Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Tattooing on Tahiti

Cook encountered tattoing on Tahiti in 1769, and wrote about it in the official account of the voyage;

'Both sexes paint their Bodys, Tattow, as it is called in their Language. This is done by inlaying the Colour of Black under their skins, in such a manner as to be indelible. Some have ill-design'd figures of men, birds, or dogs; the women generally have this figure Z simply on every joint of their fingers and Toes; the men have it likewise, and both have other differant figures, such as Circles, Crescents, etc., which they have on their Arms and Legs; in short, they are so various in the application of these figures that both the quantity and Situation of them seem to depend intirely upon the humour of each individual, yet all agree in having their buttocks covered with a Deep black. Over this Most have Arches drawn one over another as high as their short ribs, which are near a Quarter of an inch broad. These Arches seem to be their great pride, as both men and Women show them with great pleasure.

Their method of Tattowing I shall now describe. The colour they use is lamp black, prepar'd from the Smoak of a Kind of Oily nut, used by them instead of Candles. The instrument for pricking it under the Skin is made of very thin flatt pieces of bone or Shell, from a quarter of an inch to an inch and a half broad, according to the purpose it is to be used for, and about an inch and a half long. One end is cut into sharp teeth, and the other fastened to a handle. The teeth are dipped into black Liquor, and then drove, by quick, sharp blows struck upon the handle with a Stick for that purpose, into the skin so deep that every stroke is followed with a small quantity of Blood. The part so marked remains sore for some days before it heals. As this is a painful operation, especially the Tattowing their Buttocks, it is perform'd but once in their Life times; it is never done until they are 12 or 14 years of Age.'

In Tahiti, the arms and legs were decorated, while elsewhere in Polynesia the torso and face were also tattooed.  The Tahitian te tatau means 'to knock lightly', and the rhythmic beating of the mallet onto the needle comb pushed pigment deep into the skin.  The work was carried out by a priest, and the markings venerated the god Ta'aroa, symbolising also rank and social status.  

Many Polynesian tattoo designs were similar to those found on barkcloth, and there is the suggestion that tattoos were used to 'wrap the body' in the same way, conferring mana and status on the owner.

1886.1.1547 and .1548 Tattoing comb and mallet

Detail of tattooing comb 1886.1.1547 showing bone teeth

These tattooing instruments were collected by the Forsters on the second voyage, and are described in the 'Catalogue of Curiosities' as 'No.37. Tattowing or puncturing instruments.' They are made from wood, but the head of the comb is made from bird bone, carved at the end to form sharp teeth.

Sydney Parkinson, the artist on the first voyage, who himself received a tattoo during his three month stay in Tahiti, shows in this sketch the position of a tattoo on the buttock, illustrating the important Polynesian crescent motif.