Archaeologists have found evidence of tattoos dating back to the bronze age, 5 thousand years ago. However, the first recorded use of the word comes from the 1700’s as explorer Captain James Cook travelled around Polynesia. These tribal tattoos are still seen today not only in Polynesian countries but across all cultures.
Now the tattoos have been co-opted and meanings of specific designs have blurred, but originally each indelible mark had a purpose that helped identify people. It announced their tribe, their social status, and was used to give warriors power and spirituality.
The artistry displayed by the tattoo masters of New Zealand, Tahiti, and Samoa wowed their European visitors. Sailors would return with these elaborate body art and soon the Polynesian tattoo became popular in Europe. Much of the artistry stemmed from the culture’s wood carving skills. The complex totems, and carvings boat makers and religious leaders created from wood would then be transferred to the skin. Much of the old traditional tools and methods have been replaced by faster, safer, and less painful tattoo methods but the creativity of the designs still hold true.
Of course another large part of the history of Polynesian tribal tattoos is religious. They believed the art of tattooing was handed down to humans from their Creator Ta’aroa. The tattooing was ceremonial and only performed by the religious leaders. These tattoos marked rites of passage and successes in battle. Much like a soldier’s chest decorated with medals, a Polynesian soldier’s chest would literally be decorated. In Samoa, all males were tattooed once they stopped growing so the designs wouldn’t stretch.
While once designed to separate tribes from different islands in Polynesia, now the designs have blended to include Maori, Samoan, and other Polynesian styles into what many in the rest of the world would consider its own iconic style.