“Tattoo History” by S. Gilbert (Part 2)

Okay, so some of you know me and some of you don’t. I hope the ones that do would categorize me as “open-minded”, but not “out there”. I’d like to assure the ones that don’t, that this is the case. Now, you can read on…

I got my tattoo last December. I will always remember the moment that I stood in front of my bathroom mirror and studied it for the first time…the strangest feeling immediately and completely overwhelmed me. It’s hard to put into words, but it was similar to that feeling you get when you come home after being away for awhile or when you are reconnected to someone who you have been separated from for far too long. It was a blend of familiarity, relief and happiness. I remember hearing inside my head “Finally!” and knowing to my core that my tattoo was supposed to be on my body. I was pretty taken aback…this was coming from somewhere deep in my subconscious. I instantly remembered what happened while recently reading James Michener’s book Hawaii…I had an intense connection to the Tahitian tribe (the ancestors of the native Hawaiians). When Michener wrote about the way they lived, their spirituality, and their belief system, I marveled at how it was exactly the way I think and I have absolutely no cultural connection with anything Polynesian. There were other things too…all my life, I’ve known that the way I feel when I hear tribal-style drumming is far from “normal”. It moves me…transports me to another place. I have to dance. And, the way I feel when I’m in Kauai has nothing to do with being a tourist…it’s like I belong in a place like this. (I remember having this exact same feeling on my honeymoon in Tahiti 20 years ago, but I shoved it down to a place I kept hidden until recently.) When I put all these things together – here’s where you have to remember that I’m not “out there”! – I began to wonder if my soul had been recycled at some point in time. Was it possible that it had previously resided on some remote Polynesian island? Well, if it did, it was having a damn good time dancing to those tribal drums next to the ocean! I had never even thought about reincarnation before (I was too busy being a suburban mom), but I do believe I’m going to be doing some investigating…

Now you know why Chapter 2 – “Polynesia” – in Tattoo History was of particular interest to me…

According to Wikipedia, Polynesia “is a subregion of Oceania, comprising a large grouping of over 1,000 islands scattered over the central and southern Pacific Ocean.” It includes, but is not limited to, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Tahiti, the Marquesas, Easter Island, and Hawaii. The ancient Polynesians were far from savages…they were deeply spiritual, navigated unbelievable distances using the stars as their guide, and were sophisticated artists.

When I started reading, I was disappointed – but not surprised – to find out that very little is known about tattooing in Polynesia and what little is known is from the perspective of the Europeans, not the natives. I have never wanted one of my three wishes – to time travel backward (never forward) – to be granted so badly! It’s not a surprise that Steve Gilbert – and many others – proclaim Polynesian tattooing as “the most intricate and skillful tattooing in the ancient world.” Sophisticated geometric designs were started during young adulthood (younger than today’s young adults) and expanded throughout a lifetime until they covered a person’s entire body. Both men and women were tattooed, but for different reasons and with different designs.

Why were the Polynesians so advanced in the arts? The theory is that in addition to desire and ability, they had time. Lots and lots of it. Because life was easy for them living in “Paradise” – no struggles for food and geographical protection from predators, enemies and disease – they could devote themselves to art. According to SG, “Everything they made was decorated: canoes, bowls, war clubs and tools. Even their bodies were punctured with elaborate designs.” I can definitely relate…

How did they do it – and as well as today’s tattoo artists who benefit from technology? They started with a bone, which was chiseled into a “comb-like series of pointed teeth” and attached it to a wood handle. They mixed soot and water together to make black ink. Add a small mallet into the mix and they had all that they needed to create masterpieces. There are still Polynesian tattoo artists who will only tattoo using this ancient method.

Although some early European visitors were enlightened, most were missionaries who viewed tattooing as evil because it was an outward symbol of the Polynesians’ superstitious and savage religion. Later, European settlers viewed tattooing as a resistance to their ways so it was outlawed. Thank God for rebels! When James Cook returned to Europe, people saw members of his crew decorated with Polynesian tattoos and a fad was started. The first tattoo artists were former sailors who had observed the native artists, practiced it on the ships, and opened up shops when they got back home.

Since getting my tattoo, I wondered how such a beautiful – and widespread – ancient art became trivialized as rebellious and distasteful by mainstream society. Now, I get it…because it was a threat to Christianity and the “Western way”, which were perceived as superior to every other religion and culture. I also understand more of that feeling that washed over me when I first looked at my tattoo…in addition to being a possible connection to a recycled soul, I was appreciating that it was an outward sign that I don’t buy into this narrow-minded opinion. And, that I’m a bit of a rebel :)…

For those of you who are interested, here is a long excerpt from the book (p. 26-27)…it’s a first-hand account of Polynesians and tattooing written in 1813 by Georg H. von Langsdorff in Voyages and Travels in Various Parts of the World.

“The most remarkable and interesting manner which the South-sea islanders have of ornamenting their naked bodies consists in punctuation, or, as they call it, tattooing. This kind of decoration, so common among many nations of the earth, merits greater attention fron travelers than it has hitherto received. It is undoubtedly very striking, that nations perfectly remote from each other, who have no means of intercourse whatever, and according to what appears to us never could have had any, should yet be all agreed in this practice.

Among all the known nations of the earth, none has carried the art of tattooing to so high a degree of perfection as the inhabitants of Washington’s Islands [the Marquesas]. The regular designs with which the bodies of the men of Nukuhiva are punctured from heat to foot supplies in some sort the absence of clothing; for, under so warm a heaven, clothing would be insupportable to them. Many people here seek as much to obtain distinction by the symmetry and regularity with which they are tattooed, as among us by the elegant manner in which they are dressed; and although no real elevation is designated by the greater superiority of these decorations, yet as only persons of rank can afford to be at the expense attendant upon any refinement in the ornament, it does become in fact a badge of distinction.

The operation of tattooing is performed by certain persons, who gain their livelihood from it entirely, and I presume that those who perform it with the greatest dexterity, and evince the greatest degree of taste in the disposition of the ornaments, are as much south after as among us a particularly good tailor. This much, however, must be said, that the choice made is not a matter of equal indifference with them as it is with us; for if the punctured garment be spoiled in the making, the mischief is irreparable, and it must be worn with all its faults the whole life through.”

The rest of the excerpt is a fascinating account of the tattooing of the chief’s son and details of the local tattoo designs. This is a GREAT book…click on the link on the right to buy it (although I wish I got royalties, I do not!).

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