Marquesas and tattoos
No Marquesas without tattoos. We have a few tattoos each and they have very special meanings. When we started planning this trip, we also agreed that when we reached the Marquesas we would each have a tattoo. We are fascinated by the history and the way tattoos are used to describe history, personality and life stories.
The symbols in Marquesian tattoos date back to long before European soldiers, missionaries and colonists came to the islands
Each archipelago has its own ancient symbols. Polynesia did not have a written language, so their culture and history is passed on in their art, e.g. tattoos, song, dance, sculptures and jewellery.
In the middle/end of the 19th century, the missionaries came from Europe and they forbid everything, and only in the 1980s, when the Marquesas began to seriously demand their right to their original culture back, was this ban lifted (not that they had much luck with the ban). However, this meant that much knowledge about the symbols and their location on the body was lost. Fortunately, the German doctor and explorer Karl Von Den Stein, among others, has done a great job of collecting and writing down stories, traditions and, not least, the symbols.
However, it is believed that he was a generation too late to be able to collect everything, so a lot of knowledge has been lost, nevertheless his work has contributed to 100 patutiki’s being listed on UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list.
Marquesian tattoos are called Patutiki, on Tahiti (1500 km away), which is part of the Society Islands, they are called Tatar, and on other islands in the Pacific they have completely different names. Many of the signs are repeated, and some signs are reminiscent of signs that we also know from the Inuits in Greenland. Many tourists like ourselves get tattoos here
We have had ours designed and made by a very skilled tattoo artist at Nuku Hiva, Daniel, who cares about making the tattoos personal and with respect for the original traditions.
Daniel started with a conversation with us, where we each talked about ourselves, important people and events in our lives and our values as people. Based on these conversations, he has designed a tattoo for each of us. One day when we were at Daniel’s, another tattoo artist came by and saw our tattoos, and it was almost a little scary how much he could tell about us, just from our tattoos
Many symbols belong in very specific places on the body, for example the symbol Søren has got on the inside of the upper arm, is there because that is where it belongs on the body, other motives belong on either women or men, others are linked to life phases.
Back in time (unknown when), the young people/children got their first small tattoo when they became sexually mature, a line and everyone got the same one. As they developed as people, tattoos were added with personal characteristics, others with their achievements, or tattoos to empower them, these were placed among the tattoos that have exact locations.
Back then, it was usually the person with the most skilled tattoo artist who became chief. The tattoo artists had the status of spiritual leaders, which entailed a responsibility that meant they rarely had family. They could refuse some to be tattooed, or make demands on diet, or things they had to achieve in order to get certain tattoos. By the way, as a side note: The chiefs were usually women, but this changed when the French came to the islands, because they could not understand or accept that the chief they had to talk to was a woman. They wanted to talk to men – funny that the Europeans found Marquesan culture disadvantaged…
Today we still see many who are tattooed on large parts of the body, young and old, we have met many who are also tattooed in the face, even on the eyelids. At first we noticed it a lot because many are really heavily tattooed, but because it is so common here, it is only when we see some with particularly nice tattoos that we think about it. But they notice ours and are happy, as they see it as respect and acceptance of them and their culture when we as guests choose their tattoos, if they are “correct” made with respect for the traditions and not just “tourist tattoos”. They are happy to share their culture, like when they teach us their traditional dances, teach us how to play the ukulele and when we get invited to their homes and they give us large amounts of fresh fruit. We have never experienced people who are SO willing to share, despite the fact that many people seen from European eyes have very little, but you may not need much when the weather is always nice and warm and you live in the most beautiful nature.