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mardi 7 mai 2013

Tatau, Polynesian tattooing

Body frill or identity sign…

Reproved during more than 160 years, tatau was almost going to disappear forever. Nowadays, it finds back its place in Polynesian society. Here is the story of its revival.

In Polynesian society, before its evangelization, tattoo had reached a complexity and an unequalled wealth. 
Tattooed backs at the Tatoonesia festival
Well beyond a simple adornment it constituted a social benchmark. It indicates the membership of a country, a tribe, a family and the rank in the social scale. It marked the fulfillment of social rites such as the transition from childhood to puberty, the wedding, etc. It represented remarkable facts of the life of one who wore it: acts of bravery in war, prowess of hunter or fisherman…

Role and meaning of the tatau
In the vast extent of all its thinkable meanings was also the depiction of brands of type “guard-symbol” or “taura” appropriate to a given family. Finally, it could be purely ornamental.

A complete Marquesan traditional tattoo reproduced by Karl Von den Steinen 
 If almost all Polynesians were tattooed, this ritual practice was very expensive, essentially because of the festivities accompanying its realization. The more the family had properties, the more the tattoos of his members were many and important. 

Disappearance of the art of Polynesian tattoo
 By a brutal reversal the tattoo was going to pass, in a few decades, from the status of essential practice to a shameful custom.

In the trail of the earliest “discoverers” of Polynesian islands, the first missionaries came to fight against Polynesian “paganism”. They unload from the end of the 18th century. Converted to the Catholicism in 1812, king Pomare II doesn’t hesitate to establish a very sever code directly inspired by the rules of the religion which he has just embraced.

The death sentence of the tattoo is signed in 1823, at the beginning of the institution of this code, which explains: “Nobody will have to be tattooed; this practice must be completely abolished (…).  The man or the woman, who is tattoos engraved, if the fact is obvious, will be judged and punished. (…) Man’s punishment is the following one: he will have to work on a portion of road of ten toises (or 60fts) for the first tattoo, twenty toises (or 120fts) for the second. (…) Woman’s punishment will be the following one: she will have to make two big coats, the one for king and the other for governor.”

The drawing of the tattoo
 It’s not so much the practice of the tattoo that the missionaries want to delete but the festivities which accompany its accomplishment and which give rise to all the overflowing;  In particular sexual intercourse debaucheries.

There are indeed some noble persons who refuse this diktat. If the fact of skin marking isn’t considered as an act of rebellion itself, they are severely condemned. This is how the tatau practice disappeared totally in the space which will become French Polynesia.

Karl Von den Steinen’s saving work and the revival
            In 1897 in Marquesas Islands, the German anthropologist doesn’t count more than around thirty tattooed individuals, all very old, but mainly no more a single tattooist. He realizes then accurate raised of Marquesan tattoos. Without this work, all the knowledge bound to this art would have doubtless disappeared for ever.

In the 1970s, the only visible tattoos in Polynesia were the ones worn by the servicemen and the former prisoners. The designs had nothing to do with the traditional tatau and the tattoo was often privilege of dropouts who wants to post their break with the established order.

…The inking of the tattoo
At the end of the 70s, a festival of the Oceania arts is held in Tahiti. For the majority of the population, the shock is enormous: in the streets of Papeete, men are walking in their traditional clothes and they are tattooed. Their skin doesn’t wear arrow pierced hearts but   black and white strange drawings… these men are essentially Samoan. In Samoa Islands, the tradition of the tattoo never went out.

Immediately, some rare Polynesians are going to understand all the importance of what they saw; they undertook to be tattooed with Polynesian inspiration motives. Above all, they are going to dash into the practice of the tattoo. Since 1980, the tatau knows a spectacular development. More and more young adults and teenagers are tattooed. The motives are in traditional inspirations. Only by inspiration, so much it’s difficult, more than two century later, to go back up to the sources of the traditional tatau.

Tattooed Tattooer
Today, very rare are the Polynesians, men and women, who don’t wear at least a tattoo. We can’t speak any more about a latest fad but about privileged average of a Polynesian identity assertion. Of course, the religious and social aspects bound to the traditional society disappeared. However strong functions which crossed the centuries remain: to signal in one’s flesh the important personal events, to confront with a real physical trial, even if the modern tools considerably eased it and to mean ones membership in a group.

At present, Polynesian tattoo is all over the world considered as one of the summits of this art.

Thanks to Richard Allouch for his photos and his invaluable collaboration:

An article of Julien Gué
Translated from French by Monak

Copyright Julien Gué. Ask for the author’s agreement before any reproduction of the text or the images on Internet or traditional press.

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