Polynesia is a group of islands in Oceania, that located in the central Pacific Ocean. The most famous Polynesian islands are American Samoa, the Hawaiian Islands, Western Samoa, New Zealand (main islands), Cook Islands, Easter Island, Marquesas Islands, Tahiti and Bora Bora. Geographically Polynesia may be described as the islands within a triangle, with its corners at Hawaii, Aoteora (New Zealand) and Easter Island.
Polynesian tattoos are the most ancient type of tattoo art dating back to three thousand years BC. They are regarded as ritual, tribal and religious tattoos, that first of all have totem (protective) nature.
In ancient Polynesia only men were allowed to get tattoos. Intricate designs were placed on wrists, chest, tongue, intimate body parts depending on the social status and rank of the person in the tribe. Later women got tattoos as well.
Maori tattoo design, that is known as “moko”, is the most striking traditional style of Polynesian tattoos. The most prevalent place for this tattoo was a face, that in a result of tattooing turned into a terrible mask. Maori tattoo is different from traditional tattooing in that sense that this kind of tattoo was carved into the skin and then the ink through the special device got into cuts. This technique was similar to woodcarving and was done with a tool resembling chisel or small pick with serrated bone blade. Actually it was a kind of torture that Polynesians endured with great patience, even selflessness in order to look later like real men. Such masks, emphasizing military valor and belligerence of their owners, aimed to intimidate enemies.
Though tribes from different Polynesian islands had their own peculiarities of style, technique and tattoo location on a body, much more common features remained. Thus, the tattoo in Polynesia was meant to be more than just body decoration, it was an ancient tradition of natives, which had ritual nature and religious origin. Tattoos were used to depict the most important information about the person such as his social status in the tribe, family history, the most significant events and spirituality. So, in some way, tattoo was a kind of identity card of its owner. Tattooing usually began when both boys and girls reached the age of puberty. Every island dweller was obliged to have tattoos. Those, who didn’t want to get tattoos, were inflicted a cruel punishment. By looking at tattoos, everyone, who knew and understood their meanings, could get to know the life story of the tattooed person. However, the number of tattoos on the body and their locations conformed to the rigid rules and depended on the social status of the person in native society. So, only upper strata of society, such as chiefs, priests and their nearest relatives, or members of rich families could get various tattoo designs all over the body. At the same time, men annually increased their collection of tattoos, so by old age there were no empty places on their body. People, who belonged to lower strata of society, were allowed to have a limited number of tattoos. Usually, ordinary Polynesian women were applied tattoos only on lips (painted them in black color) and chin, and men were tattooed faces and the area from the waist to knees.
The process of tattooing on Polynesian islands has been a ritual ceremony from ancient times. So only tribal priests were entitled to apply tattoos and therefore, they were held in respect and received generous gifts. Person, while being tattooed, had to comply with varied prohibitions and restrictions which sometimes extended to his relatives and neighbors, who lived in his village. Tattooing procedure took place in specially constructed houses with a great number of rooms and could last for several months . During this time "patients" were not allowed to leave these houses. At the same time, the process of tattooing was accompanied by various outside rituals and ceremonies, sacrifices to the tattoo gods. It was disallowed to lose even one drop of patient’s blood during tattooing and that was achieved by special techniques, indicative of priest’s great skill. Usually tattoo tools were made of shark’s tooth, sea shells, fish or albatross bones, wood and only from the middle of XIX century they became metal.
Method of applying Polynesian tattoo and nature of images are very close to woodcarving, that was native occupation of local population. Therefore this tattoo looks like carved patterns. Also Polynesian tattoo designs are characterized by high complexity and consist of various elements, such as spirals, waves, twisting ribbons, broken and straight lines. It’s obligatory that elements of tattoo patterns on the body have to be symmetric to each other.
Europeans have been interesting in Polynesian tattoos for a long time. But in earlier period it was rather difficult to find some samples of such tattoo patterns, so artists have begun tattooing Polynesian designs only from first half of XX century. At the same time, the art of tattooing became extinct, to a considerable extent because of missionaries, who arrived in Polynesia and began to impose sanctions on tattooing elimination, as they considered this ritual to be wild and pagan. Due to influence of European culture, raising of living standards, cessation of tribal wars, implementation of education system and total change in world view of indigenous Polynesian nations, traditional tattoo has lost its original meaning and is seen, in our time, only as an exotic attraction and a branch of tribal tattoo style.