Tribal Tattoo Series
I’ve always been fascinated by tattoos, I grew up admiring both my mother and my fathers tattoo’s. So as soon as I became of age, I got my first tattoo and immediately fell in love with the art of tattooing and also the fact that having tattoo’s gave me the opportunity to express myself with beautiful pieces on my skin, all over my body.
But then I started noticing non-Indigenous people having what they like to call ‘Tribal Tattoos’, being an Indigenous Women, this seriously bothered me. Especially when these non-Indigenous people felt that they were an ally of ours, even though they know absolutely nothing about the issues our people face, and know nothing about our people, our history, traditions or culture. Yet, because they liked a piece of art that resembled Indigenous art, got it tattoo’ed on their body and labeled it a ‘Tribal Tattoo’, they think so highly of themselves as a supporter of Indigenous People. *eye roll*
Personally, I didn’t know much about Indigenous Tribal Tattoos, so this intrigued me to do some research to possibly educate people about what I’ve learned in hopes that non-Indigenous People would stop claiming to have a ‘Tribal Tattoo’, and help put a stop to this very annoying trend, as well as educate people about the origin of the practice of tattooing, most importantly people with tattoos that voice uneducated and negative opinions about Indigenous People.
With that being said, I thought I’d create a series of articles about a few different Indigenous Tribes and their traditions surrounding the art of tattooing. The first tribe for this series features the Polynesian people.
The Polynesian people are not just one tribe, but a very complex one. There is great debate over the origins of the Polynesian people. The Polynesians include Marquesans, Samoans, Niueans, Tongans, Cook Islanders, Hawaiians, Tahitians, and Maori. The similarities within the language, culture, society and customs is why the peoples are all regarded Polynesians. To be honest, I feel that most of the ‘Tribal Tattoos’ that I see on non-Indigenous people, seem the resemble that of a Polynesian Tribal Tattoo.
Polynesian Tribal Tattoo Knowledge
Each Tribe and Nation has their own reasoning behind their tattoos as well as different places on the body where tattoos are expected to be, also depending on gender. In Polynesian Tribes the men are permitted to have tattoos all over their body, particularly the face since the head was considered to be the most sacred part of the body. Women on the other hand, were only allowed to receive tattoos on their lips, ears, hands, arms and feet.
I’ve also learned that it is believed that girls would receive tattoos at the age of 12, as this is when they were permitted to take on more responsibilities within family and tribe.
Unlike in present day, when people simply walk into the tattoo parlour and get a tattoo of whatever design they choose, our Indigenous Tribes held their art as something that is sacred and in a lot of cases, tattoo’s had to be earned before any ink was put to flesh. The Polynesian warriors used tattoos to designate strength and power. The more tattoos a tribe member had, the more prominent that person was within the tribe, including their history on the battlefield.
It is also a traditional method for protection and strength along with spiritual power.
Also, Polynesian Tribes believed that the humans learned the art of tattooing from the God of Creation Ta'aroa.
Before a Tribe member would get a tattoo done, a person would fast for a fixed amount of time as well as abstaining from sexual intercourse or contact with women. Afterwards a shaman would perform a spiritual cleansing to prepare the Tribe member about the receive the tattoo, for the tattoo itself. After the body was cleansed the shaman adorned the Tribe member with a design according to the Tribe members genealogy or reflecting the personal achievements within the tribe.
Because tattooing was believed to be a sacred practice the skills that were required to perform the art of tattooing were handed down very carefully to only a select few tribe members in order to keep the tradition as close as possible to its roots.
Unlike some of the more conservative perspectives of present day, it used to be that a person not having tattoos put them at the very bottom of the social chain. This is in part because tattoos depicted accomplishments and victories in battle. That being said, in ancient Polynesian Culture, an individual standing within the tribe who had no ink was very rare.
Many tattoo’s in Indigenous cultures around the world are still done in their originally traditional way using traditional methods. The process of tattooing in Polynesia has not changed much.
First the design was marked and major sections were outlined on the skin usually with charcoal or coloured earth. Then, the master (tattoo artist) began work with the needles. These needles were often made of bird bone, turtle shell, bamboo and occasionally shark teeth. The tattooing itself was a process of multiple taps. To cut the skin and inject the ink the needles were mounted on the end of a wooden haft. The soot from a burned candlenut was collected and mixed with a variety of liquids including candlenut oil, sugar cane juice, coconut milk/water and other plant based liquids or water to produce the ink.
I hope you enjoyed this first article for the Tribal Tattoos series. In my opinion the traditions surrounding Tribal Tattoos is truly beautiful. It is one of the many things that make our Indigenous cultures so beautiful. And that is what A Tribe Called Beauty is all about. The beauty within our Indigenous cultures, traditions and teachings! -Bee Millar