, Adrienne L.. Oxford History of Art : Pacific Arts of Polynesia and Micronesia. Oxford, GB: OUP Oxford, 2008. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 20 March 2017.

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

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.

Schildkrout, Enid. “Inscribing the Body.” Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 33, 2004, pp. 319–344.,

Utanga, John and Therese Mangos. “The Lost Connections: Tattoo Revival in the Cook Islands.” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture, vol. 10, no. 3, Sept. 2006, p. 315.

The Nuances of Cultural Appropriation of Polynesian Tattooing

When I was 15, my parents brought me along on a work trip to Tahiti. What I experienced was a wealth of culture and history that was so different to anything I had ever seen before. Being 15, I took a lot of pictures and begged my parents to buy me various souvenirs to remember my time there. In the end, I ended up purchasing a printed cloth that currently hangs on the wall above my bed. What my parents stressed, however, was that I had to learn the culture and social significance behind my purchase before coming away with it. After speaking with the artist for over an hour and seeing all of the different prints, and their significance, I was allowed to buy this beautifully printed cloth. This is something that is frequently skipped when traveling to foreign countries, especially those like the Polynesian islands, which the Western world views as exotic. Although the adoption, more frequently appropriation, of certain aspects of Polynesian culture, namely tattooing, is more often than not innocent, it is marked by a certain sense of ignorance and unwillingness to understand the meaning behind the things that we see as “artistic” or even exotic. This ultimately stems from a colonial perspective that still plagues the Western world, specifically the United States. The view of the “exotic other” is accompanied by a profound lack of respect for the societal and historical implications of the culture that is so often borrowed and refurbished for American use.

One aspect of this appropriation is “primitivism,” referring to the adoption of cultural practices from groups historically perceived as “primitive.” While the neo-Primitive movement seeks to venture out of the classical understanding of tattooing in society, it essentially returns to the colonial understanding of the “other” which in turn perpetuates misrepresented stereotypes of racial and tribal groups (Hanson 57). Although there are those like Leo Zulueta, the so-called father of modern tribal tattooing, that insist that, “while it may look like appropriation by the white people wearing these non-Western designs… [they are] a sign of admiration for a culture that no longer exists” (Hanson 17), this statement in itself shows a deep ignorance and misunderstanding of the culture from which these designs are borrowed. The culture very much still exists and this assertion that Western adaptation of the practice is keeping the culture alive on its own is unfounded and simply continues this dualism between the west and “primitive” societies. Antiquated understandings of the “primitive other” have been romanticized, thus buying into the “Western capitalist consumerism” (Hanson 58) that member of neo-Tribalism try to branch out from.

“In the deployment of images of the primitive, for instance, we see an ironic, powerfully symbolic tactic, but also uncertain and problematic political effects. The ‘primitive’ as described here, despite the stated aims of neotribal body modifiers themselves, remains an image of colonialism: nostalgic and characterized as natural, uncivilized, sexualized and wholly Other.” (Pitts)

In reality, the act of tattooing in most Polynesian societies is deeply cultural and spiritual. The adaptation by people that do not have ties to the culture or history is seen by most natives as inappropriate and disrespectful. For instance, when celebrities like Robbie Williams, Ben Harper, and Mike Tyson were seen with traditionally Māori designs inscribed on their bodies, there was an outcry from the Māori community. Mark Kopua, a practitioner of the traditional Māori ta moko, explains the reasoning behind Māori dissent with outsider practice.

“We have suffered for too long as non-Māori have exploited our culture for their own ends, and in so doing debased the intrinsic value of being Ngati Porou, Aitanga a Hauiti, Ngati Ira and so on” (Gorre 28)

Mark Kopua (right)

In attempting to gain cultural ownership of traditional Māori practices like ta moko, the Māori have been met with significant resistance, which has been described as reminiscent of the era of colonialism (Gorre 29). As Gorre explains, “After 135 year of cultural deprivation and marginalization, reviving this art form is deeply personal and reaffirms identity for the Māori” (Gorre 30), insisting that tattoo revival that has been taking place over the years in the Polynesian islands is a revival for them, not for Western culture to infringe upon.

Most of this cultural appropriation is in large part thanks to the era of globalization, in which people don’t actually have to travel to exotic location in order to undergo “transculturalization” of sorts (Friedman Herlihy 423). When in the 1960s, at the beginning of the tattoo renaissance, Peace Corps volunteers returned from Samoa with traditional tribal motifs tattooed on their biceps and ankles, the once meaningful prints were transformed into “common tourist souvenirs” (Friedman Herlihy 425). From that point forwards, leisure travelers returned to the Western world with non-Western mementos of their time abroad, putting little effort into actually gaining a thorough understanding of the culture and society which they were visiting. So while the practice of cultural appropriation is rarely ill intentioned, it represents a consistently Western ignorance of cultures that we see as “exotic,” thus further deepening the divide between the “other” and the Western world.

Works Cited

Friedman Herlihy, Anna Felicity. “Tattooed Transculturites: Western Expatriates among Amerindian and Pacific Islander Societies, 1500–1900.” Order No. 3517150 The University of Chicago, 2012. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web. 3 Apr. 2017.

Gorre, Ligeia D. “Expression of Identity: Māori Ta Moko and the Utilization of the Internet.” Order No. 1451065 University of Southern California, 2007. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web. 3 Apr. 2017.

Hanson, Natasha. “The Contemporary Canadian Tattoo as Symbolic Adoption and Adaptation.” Order No. MR18268 Carleton University (Canada), 2006. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web. 3 Apr. 2017.


Issues of Authorship and Appropriation in Tribal Tattooing

The issue of cultural appropriation is not a light one to say the least. On one side, there are those who denounce it, arguing the evident racism and oppression from which it originates. While on the other side, there are those who cry for “freedom of expression” (Richards). What people have a hard time understanding in discussing cultural appropriation, is defining the difference between appropriation and exchange/borrowing. The biggest difference? A power dynamic. Cultural appropriation happens between a majority and minority (oppressed or marginalized) group of people. Cultural appropriation has expressed itself differently throughout history, but has frequently been shown through the use of fashion and beauty, more recently, tattooing. What is reflected in the cultural appropriation of tribal tattooing is a profound sense of ignorance by those who don the tattoos. It is culturally normalized and so less and less people associate tribal tattoos with the cultures from which they were stolen. And it is this that much investigation into modern body art focuses on, “scholarly literature on contemporary body art focuses on issues of modernity, identity, hybridity, deviance, popular culture, gender, appropriation, authenticity, and globalization” (Schildkrout 322).

Although anthropological and archaeological studies have discovered ancient remains from all over the world with tattooed skin, our “popular understanding of tattooing in Europe and North America” (Schildkrout 326) originates from Captain Cook’s accounts of his eighteenth-century travels through the Pacific. For the Polynesians, the significance of tattooing was far more than aesthetic. The root of the practice is what Gell calls a “stigma of humanity” (Schildkrout 329). Essentially, tattooing was the mark of difference between humans and the gods, “a barrier between a secular self and unmediated divinity” (Schildkrout 329). What Gell draws from his analysis on Polynesian tattooing is that there is a stark difference in significance. While tattooing in Polynesia is deeply cultural and spiritual, western tattooing is “characteristically unanchored” (Schildkrout 330). This is the basis for the culturally appropriative nature of modern Western tattooing, an essential lack of appreciation or understanding of cultures from which designs are borrowed.

Experts attribute this to the “tattoo renaissance”, something that was present not only in indigenous cultures, but also in the Western world, namely the United States. It was Rubin who conceived the idea of the “tattoo renaissance,” identifying two main components that changed in the understanding of Western tattooing: “a change in clientele (from sailors, bikers, and gang members to the middle and upper class) and a change in iconography (from the badge-like images based on repetitive premade designs known as “flash” to the customized full-body tattoo influenced by Polynesian and Japanese tattoo art)” (Schildkrout 335). What this tattoo renaissance did was misrepresent history of Western tattooing. As Schildkrout asserts, people associate meanings with their personal tattoos and in the formation of these “meanings,” raising issues of “authenticity, cultural appropriation, copyright, and the relationship between body art, media culture, and consumerism” (Schildkrout 337-338), through misrepresented ideas of primitive, non-Western, “exotice” cultures. In short, the tattoo renaissance sought to “symbolically undo the conquest of the primitive world” while also taking credit away from those who can actually “claim authorship” of how Western tattooing came to be and has evolved up until now (Schildkrout 338).  

A personal account of cultural appropriation:

Works Cited

Richards, Ally. “Cultural Appropriation and Tattoos.” TH-INK. N.p., 25 July 2015. Web. 1 Apr. 2017.

Schildkrout, Enid. “Inscribing the Body.” Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 33, 2004, pp. 319–344.,

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