Polynesian Resource Center

Dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Polynesian Art and Culture

Choosing a Polynesian Tattoo

Polynesian Resource Center

Celebrities and their tattoos are always news so we may as well use them as examples of how to and how not to chose a tattoo. Dwayne Johnson who as an American Samoan could have chosen a Samoan arm and shoulder tattoo but he didn't, he decide to go to Frances Arbie a professional Tattoo Artist from Manila in the Philippines and she constructed what is basically a Marquesan style tattoo. Now personally I like his tattoo and he wears it well, but it is a non-authentic Polynesian tattoo as you would expect as Frances Arbie is plainly not Polynesian. Like buying Polynesian Art the main problem is finding a Polynesian tattoo that is authentic, if that is you care about your tattoo being authentic. A quick 'Polynesian Tattoo' search on Goggle Images will produce hundreds of designs where Samoan tattoo is mixed with Maori, or Maori tattoos mixed with Marquasan. The level of ignorance is staggering and most websites marketing these designs also have authoritative sounding information that is usually usually spurious or downloaded from Wikapedia.

Now 99.99% of humanity do not know or possibly care if Dwayne Johnson's tattoo is authentic, and he certainly picked a better tattoo than David Beckham's which are just a tasteless jumble of awful Euro/Japanese design that only manages to be kitsch. This is surprising because Beckham is the poster boy of Metrosexuality who certainly inherited good looks amongst his other assets. But if Beckham had got a hold of a great Polynesian tattoo artist then his tattoos would have enhanced his already great looks rather than his current tattoos which seriously detract from them as well as calling his taste into question.

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And this is the problem with tattoos their very nature as art inked into the skin cause the tattoo to be permanently identified with the personality, looks and taste of the wearer.

Getting a tattoo has always appealed to the young, which is natural as this occurs just when a human being is seeking to establish a sense of their identity. This is legitimate and not unimportant, and entirely in keeping with not only Polynesian tradition but most indigenous tattoo being part of a wider passage into an adult world. How important this was is best understood by looking at the two best Polynesian tattoo cultures; the Maori of New Zealand and the Marquesans both of whom tattoo'ed the face, the head being the most sacred part of the human body in Polynesian Culture and in New Zealand these facial tattoo or moko were so much a part of the personal identity of an individual that Maori in the post contact period drew there facial tattoo on treaty documents as their signature.

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My advice for anyone seeking an authentic Polynesian tattoo whether male or female is think small. A tattoo to me should express individuality and be beautiful as befits its role as body enhancement. But it should also interest and fascinate the viewer, which is best achieved by the tattoo having a back story or narrative, one that suggests the owner of the tattoo is a person of taste and intelligence. For this it is unnecessary to have a large design but rather a small interesting and authentic design. Perhaps it might help if I share with the reader the image I like to carry in my head when I design and carve pendants. I like to imagine the purchaser is a surfer, because surfing is the most stripped down of sports. A pair of shorts and a surf board. There is almost no adornment to the appearance except the physical appearance of a water sports physic which is usually the most pleasing physical shape of all sports.

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A small tattoo or a neck pendant are really the only addition a surfer can practically make to their appearance. Both will not affect the physical action of the surfer and both look natural on a surfer's tanned body. Both thanks to the stripped down nature of the surfer will be instantly obvious. This mental image really helps me design a pendant with maximum impact for the smallest practical size. And the pendant must achieve everything a perfect Polynesian tattoo would achieve being at once beautiful, interesting and telling in terms of speaking attractively of the personality and taste of the wearer.

For a first tattoo my advice is chose something authentic, rare, beautiful, interesting and making the wearer deserving respect would be something few people have ever heard of ; the ancient rock art of the South Island of New Zealand. These are an unexplained enigma dated probably to very beginning of Polynesian immigration to New Zealand somewhere around the 14th century AD, and this little image probably represents the Haast Eagle a now extinct eagle with an eight foot wing span. Interestingly this design which I chose long for this article long before writing it turned out to be transposed off the cave wall by my best friend; Yann Pierre Montelle.

However, if someone wants something wholly original in a large tattoo they could do no better than copy John Webber's drawing intitled Chief of Bora Bora from December 1777, but is actually of a man from Rurutu whom he met in the Society Islands on Captain Cook's third and fatal expedition to the Pacific. This tattoo does not exist in the world, so the first person to have it tattooed on their body can claim without question to be truly unique and never need worry that their tattoo is in dubious taste.


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