Polynesia and the art of the needle

Arun Sood introduces his short film about Tavita Manea, a tattoo artist in French Polynesia

Tavita Manea is an artist and dancer who lives on the French Polynesian island of Taha’a, located among the Society Islands in the Southern Pacific Ocean. Though he might seem to embody the image of an 18th century tattooed ‘maohi’; his life, tattoos and work are as much informed by Pacific-European exchanges as they are from an ancient indigenous culture.

The exploratory voyages of Captian James Cook in 1769 brought Polynesian tattooing into wider European consciousness for the first time, as his men encountered islanders covered with markings that came to be known as ‘tattoos’ – deriving from the Tahitian onomatopoeic term tatau meaning to ‘mark’ or ‘strike’. Polynesia became synonymous with the image of the ‘tattooed savage’, encapsulated most famously by Sydney Parkinson’s 1769 sketch titled The Head of a New Zealander, which featured a man with full facial markings.

In the past few decades, European perceptions of tattoos have changed drastically, leading to a sharp increase in both popularity and social acceptability. With this has developed a new interest in Polynesian tattooing, as artists began adapting, modifying and tattooing Pacific designs predominantly in – though not restricted to – Europe and North America. Interestingly, as the art of tattoo developed and evolved in the ‘West’, American and European styles also infiltrated into the culture of Polynesian tattooing, manifesting in a mutual process of dual exchange and influence.

New Pacific encounters and global relations, it seems, continue to influence and pervade tattooing practice in the Polynesian islands.