That heading hurts!
In the history of Polynesian tattooing Bora Bora occupies a special place.
In 1791 when Captain Edwards arrived in Bora Bora aboard the ‘Pandora’ in search of the mutineers of the ‘Bounty‘ he was surprised & intrigued to find that certain of the island’s men had their penises tattooed. Unbeknown to Edwards at the time the number of those so tattooed related to the fact that tattooing was relatively expensive & as such reserved for the families of chiefs & other community leaders. At least the girls knew at a glance if their partner was important or a liar!
The practice was apparently linked to certain fertility rites in Bora Bora’s culture & it was a practice not reported elsewhere in the islands. There are many stories of ancient Polynesians attesting as to the sexual sensuality of such markings.
For those being tattooed it marked their endurance and dedication to cultural traditions. The pain was extreme and the risk of death by infection was ever present. To back down from tattooing was to risk being labelled a coward; those who could not endure the pain and abandoned their tattooing were left to wear an incomplete tattoo, a mark of shame for the bearer & his family throughout their lives.
Remember that at the time, tattoos were applied using combs of various sizes performing various functions made from human & animal bones & teeth. Ink was made from the burnt remains of nuts from the tia’iri tree & ‘tapped’ into the skin via the teeth of the combs. The tattooing itself took many days to allow for the inflammation to subside. It goes without saying that the tattooing of the scrotum & penis was exceptionally painful (although records show that the pain when being tattooed in the area around the navel was even more difficult to endure).
Tattooing was a sacred ceremony in ancient Polynesia linked to key moments in a Polynesian’s life, including the coming of age, with the placement of tattoos on the body relating to one’s geneology, position in society & one’s achievements. Tattoos were used to transmit knowledge, to teach, to guarantee certain powers & privileges. In recognising one’s background, social standing & success they indeed represented a person’s very identity! At times tattoos were even seen as a means to protect one’s inner energy against evil spirits.
Men were extensively tattooed from early in their teens. Women were tattooed essentially on the hands, arms, feet, ears & lips but the tattooing started earlier – at a very young age, on the inner arms to indicate they could accept food prepared by other than their mother, then on the buttocks upon reaching puberty. Designs were subsequently added atop the buttock tattoos & their are stories of ‘shock’ from missionaries alledging that girls would expose such designs so as to indicate they were ‘ready, willing & able’ to engage in sexual activity.
The missionaries would ban tattooing & seek to enforce the ban through extreme acts of barbarism forcibly tattooing marks on the hands and even the faces of men and women who continued their ancestral customs to indicate the bearer was a ‘criminal’. In extreme cases the missionaries even flayed Tahitians to remove the tattoos!
Despite the efforts of the missionaries, so reliable was the system of tattooing that in years gone by courts have been known to rely upon the tattoos of certain to establish their family links, to determine their rights to lands & so on.
Given the cultural & historical significance of tattoos, the selection of motifs has always been essential for both symbolic & for aesthetic reasons. A shark tooth tattoo, for example, signifies guidance, power & adaptability:
In Bora Bora there are a number of accomplished tattooers; all have substantial detail as to the work they perform. Before being tattooed be sure to consider the cultural significance of what you are to undertake & seek advice on the symbolism of any tattoo that you are seeking to have applied.
There are several well-known tattoers on the island including one on the southern outskirts of Vaitape, another in Matira & the fellow photographed at the top of this report who is based on the road between Vaitape & Matira, not long before Bloody Mary’s.
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