The inhabitants of the Marquesas Islands appeared to be wearing lace outfits when Europeans first set eyes on them in 1595. On closer inspection, the lace outfits turned out to be tattoos. Practiced on both men and women, tattooing was especially significant to men. Tattooing was an important body decoration throughout Oceania, but especially in the eastern part of Polynesia and the Marquesas Islands. The Tahitian word tatau, meaning to inflict wounds, is the basis for the English word "tattoo."

Tattoos in Oceania, etched forever in the skin, signified a person's position in society, helped ward off evil spirits, and were a way to beautify and decorate the body. Reproduced by permission of © .

Tattoos are permanent colorings inserted into the skin. In most of Oceania tattoos were applied by pricking the skin with bone or metal combs with sharp, needle-like teeth that had been dipped in dye. The sharp needles of the comb inserted the dye under the skin and left permanent designs. In New Zealand the Maori made distinctive swirl designs by using sharp chisels to carve deep grooves into the skin. Applied by a skilled master in small sections at significant moments throughout the course of a person's life, it took many decades to cover a person's entire body. Tattoos indicated sex, age, wealth, and social status. They had religious significance among some groups, but in other groups tattoos were purely ornamental, though extremely important. In Samoa, for example, men would be severely criticized and have a hard time finding a wife without tattoos covering his lower body.

All the boys of a social group received their first tattoo at the same time the chief's son received his first tattoo, usually between the ages of twelve and eighteen. Girls were tattooed at puberty. Tattoos were applied on almost every available body part, including the tops of hands and even the tongue. In general, grown men were more heavily tattooed than women. Some men could be completely covered in decoration whereas women had smaller designs mainly on their faces and limbs. Considering red lips ugly, Maori women tattooed their lips a blue color. Because tattooing was very expensive, only the upper classes in a social group could receive tattoos. Slaves were forbidden from wearing tattoos.

No two people wore tattoos of the same design. Among the Maoris, facial tattoos, called ta moko, were a man's emblem of his identity. Copies of their facial tattoos were used as their signatures during early exchanges with Europeans. By the early twentieth century, after years of contact between Europeans and the peoples of Oceania, tattoo designs were no longer limited to traditional designs but incorporated European patterns as well. Some tattoos even mimicked European clothing designs.


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.

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