History of Polynesian Tattooing

by Mauna Kea Galleries

In ancient Polynesian society, nearly all individuals were tattooed with symbols that marked their respective social ranks and incorporated genealogy and significant events that they had undergone. Although the art of Polynesian tattooing was largely lost with the arrival of missionaries at the turn of the 19th century, the practice has been revived over the course of the past few decades. Traditionally, the tattoo was completed with needles carved from bone or tortoise shell and then affixed in varying patterns to wooden handles. The needles were tapped into the skin with another wooden instrument, forcing the “ink,” made from burnt candlenut mixed with water or oil, into the skin.

According to Polynesian mythology, the two sons of Ta’aroa, the god of creation, taught the art of tattooing to humans. Tattoos were completed during religious rituals by priests trained in the both the symbolism of various designs and the technical aspects of administering a tattoo. Before an individual was tattooed, he or she had to complete a period of cleansing through chastity and fasting. The symbols tattooed on the body marked an individual’s place within the social hierarchy of his or her society and were also a record of personal achievement. During the ritual, the individual being tattooed was secured and the priest would chant, tapping the needles into the skin in rhythm. All blood lost during the tattoo process was quickly wiped away to avoid letting it spill to the ground.

Much of our modern understanding of Polynesian design comes from sketches completed by Karl von den Steinen, Arago and others. In addition to social position, the tattoo designs represented a person’s career, land of origin, and notable accomplishments. The designs also granted protection against the gods (protection against natural forces, such as storms) and were tied to good luck in one’s occupation. Traditional designs were closely linked to a person’s “mana,” or spiritual force, which was inherited from ancestors and developed over the course of one’s life. Polynesians received their first tattoo around the age of 12 in a ritual that marked the passage from childhood to adulthood. Tattooing was a sign of both wealth and accomplishment: the more tattoos an individual had, the more money and power he or she possessed. Chiefs and warriors had the most tattoos, and those without any tattoos were considered social outcasts.

To learn more about the rich history of Polynesian tattooing, or about the intricacies and meanings of traditional designs, read Mark Blackburn’s Tattoos from Paradise.

 

Mauna Kea Galleries

Mauna Kea Galleries offers collectors a number of rare and otherwise highly coveted items. Among these are hard-to-find books, including early missionary accounts of Hawaii, Reverend William Ellis’ A Journal of a Tour Around Hawaii, and Isabella Bird’s Six Months in the Sandwich Islands.

Mauna Kea Galleries also features books about the various explorations of the Pacific Ocean, including the famous adventures of Captain Cook and other well-known explorers. In addition, we have 18th century engravings of Hawaii that were once a part of Captain Cook’s third voyage atlas.

Other rare prints and engravings include botanical and wildlife records and vintage maps of both the Hawaiian Islands and other Polynesian areas. The large collection of artifacts gathered by Mauna Kea Galleries includes poi pounders, calabashes, ulu maika, kukui nut lamps, kappa, tapa beaters, weapons, and hooks. Recently, the gallery came into possession of an 18th century game piece and two 18th century pounders.

Mauna Kea Galleries also has a variety of artifacts from Easter Island, Tonga, Tahiti, Fiji, Samoa, New Zealand, the Cook Islands, and the Marquesas. A specialty of Mauna Kea Galleries, we have an extensive collection of Koa furniture. The most popular of Hawaiian woods, Koa is durable and resistant to insects while also maintaining a degree of softness and malleability. Since it is so easily worked and looks gorgeous when finished, Koa quickly became one of the most popular woods throughout Hawaii and beyond.

Mauna Kea Galleries offers a number of Koa furniture pieces that embody both beauty and usability. All of the items offered through Mauna Kea Galleries are available on its website, MaunaKeaGalleries.com, as well as information about ordering or locating any pieces missing from your collection.

Mauna Kea Galleries Rare Hawaiian Items

Mauna Kea Galleries offers collectors a number of rare and otherwise highly coveted items. Among these are hard-to-find books, including early missionary accounts of Hawaii, Reverend William Ellis’ A Journal of a Tour Around Hawaii, and Isabella Bird’s Six Months in the Sandwich Islands. Mauna Kea Galleries also features books about the various explorations of the Pacific Ocean, including the famous adventures of Captain Cook and other well-known explorers. In addition, we have 18th century engravings of Hawaii that were once a part of Captain Cook’s third voyage atlas. Other rare prints and engravings include botanical and wildlife records and vintage maps of both the Hawaiian Islands and other Polynesian areas. The large collection of artifacts gathered by Mauna Kea Galleries includes poi pounders, calabashes, ulu maika, kukui nut lamps, kappa, tapa beaters, weapons, and hooks. Recently, the gallery came into possession of an 18th century game piece and two 18th century pounders. Mauna Kea Galleries also has a variety of artifacts from Easter Island, Tonga, Tahiti, Fiji, Samoa, New Zealand, the Cook Islands, and the Marquesas. A specialty of Mauna Kea Galleries, we have an extensive collection of Koa furniture. The most popular of Hawaiian woods, Koa is durable and resistant to insects while also maintaining a degree of softness and malleability. Since it is so easily worked and looks gorgeous when finished, Koa quickly became one of the most popular woods throughout Hawaii and beyond. Mauna Kea Galleries offers a number of Koa furniture pieces that embody both beauty and usability. All of the items offered through Mauna Kea Galleries are available on its website, MaunaKeaGalleries.com, as well as information about ordering or locating any pieces missing from your collection.

Polynesian Tattooing

In ancient Polynesian society, nearly all individuals were tattooed with symbols that marked their respective social ranks and incorporated genealogy and significant events that they had undergone. Although the art of Polynesian tattooing was largely lost with the arrival of missionaries at the turn of the 19th century, the practice has been revived over the course of the past few decades. Traditionally, the tattoo was completed with needles carved from bone or tortoise shell and then affixed in varying patterns to wooden handles. The needles were tapped into the skin with another wooden instrument, forcing the “ink,” made from burnt candlenut mixed with water or oil, into the skin.

According to Polynesian mythology, the two sons of Ta’aroa, the god of creation, taught the art of tattooing to humans. Tattoos were completed during religious rituals by priests trained in the both the symbolism of various designs and the technical aspects of administering a tattoo. Before an individual was tattooed, he or she had to complete a period of cleansing through chastity and fasting. The symbols tattooed on the body marked an individual’s place within the social hierarchy of his or her society and were also a record of personal achievement. During the ritual, the individual being tattooed was secured and the priest would chant, tapping the needles into the skin in rhythm. All blood lost during the tattoo process was quickly wiped away to avoid letting it spill to the ground.

Much of our modern understanding of Polynesian design comes from sketches completed by Karl von den Steinen, Arago and others. In addition to social position, the tattoo designs represented a person’s career, land of origin, and notable accomplishments. The designs also granted protection against the gods (protection against natural forces, such as storms) and were tied to good luck in one’s occupation. Traditional designs were closely linked to a person’s “mana,” or spiritual force, which was inherited from ancestors and developed over the course of one’s life. Polynesians received their first tattoo around the age of 12 in a ritual that marked the passage from childhood to adulthood. Tattooing was a sign of both wealth and accomplishment: the more tattoos an individual had, the more money and power he or she possessed. Chiefs and warriors had the most tattoos, and those without any tattoos were considered social outcasts.

To learn more about the rich history of Polynesian tattooing, or about the intricacies and meanings of traditional designs, read Mark Blackburn’s Tattoos from Paradise.

About Mauna Kea Galleries!

Mark Blackburn is a senior certified appraiser and has been buying, selling, and appraising collectibles for more than 30 years. Mark Blackburn brings his experience appraising for New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Honolulu’s Bishop Museums to the items in the Mauna Kea Galleries Collection. Mark Blackburn’s wife, Carolyn Blackburn, founded Mauna Galleries in 1995, and the company remains one of the most prominent sources for Hawaiian collectibles and treasures of all kinds. Rare items including hula lamps, restaurant menus, classic surfboards, and hula dolls attract thousand of visitors to Mauna Kea Galleries’ Honolulu showroom each year. Locals and tourists alike have been amazed by Mauna Kea Galleries’ vast selection of island ephemera. Mauna Kea Galleries sells several varieties of fine Hawaiian apparel and jewelry, from vintage Hawaiian shirts to earrings and necklaces made by Polynesian craftsmen. In addition to their historical value, antique souvenirs and collectables, like postcards and posters, lend vintage charm to a Hawaiian vacation and are often stunning additions to any room’s decor. Hawaiian and Polynesian paintings round out Mauna Kea Galleries’ extensive inventory. Works by John Kelly, D. Howard Hitchcock, and Jules Tavernier are regularly available at Mauna Kea Galleries. Collectors can learn more about Mauna Kea Galleries at www.maunakeagalleries.com.

About Mauna Kea Galleries!

Mauna Kea Galleries

Mauna Kea Galleries

For nearly 15 years, Mauna Kea Galleries has been the leading destination for vintage Hawaiian paintings and Polynesian art objects in the world. Based in Honolulu, Hawaii, Mauna Kea Galleries was founded by Carolyn Blackburn in 1995. Mauna Kea Galleries maintains a diverse inventory of Hawaiian and Polynesian artifacts, including objects from Easter Island, Tonga, Tahiti, Fiji, Samoa, New Zealand, the Cook Islands, Marquesas, and more. Mauna Kea Galleries is known widely for its considerable assortment of Hawaiian and Polynesian paintings, including work by such famed artists as D. Howard Hitchcock, Lionel Walden, Jules Tavernier, Madge Tennent, and John Kelly, among other prominent artists. In addition to its considerable collection of art, Mauna Kea Galleries sells rare jewelry, vintage menus, posters, hula dolls, and more. Mauna Kea Galleries boasts an impressive selection of ancient Hawaiian and Polynesian artifacts. Mauna Kea Galleries is well known for its impressive collection of historical books, such as “Captain Cook’s Voyages,” Reverend William Ellis’ “A Journal of a Tour Around Hawaii,” Isabella Bird’s “Six Months in the Sandwich Islands,” and Margaret Mead’s landmark sociological text “Coming of Age in Samoa.” Mauna Kea Galleries offers appraisal services by Mark Blackburn who has considerable experience in Hawaiian and Polynesian material. An appraiser for more than three decades, Mark Blackburn has performed appraisals for private collectors as well as for prominent museums, such as New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Honolulu’s Mission Houses Museum and Bishop Museum.