Table of contents for Tattoo history
Although archaeological evidence for Polynesian tattoos is scant compared to what we’ve found elsewhere, the mythology of Polynesians says that the art of tattooing was brought to people by the gods in the very beginning. Thus the oral tradition gives us what the archaeologists haven’t–evidence of ancient origins of tattoos. While we don’t know exactly what the oldest Polynesian tattoos looked like, we do know that the present-day designs evolved from ancient originals.
A sacred art
Tattooing was considered sacred, and the application of the designs was part of a religious ritual. The designs conveyed personal meaning–heritage, achievements, and position in society. Shamans were responsible for applying the tattoos, and there were special ceremonies for both the shaman and the person who would be getting the tattoo. If ancient designs were as extensive as historical ones, the full tattoo would take many separate sessions over quite a long period of time.
Symbols on the skin were used for protection, for reverence for one’s ancestors, and to signal the attainment of marriageable status. The tattoos also served as an indicator of status and power. The higher one was up the hierarchy, the more tattoos one had. Women were apparently less-tattooed than men.
The ancient traditions were maintained up to the time of the coming of the missionaries, who, in their zeal to convert the world, forbade tattooing based on their interpretation of the Old Testament. The fact that they were trying to abolish an ancient and very sacred religious tradition was of no particular consequence because it was not their ancient and very sacred religious tradition.
Fortunately, some of the missionaries made drawings and took notes, so the traditional designs were not lost forever, and people who want the traditional sacred designs today can have them just as their ancestors did.
Treat these designs with respect
Since these designs are sacred, it is especially important for people outside the Polynesian culture not to copy them. One may base one’s design on a Polynesian original, but an exact copy would be sacreligious and offensive. People from outside Polynesian culture who want a “tribal” design should keep this in mind. You would not want an image from your own sacred tracditions just slapped on somebody’s body somewhere with no understanding of what it meant.