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.,

What Tattoo Revival Means for Natives

The Polynesian tattoo renaissance brought with it much cultural appropriation and commodification from the Western world, but within Polynesia it was a truly transformative time. After being silenced by Christianity and colonialism for years, the revival of ta-tatau was a call to action for native islanders to reclaim the heritage and culture that had been lost after years of oppression. In a sense, it was a way for Polynesians to stand up to their colonizers. It wasn’t until the late 1980’s that a select few pioneers laid the groundwork for the resurgence of the traditional practice of ta-tatau. Here are some of their stories.

Mike Tavioni (2013)

Mike Tavioni 
Rightfully called the father of modern Cook Island ta-tatau (Utanga, Mangos 323), Tavioni has always been a man of many crafts. By the time of the 1992 South Pacific Festival of the Arts, Tavioni was already a well established artist and began to focus on the art of tatau. Tattooing was already being practiced in the Polynesian islands at that time, mostly by the youth, but the patterns and motifs being used were, in his words, “meaningless” (Utanga, Mangos 323). However, Tavioni recognized the immense amount of heritage that could be uncovered to aid the rebirth of traditional tatau. Having to combat the negative connotations of tattooing, such as the idea that only criminals got tattoos, Tavioni sought assistance from Ben Nichols, ironically a former probation officer. Together they tattooed any willing body that could withstand their experimentation. Although Tavioni has since retired from tattooing, choosing to pursue rock sculpture and writing, his work still lives on, inscribed into the skin of some 2,600 people, both locals and visitors. What Tavioni did was make Polynesians think of the importance of traditional tatau and rethinking “tradition” and how it has been diluted throughout the years. His retirement to other forms of art has left the world of tatau all but empty of successors. Not only did he leave the work to his trained apprentice, James Mani, but other pioneers still promote the traditional practice and urge islanders to bring back their traditional and culture.

Tetini Pekepo

Tetini Pekepo
When he returned to his heritage in the Cook Islands in 1987, Pekepo was anything but immediately accepted by the community. With his whole upper body covered in tattoos and a bad reputation after spending time with gangs in New Zealand, Pekepo had to struggle with acceptance before being able to practice tatau as a profession. In an area that was still so controlled by religion, Pekepo was faced with failure and desperation when his first attempt at opening a tattoo shop was pulled out from under him. Pekepo was raised in Waipoua, New Zealand, a poor Maori settlement that perfectly represented the marginalization of indigenous peoples. Like many Maori youth, Pekepo turned to gangs to feel included in his community. It was here that he was first introduced to tatau, originally using crude methods of application. As for many Polynesian people, tatau represents life and how it changes. So when his father and son died, Pekepo knew that it was time for him to return to his roots and pick up the art of tatau. Keeping his head down in the early years, Pekepo learned and practiced the art until Tavioni sparked the revival of the practice. After the festival that changed everything, he practiced the art full time, as well as picking up the ancient seafaring practice of vaka, canoeing in a sense (Utanga, Mangos 327).

“I’ve done a lot of seafaring, a lot of travelling and know that our ancestors did a lot of roaming around the Pacific… I understand that they had lots of contact with various islands… and that contact through royal blood was the thing in those days. All those royal people had a separate language, a distinctive one that was used when they met. But not only was there a distinctive language, but there was a distinctive style of clothing. They wore art- body art, weapons. So you see ta-tatau is a language, a language that was worn by people.” (Utanga, Mangos 327)

For Pekepo, it is important to maintain this traditional sense of tattooing, but that the act of tattooing is, like any form of art, subject to change throughout time. He says, “I believe a lot of our ta-tatau was to remind a person of something at that time… something important to them” (Utanga, Mangos 327). In his eyes, tribal tattooing in modern society should simultaneously take on the traditional aspects of Polynesian ancestors, while also adapting to the narrative that applies to people today.

Boye Nicholas
Just as with Pekepo, Nicholas places a large importance on voyage in tattooing. After joining the Cook Islands Ocean Voyaging Society, he took on the ancient practice of vaka, accumulating a deeper understanding and appreciation for Polynesian heritage with every tattoo he got along the way. After travelling to Tahiti, the Marquesas, Hawaii, Samoa, Tonga and Aotearoa, Nicholas discovered a profound appreciation for his native seafaring culture.

“I believe we became Polynesians when we entered the Pacific from South-east Asia. Voyaging is the key. When I was on the vaka, I found out a lot about our connections” (Utanga, Mangos 330).

Boye (center) and assistants

In 1996, Nicholas returned to Aotearoa to learn the art of
ta-tatau (Utanga, Mangos 330), before returning to Auckland for a few years. When he eventually returned to Rarotonga, Nicholas decided to make tatau his life’s work. On a trip to Hawaii to visit family and acquire new tattooing tools, Nicholas gained access to traditional Polynesian designs in the Bishop Museum of Hawaii, giving him immense insight to the art and the patterns and motifs he would later adapt as an artist. “Polynesian tribal is a mixture and so are we all today,” says Nicholas, “I am a mixture and so I believe I can use that today” (Utanga, Mangos 331).

Works Cited

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.

Transporting Tattoos to the “Occident”

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)

The Great Omi reproduced from

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.

Works Cited

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




“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.

Māori Women’s Stories: From Past to Present

(Honey, Benita, and Anahera Tahuri) Image by Stephen Langdon
 Moko kauae: traditional Māori female chin tattoo

Nanaia Mahuta
At 46 years old, Mahuta became the first member of parliament in the world to wear the moko kauae. She represents the renaissance of moko kauae in Māori women and diversifies the political climate by reintroducing traditional culture and history into the political spectrum. In ancient Māori tradition, every woman has a moko within them that, when she is ready, will be exposed by the tattoo artist onto the chin. Like many women, Mahuta got the tattoo to commemorate the milestones in her life, the turning point being the anniversary of her father’s death. On her chin are the traditional patterns of the Ngāti Maniapoto, her native tribe. For Mahuta, moko kauae is about pride for oneself and one’s community heritage.

“As a young Māori woman I want my daughter to know that everything is at her fingertips; she just needs to reach forward and grab it”

Pip Hartley
The beginning of the end for the ancient practice of Tā Moko began in the early 1840’s when English settlers surged in, forcing Māori people to leave their homes and forget their culture, and even their language. Over 100 years later, the revival of traditional Māori culture is in full swing. One of the young agents of change is Pip Hartley. At just 18 years old, she travelled to rural, remote parts of New Zealand in order to learn the ancient art of Tā Moko. Now 33, she owns a tattoo shop in Auckland called Karanga Ink, and continues to revive the once lost art. The “internal calling” that inspires one’s moko kauae represents a strong tie to their ancestors and their culture.

“Every time they see it, it’s a reminder of what they’ve achieved, and that their tupuna [ancestors] have their back”

Jude Hoani

For most Māori women, moko kauae is about tying their individuality and sense of self to their country and pride for their heritage. Hoani thought about her moko for 20 years before deciding that she wanted it as a testimony to her connection to her past and her culture. Despite doubt from her husband, the death of her brother marked the moment in which she was sure of her moko. At the same time as his death, Gordon Toi reappeared in her life. Gordon Toi is not only Hoani’s cousin, but also an esteemed tā moko artist. Using both a ruru (Māori traditional kaitiaki [guardian] of the chin) and components of her tribe’s, the Ngāpuhi, Toi created a moko kauae that represents both Hoani’s inner strength and her pride for her past and her ancestors.

“A lot of people in my town who had never spoken to me started talking to me. They actually see me, they look at me, they look at my face, they look into my eyes”

Benita Tahuri
Like many Māori women, Tahuri’s moko came after much strife in her own life. After 20 years of contemplation, a bump in the road finally pushed her into getting it done. What is most important about Tahuri’s moko to her is instilling the sense of culture into her daughters. Tahuri is from the small town of Wairoa in New Zealand, where segregation between Māori and Pākehā was alive and Māori was never spoken in public. After moving out, Tahuri sent her two daughters to Māori immersion school in an effort to revitalize the lost part of their culture and identity that had been such a taboo for years. Now 23 and 25 years old, her daughters Honey and Anahera both have their own mokos. For Tahuri, the moko is about outward pride in one’s culture, not something that can be merely covered up.

“For me it spoke of healing, reflection, and empowerment and identity. It wasn’t any conscious kind of thought—the physical manifestation of moko kauae is the end of a journey”

Drina Paratene
Just like all of the wonderful Māori women before her, Paratene seeks to normalize the practice of moko kauae in modern day society. She wants to revitalize a culture that had been buried away by years of colonization and shame. In the early 1980’s, Paratene joined the Kohānga Reo movement that sought to resuscitate the Māori language and culture. After saying a karakia [prayer], Paratene prepared herself for the inevitable pain of the tattoo using the traditional uhi technique, but instead was met with no pain and an overwhelming sense of peace. This event was practically spiritual. Carved into her skin forever are the three things which drive Paratene’s life and self: tika [honesty and integrity], pono [belief in a higher spiritual being], and aroha [love]. These three concepts tattooed onto her chin represent a woman’s pride for own moral self and her connection to her culture and traditions.

“I wanted to impart those values to my children and grandchildren. When they look at my moko kauae, there’s a message, and that’s around living a purposeful life”

To learn more about these women and their stories, visit:

For some amazing videos on Pip Hartley’s art, visit the Karanga Ink Facebook page (@karangaink) or click this link:

Works Cited

Duff, Michelle. “‘It’s Transformative’: Maori Women Talk About Their Sacred Chin Tattoos.” Broadly. VICE Media LLC, 13 Sept. 2016. Web. 21 Mar. 2017.

Culture Clash

George Nuku, esteemed Maori artist (Kaeppler)

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.

 Works Cited

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.

Cultural Appropriation in the Tribal Tattoo Renaissance

Although the so-called “tribal tattoo renaissance” has been viewed as, for the most part, a positive reflection of Samoan culture, there is a serious downside. While it’s admirable that young Samoans, and young people descended from other Polynesian islands, have begun to reclaim the tribal tattoo as a form of expressing their pride for their heritage, this is only great because it is their heritage.

Cultural appropriation as we understand it today is when one group of people borrows or copies another group of people’s elements of culture. This can include clothing, makeup, music, dance, and, yes, tattoos. Now, it is important to establish when “borrowing” turns into cultural appropriation. As an article from the Huffington Post asserts, “[…] borrowing may become appropriation when it reinforces historically exploitative relationships.” (Arewa) So how does this tie into tribal tattoos? The resurgence of traditional Polynesian tribal tattooing, starting in the early 1980’s, did not just remain within the Polynesian islands. Many “Western” people, especially Americans, travelled to places like Samoa and Tahiti and upon experiencing Polynesian tribal culture, and thus tribal tattoos, brought these ideas back to their home countries. Soon enough, tattoo shops all over the United States had at least a few tribal patterns in their repertoire. Historically, Polynesia has been oppressed by imperialism from all over the globe, most notably France and Spain. As I noted in my previous blog post, the only reason why traditional tattoos lost favor in most Polynesian islands is because missionaries that were introduced to the islands viewed tattooing as sinful tribute to human flesh. So the idea that, generations later, these same cultures want to use traditional tattooing as a fashion statement, is certainly cultural appropriation.

(Job Hattur)

So what’s wrong with cultural appropriation? Cultural appropriation establishes a relationship of power and dominance between two countries or cultures. In this instance, we can view an opposition between Western countries and cultures and those cultures of the Polynesian islands. It is not to say that culture can’t be fluid, because it most certainly is, but the line must be drawn when elements of one culture are taken as the result of one or more cultures having established dominance over another. Another issue arises when considering credit. As we have seen in the more heated debates of cultural appropriation of African culture, credit is rarely given to those disadvantaged cultures from which Western culture steals. During imperial times, empires would rampage entire countries and steal artifacts, such as the theft of the Benin Bronzes during an British imperial raid in the late 1800’s. (Arewa) The artifacts were then sold in European art markets and high-end auctions. They would end up in an English museum or in someone’s living room, every day losing more and more of the cultural value that tied it to its home.

When Western cultures appropriate Polynesian tribal traditions, it changes the entire meaning and understanding of those traditions. Traditional Polynesian tribal tattoos hold endless amounts of culture and history. Especially in modern day context, tatau gives Polynesian people a sense of identity, “in an international context the distinctiveness of the tatau makes it valuable as a marker of ethnic and cultural identity” (Forsyth 12). They quite literally wrote the history of their culture on their skin, memorializing their community’s identity forever in ink. When someone from the other side of the world uses those same patterns and markings as just a fashion statement, it strips all of the cultural importance that rests in those tattoos. As Mai’s grandmother says in her article Manoa, “Our word tātau has travelled all over the world and is known by all the nations. It has become such a part of everyone’s language that people have forgotten that originally this word was a Polynesian word: tātau! Tātau has disappeared from our memories…” It is of utmost importance that the memory of this great culture is kept alive, not through the fashion statements of young American kids, but by the youth of Polynesia who hold their culture and heritage close to their hearts.

If you want to read more about cultural appropriation click here:

If you’re interested in hearing someone else’s opinion on the appropriation of traditional Polynesian tribal tattoos, click here:

 Works Cited

Arewa, Olufunmilayo. “Cultural Appropriation: When ‘Borrowing’ Becomes Exploitation.” Huffington Post. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2017.
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. ProQuest. Web. 12 Apr. 2017.
Rai A. Mai. “Tattoo.” Manoa, vol. 17, no. 2, 2005, pp. 178–186.,

Ribadeneyera, Imani. “How the ‘Civilized’ West Muddied the Meaning of Tribal Tattoos.” Fashion and Power 2014. N.p., 29 Apr. 2014. Web. 16 Mar. 2017.



Tattoos as a Tribal Identity

Give me, O my God
As beautiful as silence
That paint like a divine brush
That sing and dance
Your beauty
Words in my heart
Words in my hands
Words in my eyes
Give me, O my God
The words among the clouds from Heaven
~Rai A. Mai

This is how the history of tattoos begins. It does not begin as a teenager on their 18th birthday or as a couple professing their love for each other for eternity. The story of tātau, the Samoan word for tattoo, begins in a deep need for storytelling. With no paper and pen to tell the tales of their culture, the tribes of Polynesia turned to tattoo art to make these stories permanent. They etched history and culture and society into their skins in black ink. As Rai Mai’s grandmother recounts in her article Manoa, “We used to tell our story on our body. And people and heavens would know who we were.” (Mai 181) For the people from which tribal tattooing originated, tattoos were not about style or fashion, they were about words and stories. Traditional tattoos would indicate one’s social status, age, maturity, and many other characteristics. Alongside this, tattoos would tell an individual’s story and the story of their people and their culture. (Allen)

Tattoo: Po’oino Yrondi

As the Western world expanded and tribal islands became modernized, these magnificent works of art and history began to disappear. Why? Because the introduction of pen and paper made etching culture’s history into one’s skin unnecessary and Western colonization of the Polynesian islands instilled the fear of God, and the sin of tattooing, into the people of Polynesia. But it wasn’t the same. What was lost in the disappearance of tribal tattooing was a strong sense of identity.  Not only did they connect individuals to their history, but they connected them to their community.

Now, there has been a resurgence into tattooing among members of the Polynesian islands. Some from older generations that lived through colonization and felt the effects of Christian conversion still spite the act of tattooing, but younger people have escaped this mindset. For them, it is about feeling connected to their heritage and their culture. As Mai says, “Every Polynesian wanted, stamped into the skin, a sign of cultural belonging.” (Mai 183) And in some sense, that is what tattoos mean for many different cultures. Our culture is tied into our identity and tattoos are a form of self expression that reflects that. Although the meaning of tattoos has drastically changed throughout history, the root of the intent comes back to that reflection of identity. For the Samoans, and related island tribes, self identity ultimately reflects one’s culture and history. The distinct permanence of this art sets this form of storytelling apart from any other culture’s. To have your history inked on you forever is a form of self expression that does not present itself in many cultures, save tribal ones. Because so much history was lost in the colonial era, we do not know that much about the history of traditional tattoos, but much history was remained. We know that it is a tapu, a sacred art form. (Allen) One’s identity and history were etched into their skin, leaving a permanent tapestry of all the things that made them unique.

Visit for more information on tribal tattoos and to view more images of examples courtesy of Tahitian tattoo artist Po’oino Yrondi.

Works Cited:

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

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

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