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Tahitian Tattoos

Dhritiman Basu Apr 17, 2019
Tahiti is believed to be the birth-place of the word tattoo. One of the sub-types of Polynesian tattoos, Tahitian tattoos have an extensive history which we would be exploring here.
Tahitian tattoos have their roots in Tahiti, which is the largest island in Polynesia - an extensive archipelago consisting of over 1000 islands in the sub-region of Oceania. It is an interesting fact that the word tattoohas been derived from the word tatau, which is, in fact, what the natives call their island.
The Tahitian style branches from Polynesian tribal tattoos which are noted for bold and abstract symbolic patterns. Other varieties which fall under the Polynesian style are Marquesan, Samoan, Hawaiian, and Maori.


The European explorers discovered the island of Tahiti when they traveled to the lush, tropical spaces and wide valleys of Polynesia. There, they noticed the extensive usage of the word tatau by the local inhabitants whose bare bodies were completely covered with vivid body art.
When the Europeans returned home, they started referring to all types of body art as tattoo, a misinterpretation of the actual term. Hence, this became the advent of the word which was actually borrowed from the Native Tahitians.
The foreign intrusion of the Christian missionaries in the 18th century led to the ban of tattooing in Tahiti as it was considered to be blasphemous and injurious to one's body. All the detailed records and drawings were destroyed. Of late, anthropologists were able to unearth a couple of lost records and designs which are being studied and implemented.


Tahitian tattoos were adorned by both, men and women of the island. They ranged from simple geometric to intricate patterns; each one had its independent meaning and significance. It required a great deal of perseverance and courage to ink the traditional tattoos because of their extremely fine detailing, which caused a lot of pain while inking.
The modern ones do not cause the same intensity of pain. Tattoos were used to personify the rank, personal accomplishments, lineage, and social position of the individual. These tattoos, modern and traditional alike, have a typical style of finely-detailed, artistic patterns which portray figurative and geometric elements with varied themes.
It was a Tahitian custom to undergo a phase of cleansing, which involved fasting and complete chastity for a given period of time before one got a tattoo done.
Tattoos played such a pivotal role in the life of a Tahitian that he/she had to get one done at the tender phase of adolescence. It was considered that the inclusion of body art signified the noble phase of breaking the shackles of childhood and embracing a maturer level of understanding.
Consequently, with the passage of time, an individual's level of respect in the Tahitian society started to be measured according to the number of tattoos he would sport. It also indicated one's wealth, strength, and power. Hence, the tribe leaders used to sport the most extensive and flamboyant tattoos.
This style of tattooing depicts the culture and tradition of various native tribes. It was used to demarcate each individual and various factions within the island. Tahitian tattoos for women were lush and articulate and subtly hinted their bold sensuality. Usually, they got the tattoo(s) done on the chin, which was graceful and feminine by the males.

Ideas for Designs

There are two variants of contemporary Tahitian tattoos: stock flash and custom design. Flash designs are usually premanufactured units which get the job done quick and easy. On the flip side, these designs are limited and sometimes, clich├ęd.
So, if you have a specific idea for your tattoo, then stick to custom artwork. Refine and materialize your ideas with the assistance of an expert artist. Guys could wear slick tattoos like Vai O Kena, Manu Maohi, and Nuku Hiva which resemble geckos, dragons, and giant squids portrayed in a figurative fashion.
Girls could try wearing Fenua Enata or Kea Etua which depict porpoises and turtles in varied patterns. But again, which tattoo you want to wear is completely at your discretion. So feel free to experiment!
History speaks highly of the Tahitian culture and more notedly, Tahitian tattoos. The custom of inking started over 2000 years ago and is still an undying tradition in their society.
In spite of their intricate, painstaking designs and gradual disappearance from modern society, many tattoo artists and enthusiasts are still striving to preserve this classic and exquisite form of body art that paved the way for other successive tattoos.