Practiced and worn by Polynesians, tattoos are now assumed, accepted and valued by society. This is a jump ahead for a country who witnessed a past history in which this art was once prohibited, then reaccepted. Today, it has become a powerful means to reclaim and display one’s identity and individuality.
Once inside the tattoo studio, a female silhouette comes into view. She is lying on a bed similar to those used in hospitals. An incessant buzzing is the only noise in the room. It comes from a needle connected to an electric machine. For the past two hours, Simeon Huuti, one of the best professional tattoo artists in the country, has been tattooing the arm of 26-year-old Fetia. The young woman has come to get a tattoo completed that was started seven years before. Fetia, appearing to withstand the pain quite well, explains with a small smile, “In the beginning, it started out as a simple arm band. Little by little, it took up my entire arm, then my hand.” Simeon Huuti, her tattooist, claims that, “The women are much stronger than the men.” Huuti comes from a well-known family of artists originally from the Marquesas Islands. For Fetia, the pain is necessary, as it is part of the process. “You have to earn your tattoo. You must be worthy,” confides the young woman. “Not only does it reflect a personal message, but even more, the tattooist inscribes his art on your body. It is something very unique that you can be very proud to wear!”
Much like Fetia, it is common today to see young people walking through the streets of Tahiti, proudly displaying impressive Polynesian tattoos. Long before it was fashionable, tattooing was above all a way to express oneself and affirm one’s identity. Today, tattooing, called tatau in reo tahiti (Tahitian language) is just as much a piece of identity for the person wearing it as for the person who creates it. Fetia states, “You inscribe who you are on your skin. When all is said and done, once you get your tattoo, it is a quest for identity to show who you are.” In fact, Fetia selected her motifs from a reference book called Te Patutiki, which includes terms related to Marquesan tattooing.
Besides family lands and her roots, the young woman wanted to imprint motifs on her body that represent strength and courage, two virtues of a warrior. “In the Marquesas, black bands represent strength,” 36-year-old Huuti reveals, “Fetia was one of the first girls to go back to this kind of very visible, very traditional motif, which is my speciality.” After years of practice, Huuti is an expert in this tradition now considered a highly valued art form in French Polynesia.
The comeback of the Polynesian tattoo is quite recent. In fact, just fifteen years ago, tattooing was looked down upon in French Polynesia. In order to understand this, we must go back to the beginning of the 19th century. The missionaries, with the blessing of the Tahitian King Pomare II, had prohibited the practice of tattooing that was once strongly rooted in Polynesian traditions and culture. The prohibition remained in the collective unconscious, and for a long time afterwards, was still enrooted within societal values despite the law’s repeal.
Even though the 1980s witnessed French Polynesia valorize a true return to culture, language and Polynesian arts, Polynesian tattooing had quite a journey resurrecting from the ashes due to the bias of well-respected people within the community. At the time, western tattooing was fashionable. Polynesians preferred the designs that came from somewhere else. They were easier to wear since they were more accepted by society. Only a handful of people within French Polynesian culture finally managed to bring back Polynesian tattooing within its traditional forms.
This is why parents of children who sport large Polynesian tattoos comprise the part of the population that is not tattooed. If they are tattooed, then the tattoo remains discrete. Fetia, who reclaims her Polynesian roots through wearing her tattoos on her body, muses, “My mother has a tiny tattoo on her ankle and it is not a local one. She doesn’t really show it because she isn’t proud of it. Whereas me, I want to show mine off so I put it where everyone can see it!” This young woman is “demie,” which is a local term in French Polynesia for someone whose parents are mixed European and Polynesian descent, which is most often the case for current day French Polynesians.
Just like Fetia, Vaihere and Heifara, 29 and 27 years old, are Polynesians mixed with other ethnicities: Chinese and American. This brother and sister decided to get the same motif tattooed down their spines in order to symbolize their fraternity. They are from a large, blended family yet they have the same mother and father. They decided to inscribe this unique bond on their bodies with a local tattoo done by Patu, a talented tattooist whose studio is close to the Faa’a airport. “It was important that the motifs are from here because we were raised with the Polynesian way of life. Our souls are Polynesian,” Heifara explains before his sister interrupted: “Polynesian tattoos comprise an identity, and more often, we affirm our identity through fighting for our culture, our art and our language,” claims the young woman. Vaihere works at Papeete’s City Hall and didn’t hesitate to show her tattoos when the Overseas Minister came to the fenua (country) in March. “I had a special backless dress made so it would show my tattoo. This is a way to show our culture and way of life to this representative of State,” she added. As an ori Tahiti dancer (Tahitian dance), she first got tattoos to fit her craft. Today, French Polynesian traditional dance is one of the main conveyors of the tattoo revival.
A return to the culture
Almost all dancers in the troupes in French Polynesia are tattooed; it is quite rare to see the contrary. “The two are inextricably linked. Tattoos give you the power to dance,” explains Huuti, who is not only a tattooist, but has been a dancer since he was six years old and is the current director of the Marquesan troupe, Taki Toa. Like him, a number of tattooists perform in dance. This is not only a means to get close to the culture, but also a way to perfect their art. “I used to draw a lot. I tattooed a little, but not professionally. It is the dancers who got me started through asking me to tattoo them,” says Patu. After years of roaming the streets of Papeete, he decided to take control of his life through reconnecting with his identity and culture. Mirenda, a 29-year-old dancer in the troupe O Tahiti E, states, “With dance, you have to enter into the culture. Tattooing provides a means to immerse yourself to find your identity.” This young woman who dedicates her life to dancing, has half of her back tattooed as well as her forearm and her hand. A professional tattooist from Moorea named Tommy performed the work. Mirenda adds, “I want my tattoos to be seen when I dance and be in sync with my movements.” For the tattoo on her forearm that also covers her hand, the young woman was inspired by the movements of the ’aparima dance: apa meaning gestures and rima, the hand. As to her back tattoo, this beautiful vahine wished to frame a swordfish that was tattooed beneath her spine when she was younger. “It made me very self-conscious when I danced,” Mirenda says. She chose local motifs to inscribe over these tattoos. This choice, as well as a reclaiming of identity, is “a way to be cohesive with a French Polynesian practice. As such, dancers are in osmosis with the dance,” explains Viri Taimana, director of the Centre des Métiers d’Art de Tahiti (Center for Careers in Tahitian Art).
A living work of art
Many tattooists have come to the Center for Careers in Tahitian Art, and in doing so, have rediscovered the history and culture of their country through sculpture, engraving, weaving and drawing. “Vira taught me a lot, especially about the origins and significance of the motifs,” says Patu, who is a former sculpture student of the Center. Today, tattooists transpose this knowledge onto their clients’ bodies, which become their works of art. “Patu created a magnificent work of art on my body,” claims Hina, 27 years old, who has Marquesan motifs tattooed on her back and thighs that relate to her life, her hardships and her roots. “It is an honor to carry and represent his work,” she says. This young woman presented her tattoos during the Polynesia Tatau Convention that took place in April 2015 at the Musée de Tahiti et des îles. The event, which assembles dozens of international and Polynesian tattoo artists, was met with much enthusiasm. This success has been on the rise since the introduction of the convention in 2012. Whether as a family, in a couple, or alone, Polynesians and visitors don’t miss this annual event. It is a chance to meet the tattoo artists, to get a tattoo and to discover all the new trends. A highlight of the convention is a runway show of the artists’ work. Hina says, “I hid my tattoo until the day of the reveal because I wanted Patu’s work to be a surprise.” Based on the applause she received once she went through the line, this young lady created the effect she desired. However, this stunning vahine who astonished the public with her beauty and grace, was not the only one to surprise the audience with a magnificent, impressive tattoo. “Today, people who are tattooed consider their bodies to be something to be exposed, like a living sculpture,” explains Viri Taimana, who was on this year’s panel of judges. These “living sculptures” reflect the work of the tattooists who this year presented pieces that were traditional as well as modern. “There is a lot of innovation with this art form. There is true talent,” states Viri Taimana, “However, as far as motifs, you see a lot of traditional ones, especially Marquesan.” Recognized and diffused thanks to the work of explorers Karl Von Den Steinen and the Handy team at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, Marquesan motifs have always had a lot of success. “Today, Marquesan motifs have been seen a lot. Tattooists have explored their composition and their transitions. From now on, we should also practice the motifs from other island groups as well as be innovative and create new forms,” added Vira Taimana. This man of the culture observes his country and tells its story. “Why not draw our species of fish and birds? The culture needs to be alive. We must not remain closed within the pages of a book.” Although today, this culture is finally within reach, lived, reclaimed and accepted by French Polynesian society.
Tattooing rooted in society
In the streets, on stage, at home or at work, tattoos are everywhere—visible, seen and admired. “People often stop me in the street to congratulate me on the beauty of my tattoo and they ask me who did it,” explains Fetia, who today no longer notices the looks of passersby and admirers while she is walking around town. As a lab technician, this young woman who is also a pole dancer, has never been a victim of discrimination or inappropriate comments. For her, like others, to be tattooed is something normal. “Most of our employees are tattooed,” declares Fetia’s supervisor. “It is almost an anomaly to not be tattooed.” This was something unconscionable just fifteen years ago. “If employees were tattooed then they were placed in positions in which they did not have contact with the public. Today, it is not even an issue,” explains the manager of a supermarket in Punaauia, who is also tattooed. Gaël, 37 years old and one of the store’s cashiers, has seven tattoos on both arms and on her left leg all the way up to her hip. This mother, originally from the Austral Islands and Brittany, attracts the curiosity of customers. “They stop to admire the tattoos and ask the name of the tattoo artist! Sometimes, they tell me about theirs,” muses Gaël, who very much appreciates these moments of exchanges with customers. Besides being admired, Polynesian tattooing is now very much an integral part of the society. “Clips of full body tattoos were broadcast on television after the convention,” states Viri Taimana, an astute observer. “This was unthinkable even ten years ago. This is all new and quite encouraging for the future.”