In most civilisations and for thousands of years, men and women have pierced their skin and injected pigment to make images. From Neolithic hunters to Siberian princesses to Japanese grooms to ancient Greeks. The art and technique travelled the world over, finding an intensity within the customs of ancient Polynesia, and now today, all the way to Norfolk Island!
The early European “discoverers” of the Polynesian islands found themselves so taken by the dynamics of “tattoo” that they sorted “volunteer” tattoo artists to accompany them on their return to Europe to share with the people back home this skin painting. Omai was the first Tahitian who visited the West on a return voyage with Captain James Cook. He soon became the wonder of the age. Frequently a guest in the most sophisticated salons of London, Omai would create a performance of showing his tattoos to the assemblage.
Europe’s curiosity and interest in Polynesian people on the other side of the world began to grow. Voyages were considered, funded and embarked upon. Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society in Europe, had a large financial interest in the West Indies, and he recognised the urgent need to provide cheap food for plantation workers. At that time, America’s War of Independence was making it very hard to bring imported food over from North America. Banks remembered that during Cook’s second voyage to the Pacific, the Sailing Master, William Bligh had made a name for himself by discovering the breadfruit plant. Early in 1787, discussions of the transportation of breadfruit began and resulted in the commissioned voyage to Tahiti commanded by Captain William Bligh on HMAV Bounty.
Bligh set sail from England, completed 12,000 miles to Tahiti, and on arrival discovered they were too late in the season to collect the breadfruit saplings. They had to wait for the new harvest to grow. Twenty-seven weeks passed, and finally 1,015 breadfruit plants were gathered and the Bounty was able to set sail. This brings us to the infamous mutiny on the Bounty event on 28 April 1789, where Bligh and 18 men were set adrift in a boat with limited provisions. Forty-one days later, they reached the Dutch Island of Timor. This unplanned, unexpected and forced trip, ironically became one of the greatest feats of navigation in British naval history. Upon Bligh’s return to England he was court marshalled for his loss of his ship, but was honourably acquitted. Bligh’s log went into great detail about the mutineer’s tattoos. Of all the 25 who mutinied, 21 were tattooed. Each mutineer’s tattoos had been carefully recorded by Bligh in his records.
If you are familiar with the historical background of the Pitcairners of Norfolk Island, you are aware that we descendants trace our lineage to the Bounty mutineers and the Tahitian foremothers as they began a new life on Pitcairn Island before being discovered by the outside world.
Tattooing, meantime, became actively discouraged by Western religions, which were spreading across Polynesia. Tattooing gradually became so little practised in Tahiti that the skill was totally forgotten. Tattooing was never practised on Pitcairn Island. Even when Pitcairn Islanders moved to Norfolk Island in 1856, tattooing did not play a role in community life. In 1982 the spark of this art was re-lit at the Tiurai celebrations in Tahiti. A renaissance in tattooing took place, emphasising the need to re-learn the lost art. Tahitian culture rediscovered its roots and pledged itself to the conservation of ancient Polynesian customs.
The common patterns used in tattooing throughout Polynesia are geometric shapes, comprising straight lines, circles, semicircles, rhombohedrals, squares, triangles, bars and crescents. Effects can be checkerboards on the torso; dotted or solid lines, straight, in arches or in spirals, on the belly, back, arms and legs. In ancient Polynesia, tattoo artists were highly respected because their art played an important role in the cycles of community life. If anyone expressed a desire to learn tattooing, you had to show a strong commitment to serve a long apprenticeship at the side of one of the masters of the art to learn all of its secrets. These secrets combined a vast knowledge of the religious rituals with a highly developed manual dexterity in manipulating the tattooing instruments. Tools of the trade consisted of “combs” of bones, pearl shell or animal teeth. Dipped in a black dye, they were driven into the flesh by sharp blows from a long mallet, tapped in cadence. The pain of the hand-hammered tattoo was an important part of the experience. It demonstrated courage and fortitude.
The traditional technique and designs of Polynesian tattooing were preserved within the pages of journal descriptions by the naturalist Joseph Banks, Captain James Cook and Captain William Bligh. Detailed imagery by artists who accompanied these explorers throughout Oceania in the 18th and early 19th centuries, allow for a treasure-trove of drawings and literature, which now assist in our understanding of the customs and life in Polynesia. As descendants of the Bounty mutineers and Tahitian foremothers, we are able to draw upon this historical documentation. There are tattoo artists who now live on Norfolk. You may choose to explore the meanings of Polynesian symbols for family, home, island, spiritual beliefs, as you acknowledge our links with early Polynesia when you embark upon this voyage of your own, on a “journal of skin”.
Image Credit: Royalty Free Image
Article content disclaimer: Article first published in 2899 Magazine V1 Iss3, 2009. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.