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.


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