By Chris McBeath

The canvas of his entire head was magnificently adorned, its shiny surface a mosaic of intriguing lines, curlicues and sacred design. The effect was so mesmerizing that I found myself staring — hypnotised by this ethereal being.

Ornamental beauty

But in the remote Marquesas Islands, body art is as captivating as it always was and, as it’s enjoying an almost frenzied renaissance as seekers discover its authenticity. Traveling here is like retracing the discoveries of The Bounty of Captain Cook, and nowhere are they better seen than aboard the Aranui III, the only passenger freighter of its kind to visit these island outposts in the South Pacific. Many Marquesan crew members display exotic intriguing inky motifs – around their girth, across their sun-browned backs, or in the case of our bar tender, a provocative tendril that curled from behind her ear, flashing towards her cheek and down the nape of her neck.

Sacred Process

There was a time when a new tattoo invoked great ceremony and expense. A special house was built where the recipient received and rested between applications and all those involved were placed under a special tabu (spell). Once the tuhuna patu tiki (tattoo artist) and his assistants had completed the process, the house was burned, the tabu lifted and a feast followed. If a chief were tattooed, then the occasion also demanded a human sacrifice. And it was this, more than anything that enabled the missionaries to condemn the practice of tattooing to virtual extinction.

The process was also far more painful than today’s reality. The tahuna would beat a comb-like instrument of sharpened bone, shell or shark’s teeth into the skin and then rub the open wound with indelible ink made from the ashes of burned coconut almonds. Chanting in syncopation to the rhythm of his tapping, the artist invoked a spiritual dimension to his work — the word tattoo is derived from the Tahitian word tatau, meaning to hit repeatedly.

Rites of Passage

While a man’s first tattoo was a rite of passage into adult-hood, subsequent designs would depict his courage in battle, family genealogy, rank, fertility, or special events in his life. Often, chiefs and warriors were so covered in tattoos that their bodies appeared blue at a distance. Tattoos were also designed as protection against evil spirits which the ancients believed could enter the body through any of its orifices. Consequently, the mouth, nose, eyes, ears and genitals were regularly tattooed.

For young girls, a tattoo on their right hand indicated they were ready to prepare a meal for the community. Then, upon reaching puberty, they were again tattooed with heavy black patches on their buttocks; the markings signalled that the elders had granted permission for her to engage in intercourse. As she grew older, these designs not only became more decorative but they were an important to her selecting a mate. If she wanted sex, she simply lifted her bark-cloth skirt to the man in question to communicate her desire and hoped her designs did the rest.

A New Age for an Ancient Language

Although modern-day tattoos have more to do with fashion than sexual invitation, their cultural heritage is making a come back, ironically, all thanks to missionary Karl Von Steinen. Because of his notes and sketches of over 400 designs, today’s artists are recreating the ancient language of tatau. Stylized plants and vivid geometric patterns are finding are finding their way onto the soft brown canvasses of Polynesian skin; and sacred elements of nature such as turtles, birds and dogs are remembering a collective history of spiritual connection.

So it was that I caught myself staring this living sculpture, watching the artistry of his face moving with his every expression. And as I stared, I realized that this unique Marquesan art inspires a deeper consciousness of beauty. His face bore witness to the magic of an earlier time; and through him, the ancients lived again in a mythical union of body, spirit and mind.

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Header Image by Jean Frederic Pineau from Pixabay
All other images by Chris McBeath