Body Decorations of Oceania

In the warm climate of the thousands of islands that make up Oceania, people wear few clothes. Uncovered, their skin is considered a blank canvas for decoration. Among the many different cultures living on the islands, body decoration is very important to social and religious practices.

A tattoo artist applying part of a traditional full-body tattoo. Reproduced by permission of © .

Body painting is a temporary method of adorning the body. Much as westerners wear dress clothes to weddings, the peoples of Oceania paint their bodies for rituals and festive occasions. Other body markings are permanent, however. Scarification and tattooing have been practiced among many of the peoples of Oceania for generations. Tattooed or scarred designs, etched forever in the skin, signify a person's position in society, ward off bad spirits, or simply look good to the wearer.

In addition to these dramatic body designs, the peoples of Oceania traditionally have worn elaborate decorations of feathers, flowers, bone and shell headdresses, masks, necklaces, earrings, nose decorations, and arm-bands, among other things. In full ceremonial dress, the peoples of Oceania looked quite shocking, even frightening to westerners. Unaware of the cultural significance of the body decorations in Oceania, Europeans exploring the islands of the Pacific Ocean in the sixteenth century first considered these markings an indication of savagery. Further contact with these cultures has revealed that the body decorations of the peoples of Oceania are, in fact, a mark of their civilization, a part of social traditions that are thought to be thousands of years old.


Gröning, Karl. Body Decoration: A World Survey of Body Art. New York: Vendome Press, 1998.

Lal, Brij V., and Kate Fortune, eds. The Pacific Islands: An Encyclopedia. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 2000.

Body Painting

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