body art the history and significance l.
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body art the history and significance

Body Art: The history and significance.

Tattoos are a very old form of body art and have been practiced from a very long time in civilized human history. The history of tattoos is very ancient and seems to be of thousands of years old and even before the birth of Christ. The recorded indication of tattoos comes from the ancient Egypt where wall paintings as old as 2000 BC have been suggesting the use of tattoos in the ancient Egyptian society.


Mummies of dancers and royal concubines have geo metric designs tattooed on their chests, shoulders, arms, abdomens and thighs. In the New Kingdom, dancers, musicians and servant girls occasionally had a tiny representation of the god Bes tattooed on their thighs as a good luck charm.

origin of the word

Origin of the word:

The Polynesian word tatao, which means to tap, can be the originator of this word though researchers suggest an Tahitian word tatu which means to mark something to be the distant ancestor of the modern word tattoo.

somoan tattoo another historical leader in body art

Somoan Tattoo, another historical leader in body art.

In Samoa, the tradition of applying tattoo, or tatau, by hand has been unbroken for over two thousand years. Tools and techniques have changed little. The skill is often passed from father to son, each tattoo artist, or tufuga, learning the craft over many years of serving as his father's apprentice.


There were few Samoan men who refused the traditional pe'a, an intricate tattoo that covered their body from mid-torso to the knees. The artist would use a mallet to tap the teeth of the ink-laden comb into the men's flesh, following only simple guide marks.


Those who could not endure the pain and abandoned their tattooing were left incomplete, wearing their mark of shame throughout their life.

The permanent marks left by the tattoo artists would forever celebrate their endurance and dedication to cultural traditions.

tattoo as culture

Tattoo as culture.

According to mythology, the two sons of the God Taユaroa -Mata Arhu and Tu Raユi poユ- found this art decorative and decided to teach it to humans. As there is no writing in the Polynesian culture, Polynesians used this art full of distinctive signs to express their identity and personality. Tattooing was used to identify your status in a hierarchical society : sex, social status and rank as well as family clans differentiation.

social acceptance and mythology

Social acceptance and mythology.

Tattoo was not only used for social purposes but it was also considered as a good protection against evil spirits. It was also used in rites of passage to the adult life for teenagers -around 12 years. During this feast, the young men would show their tattoos as a proof of the accomplishment of their learning, prior to be fully admitted in the adults clan and recognized by the community. This step was compulsory to enter the world of men.



This art was ruled by strict laws and it reached the entire Polynesian society over the 5 archipelagoes. It could only be practiced by tattoo masters, a highly respected profession that required a long period of learning and training.

polynesian tattoo today

Polynesian tattoo today.

After it was forbidden by missioners, the art of tattooing completely disappeared and it only came back in the 80’s thanks to the notes and sketches of over 400 drawings made by missionary Karl Von Steinen. Indeed, it had been totally forgotten !Today, you will find many places to get tattooed in French Polynesia. The most popular and appreciated signs are the tiki, the turtle, the lizard (gecko), the ray as well as a lot of specific Marquesas designs. The first international festival of tattooing was organized in April 2000 on the sacred island of Raiatea. It gathered 50 tattoo masters from all over the world and encountered a big success.