Tattoo origins in Polynesia
The practice of tattooing has existed in the Polynesian triangle for centuries, and was probably known by the first migrants before they settled in the French Polynesian islands. The words “tattoo,” “tatoo” and “tattow” come from the Tahitian word tatau -that can be translated as “hitting repeatedly”- and was used to describe the practice of writing indelible marks on human skin.
This practice was unknown to Europeans until Cook discovered it during his first voyage to Tahiti in 1769. He wrote in his diary “they print signs on people’s body and call this tattow” (Voyages of Captain Cook by Banks).
The tattoo art, alive throughout the history of humanity, reached a particularly developed status in Polynesia where it is called "language of the Ancients" by Tapu BONNET –the oldest tattoo master of the region. Due to its geographical isolation and its resistance to the occidental culture, tattoos from the Marquesas islands are recognized as having the most accomplished style in the whole Polynesian triangle.
According to mythology, the two sons of the God Ta'aroa -Mata Arhu and Tu Ra'i po'- found this art decorative and decided to teach it to humans. As there is no writing in the Polynesian culture, Polynesians used this art rich in distinctive signs to express their identity and personality.
Tattooing was used to identify your status in a hierarchical society: sex, social status and rank as well as family clans could thus be differentiated.
Tattoos were not only used for social purposes but it was also considered as a good protection against evil spirits. They were also used in rites of passage to the adult life for teenagers -around the age of 12. During this feast, the young men would show their tattoos as a proof of the accomplishment of their learning, prior to being fully admitted into the adults' clan and recognized by the community. This step was compulsory to enter the world of men.