Papeete has no shortage of tattoo shops. We canvased the city over several days, stepping in one after the next, looking for inspiration and hoping to meet an artist we could entrust to create permanent drawings on our skin. We leafed through portfolios of more than a dozen artists. We weren’t taking the task of selecting a tattooist lightly…
Art + culture
Throughout history, tattoos served important purposes for Polynesian men and women. Rites of passage were marked by historic symbols, which were passed from generation-to-generation by revered tattooists. The symbols conveyed lineage, social rank, accomplishments, and other qualities important in a hierarchical culture. The Rapa Nui people who inhabit the island comprising the easternmost point of the Polynesian triangle (i.e., Easter Island), are believed to have developed Oceania’s only written language, a hieroglyphic script that has never been successfully deciphered. Still, tattoos were an important part of culture.
Like many aspects of traditional life among South Pacific cultures, the art of tattooing or “tatau”, was nearly destroyed as Christian missionaries who arrived in the South Pacific in the late 1700s chastised the practice, which utilized bone and animal teeth to illustrate symbols over much of the body, as barbaric and immoral. As the art that had been an integral part of Polynesian culture for millennia was stifled, some symbols were lost over time and fewer people retained the skills to tattoo. In the 1980s, the art form experienced a revival, as cultural practices were reclaimed by Polynesian people. During colonization, some island groups were able to preserve the artform more effectively than others, which has influenced why certain styles are particularly prominent today. Polynesian tattoos, particularly those of Marquesan (French Polynesia) and Maori (New Zealand) styles, are now recognizable worldwide. In 2014, a documentary called Tatau, la Culture d’un Art (Tattoo, the culture of an art) recounted some of this history. Unfortunately, I was unsuccessful in tracking down the full documentary with subtitles, but the trailer can be viewed here and is worth a watch.
After much ado, we found a wonderful artist who agreed to spend the better part of a day sharing symbols of his culture to commemorate our South Pacific voyage…wind, waves, stars, moon, sea creatures, family, and our unity as a couple. He also included several symbols important to him, namely hand and nose of tiki. He designed our tattoos individually, drawing them freehand before needling them on our forearms.
Perhaps not unlike the stories and symbols that were lost when the practice of tattooing was forbidden, so, too, are lost the details of our life story when I fail to write them down. Sadly, the name of the artist who designed our tattoos and left his mark indefinitely on our bodies has slipped from my mind. The unfortunate reality of memory is some particulars fade away, while others don’t. I feel quite badly that I cannot recall his name or the name of his shop. Our tattoos mean a great deal to us, and we wish we could give credit to his work here. The artist who worked with us was 25 years old and had been born in the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia. His style is a combination of traditional and contemporary. He shared a shop with his uncle, which was located on the second floor of a fairly nondescript building on a backstreet in Papeete. There was minimal signage and the stairs leading to the shop were poorly lit, an environment that hardly hinted at the immense talent busy at work behind the door. He had won 2nd place in the preeminent Polynesian tattooing competition in 2016, was married to a woman named Jessica (I remember that detail for obvious reasons!), and was going to have his second baby in late 2016…if you recognize his face, please send us his name.