Essays on the Marshallese Past

All Animals are marked and so shall you -
Marshallese Tattoos

In traditional Oceanic cultures tattooing is closely connected to the social and spiritual custom of a population. The motif complex utilised by prehistoric and historic populations in the Pacific covered several art forms, ranging from bark cloth, rock art, pottery (where extant) and wood carving/painting to body ornamentation. In all cases the ornament set was seen as a group identifier, classifying the bearer as distinct from strangers and regional neighbours; it was an visual expression of being Marshallese, Gilbertese, Tongan, . In addition, it functioned as an identifier of subgroups within a population, such as distinguishing chiefly from non-chiefly people.

Body ornamentation comes in three forms: body painting, i.e. the application of paint or mud; pigment tattooing, i.e. the application of pigment under the epidermis; and scar tattooing, i.e. the piercing, slicing or burning of the skin to cause a scar, thus creating a three-dimensional ornament. While body painting is a reversible ornament, the latter two are permanent.

The Tattoo Motifs

Marshallese tattooing has drawn its elements and ideas for motifs from the environment surrounding the Marshallese peopleˆthe sea. Many motifs, for example, are abstract forms of specific fish, or are to represent canoe parts or the canoeˆs movements.

Even more to the point, tattooing in general is called eo, which according to the German ethnographer KrÇmer means the drawing of lines in general, because the lines of the blue-striped or regal angelfish Pygoplites diacanthus) (see figure below), also called eo, were considered to be exemplary.

Spiritually and conceptually Marshallese tattoos and their motifs are firmly rooted in the marine environment. The same applies to the colour of the tattoo. Here the blackness of the feathers of a popular seabird, the black noddy (Anous tenourostris) was considered to be exemplary for the blackness of the tattoos.

The Regal Angelfish (Pygoplites diacanthus) was for the Marshallese the apex of clear lines and example for tattoos.

If the term eo had originally been taken from fish which had been richly ornamented, then the language has now almost completed a full cycle. The modern Marshallese language contains a term eoot, which means "to be striped or spotted, as in ancient tattoos. "

At the time the Marshallese tattoos were recorded by traders and ethnographers there was little variation within the individual atolls of the Marshall Islands.

Marshallese tattooing motifs (right) and their natural examples (left). 1-Conus ebraeus and the addilajju motif; 2-Lepas anserifera and the elo¾wˆ motif; 3-Back of a turtleˆs carapace and the b–d motif; 4-Back of crabˆs carapace and the addijokur motif; Sharkˆs teeth and the pako motif.

However, according to oral tradition reported by KrÇmer there had been a time in the distant past when the tattooing of the Ralik and Ratak Chain were markedly different.

The Marshallese tattoo motifs are in general character very abstract pictographs, their meaning, as outlined above, finds its roots in the environment: markings of fish, tooth marks of fish bites, motifs resembling shells or their ornaments and so on. Figure 2 shows a set of Marshallese tattoo motifs, namely the elo¾wˆ, addilajju, b–d, addijokur and the pako motif, as well as the examples in the environment after which the motifs have been fashioned and named.

The Men's Tattoos

Marshallese tattooing was executed in a systematic manner and none of the motifs were of accidental creation; they as well their arrangement, follow strict patterns. In their entirety, Marshallese menˆs tattoos are very striking. As a number of last century observers have pointed out, a completely tattooed man appears to be dressed in a chainsuit, resembling a medieval knight.

A men's tattoo is laid out in a series of ornament zones which bear descriptive names, such as "mast, ocean swell, boat, clouds" and the like, which find their origin in the seafaring nature of Marshallese men.

Let us first have a look at the chest tattoos, then those on the back and finally at the other smaller tattoo areas, such as arms, legs, buttocks, face and so on.

Chest Tattoos

A complete men's chest tattoo consists of three main tattoo components, which can be added to. These main ones are the upper and the lower chest triangle as well as a central vertical ornament field.

The upper chest triangle (menin lob) is an ornament field defined by a line reaching from shoulder to shoulder at the level of the supra sternale and a line from each shoulder to a point between the nipples. This ornament field carries the meaning of a canoe or boat.

The lower chest triangle (itt‘t) is an ornament field defined at the top by the upper chest triangle and towards the bottom and sides by a line from each armpit to the navel. The meaning of this field are waves reflected from the land.

Both chest triangles are split into two halves by the central vertical ornament field (kiju), which is defined by the suprasternale at the top and the navel at the bottom. This field bears the meaning of "mast".

Added to these three main components could be other ornament fields, such as a shoulder tattoo (see below), a tattoo on the side of the chest or a stomach band.

A tattoo on the side of the chest, between the arm and the torso, called eokat, is limited to the irooj. The stomach band is a belt-like ornament field running horizontally over the stomach area. This band commonly consisted of wavy patterns and is said to signify clouds.

Men's Chest tattoo. Layout of the tattoo.

Shoulder tattoo

The area above the upper chest triangle canˆoptionally be filled with a shoulder tattoo, which is laid out in horizontal ornament bands. On the back, the shoulder tattoo also ends in a horizontal line connecting the shoulders. In addition, the upper part of the shoulder can be decorated (bor–k) with zigzag lines, which flow without clear separation into the back and head tattoo. This upper shoulder tattoo is restricted to men of chiefly rank.

Description of selected chest and shoulder tattoos

In the following a selection of complete chest and shoulder tattoos will be described, which have been recorded in the 1910s.

The chest tattoo of a young chief from Jaluit Atoll consists of three main components, menin leob, itt‘t and kiju , with an additional shoulder tattoo and arm tattoos. In total nine different ornament and sub-ornament zones can be identified. The upper chest triangle is decorated with a horizontal bands of dots interspersed at regular intervals by oblique strokes. This zone is bordered by a double zigzag line towards the lower chest triangle. This double zigzagline is set in two groups, an upper group, which shows a single eo line and then a double set of proper kein k–m zigzag motifs, while the lower group utilizes the pako motif. The points of the pako triangles point downward.

The lower chest triangle has slightly indented sides, with the nipples as the turning points. The field is covered with oblique kein k–m zigzag motifs.

The central mast ornament field is well distinguishable from the upper chest triangle for the want of oblique strokes. At the junction of the upper chest triangle and the lower chest triangle the mast shows two pairs of three-pronged annijjar motifs. The lower mast section consists of a series of oblique strokes, similar to those in the upper chest triangle, but without the interspersed dots. This lower mast section is bordered by either l–¾jak or pˆdˆlijmaan motifs. The mast ends in a navel ornament, the dˆnnon w–t.

The shoulder sections, save for the throat area, are tattooed with rows of kilin b‘l motifs. The upper arms show two sets of double zigzag lines giving the appearance of a band worn on the arm.

Men's Chest tattoos. Chest tattoo of a young chief from Jaluit Atoll.

Men's Chest tattoos. Chest tattoo of chief from Mile Atoll.

Back Tattoos

Apart from the shoulder zone, the tattoos on the men's back consist of three ornament fields, the back triangle and upper back band and the lower back field.

The back triangle is an ornament field defined by a line between the two shoulders and two lines running from the shoulders to a point between the shoulder blades, as far down as the seventh thoracic vertebra. This field is called "ocean or sea". This back triangle is often bordered by two or three zigzag lines running at right angles to the main fill of the field.

The upper back band (eotelap) is a horizontal band of varying width, running below the back triangle. It runs from the arm pit to the arm pit. The tattoo motifs are horizontal, but aligned in such a manner that they form vertical groups, referred to as posts (joor). These vertical groups are well defined and laid out symmetrically. From the spine going to the side, Marshallese distinguished between two "spine posts " (joor in dilep) two "back posts" (joor in limolik) and three "center posts" (joor in limoar). The explanation for the individual terms thus seems to point to parts of chiefly or meeting house. Another explanations argues that, since the upper back band is said to represent the sea the joor in dilep are terms for wave feature used in Marshallese navigation.

The lower back field is bordered by the upper back band at its top and the top of the os sacrum at the bottom.

Men's Back tattoos.Layout of the tattoo.

Description of selected back and shoulder tattoos

In the following a selection of complete back and shoulder tattoos will be described, which have been recorded in the 1910s. The back tattoo of a young chief of Jaluit consists of the upper back triangle, the upper back band and the lower back field, as well as an armpit tattoo and the tattooing of the arms.

The lower back field consists of the complex tokrak motif. The field covers the entire back from the last thoracic vertebrae to the beginning of the os sacrum area. The upper thoracic area is covered with the upper back band, consisting of ten sets of double lines (eo) arranged in vertical groups. On both sides of the spine is a short group, the joor in dilep, parallel to which are two groups of short strokes, the joor in limolik. On the outside are three vertical groups of

Men's Back tattoos.Back tattoo of a young chief from Jaluit Atoll

wider lines, the joor in limoar. This upper back band goes around to torso and is tattooed partially under the arms. Above the upper back is the upper back triangle, which consists of oblique zigzag lines. The sides of the triangle reach the shoulder at the end of the end of the clavicle. This line runs parallel to the upper boundary of the upper arm ornament, which begins at the shoulder blade pit and runs to the shoulder joint. A small triangular ornament field exists between the upper back triangle and the upper back band, the armpit tattoo. This ornament field, which in its pointed lower end begins at the arm pit, extends upward to the shoulder blade and acts as a prolongation of the ornament field of the upper arm tattoo. It is covered with zigzag lines.

The upper arm areas are covered with horizontally arranged looj motifs, with the prongs pointing downwards. The upper arm area ranges from the above mentioned line shoulder blade to shoulder joint to the lower end of the deltoid muscle. The area from the lower end of the deltoid to the middle of the lower arm is covered with vertically arranged looj motifs, with their prongs pointing towards the body.

Men's Back tattoos.Back tattoo of a chief from Mile Atoll.

The lower arm area from the middle of the lower arm to the wrist is covered with el–¾gˆ motifs, which are suspended from the middle arm ornaments.

Neck and Head Tattoos

Neck and head tattoos were restricted to males of chiefly rank. The neck tattoo (eoten-b–ro) consists of horizontal bands running around the neck, leaving only the area of the Adamˆs apple free. Above the level of the lower jaw, this tattoo continues at the back of the neck all the way up to the hairline, but ends at the ears, to make space for the face tattoo. This tattoo has the meaning of a magic necklace.

Head tattoo of irooj Laninat (Mile). Note the pierced and extended earlobes

The face tattoo (eoon-mˆj) consists of vertical lines running from the eyes to the rim of the lower jaw. In the front these lines can also extend onto part of the neck. Forehead, face and chin are commonly free of any tattooing. Often, the frontal parts are the cheeks are also left unornamented.

Arm Tattoos

The tattooing of the arms is very variable. It can consist of a few lines and in its full extent can reach from the armpits to the wrists. A full tattoo is traditionally divided into three main areas, the area of the upper arm, the area of the lower arm and the central part in between. Unlike in other areas the inside of the arms was commonly not tattooed in the Marshallese tattoos.

The area of the upper arm covering the deltoid muscle, is bordered by a line drawn between the armpit and the shoulder (onset of the caput humeris), while the lower border is less well defined, but often matches the upper margin of the upper back band. Very common is the tattooing of only a couple of bands around the upper arm. These bands, mainly using the zigzag line, go all around the arm in the form of a bracelet ( lukwo or roja¾pe ). A census of 238 men conducted in 1930 showed 56 to be tattooed with indigenous motifs. Of these the overwhelming majority (48) had only horizontal bands around their arms, as well as their legs.

The area of the lower arm extends about halfway between the elbow and the wrist to the wrists itself. Tattoo motifs are arranged vertically and are aligned in small horizontal groups, giving the arm a ringed appearance.

Leg Tattoos

Leg tattoos (w‘nne) are commonly restricted to the front and the middle of the outside of the upper thigh. Most leg tattoos are restricted to a few double lines or bands of the wavy-line or zigzag motif on their thighs and their calfs.

Other Tattoos

In addition to the main tattoos mentioned, men were sometimes tattooed next to the armpits, the buttocks, and the penis.

The buttock tattoo consists of a rectangular band which covers the lower os sacrum area and the occasionally the side of the buttocks.

The tattoo next to the armpits was executed on the person's back. It was a small triangle with a base pointing upwards and the tip pointing towards the side. This tattoo, which was very rare even at the end of last century, was primarily a chiefly tattoo, but may have been permitted for other men as well.

Women's Tattoos

The data available on womenˆs tattoos are, overall, less frequent than data on menˆs tattoos. This is mainly due to the fact that the ethnographers were mostly men, who of course had little access to the female world both by inclination and by cultural opportunity. Few, like Erdland, would expressedly state that their knowledge of womenˆs tattoos is limited. Others such as some German government officials, would simply deny that women were tattooed, which nicely reflects the gender bias in their reports:

Men in the entire group are tattooed on the back and breast, varying according to rank Tattooing is not practiced in the case of women.Ó

In fact, those Marshallese who maintained the tattooing after the intervention of outside forces were women, rather than the men. One exception in recording was that done by Elisabeth KrÇmer, who accompanied her husband Augustin to the Marshalls, and who could break through the gender barrier. According to all descriptions, womenˆs tattoos are substantially more uniform than menˆs. Womenˆs tattoos are also laid out in a fixed system of ornament zones, and the tattoos are restricted to the shoulders, arms, legs, and fingers.Ó

Sholder Tattoo

According to Father Erdland, the Marshallese placed great importance on the female shoulder tattoo, because as it is explained in sorcery rhymes and chants, the popularity of a woman is placed in her shoulders.Ó The shoulder tattoo is very complex and consists of a number of motifs. The female shoulder tattoo is also the only tattoo where pigment is used in a more surface-covering manner. Tattooing motifs seen in this ornament field include almost exclusively the bwilak motif of which several variations and combinations have been used.

Tattooed Marshallese women (after KrÇmer)

We can distinguish two major types of womenˆs shoulder tattoos: Type I consists of the bwilak motif both on the back and the chest, while type II has this motif only on the back. Type I has on either shoulder four sets of the bwilak motif of the back, ending at the shoulder ridge in a single set of triangles. On the chest side, there are again four sets of bwilak motifs on either shoulder, again with the little triangles added at the shoulder ridge. These sets of motifs, however, have a different lower end, where a double set of lines is added creating a zigzag border, from which small triangles are suspended. Two variants are known, one where the zigzag lines are made up of double lines with a space in between and one where the zigzag line is a broad pigment band. At another variant the back also has the small triangles suspended.

Female shoulder tattoo Type Ia (top) and Type II (bottom) (the arrows indicate the shoulder line)

Type II a & IIb tattoos are similar to types Ia & Ib with the exception that the motifs are joined on the sternum and a central triangle is suspended. Type III also has on either shoulder four sets of the bwilak motif of the back. However, rather than ending at the shoulder ridge in a single set of triangles, these motifs continue over the ridge onto the chest, where the lines part and merge with the lines of another motif into an ovate form. At the neck the left-over solitary line of the bwilak motif is elongated and curves around towards the Adamˆs apple.

Arm Tattoo

The arm tattoo consists of two main parts, the decoration of the deltoid muscle and the decoration of the remaining arm to the wrist. The wrist area itself has another small ornament band. The deltoid muscle is commonly tattooed with a multiple zigzag band, which runs across the arm, then downwards at the side, across the back of the arm and up again on the inside. There can be three or four parallel bands of zigzags. Hasebe, relying on information by the tattooed person herself, identifies the deltoid muscle ornamentation as eo idikdik, or small tattoo. The area between the wrist and the deltoid muscle is tattooed with vertically aligned looj motifs. The E-shaped motifs commonly open towards the front of the person. On occasion the looj motif may be present, but the zigzag lines may be absent. The wrist area was tattooed with ornament bands running at right angles to the arm, providing the appearance of cuffs or armbands. Tattooing motifs seen in this zone are predominantly zigzag and wavy-line bands. Often the complex arm tattoo was replaced by some simpler armband-like tattoos.

Leg Tattoo

On the whole, documented womenˆs leg tattoos were fairly rare. If recorded they consisted of a tattoo of the thighs and a separate and unconnected tattoo of the calf. The tattoos of the thighs were apparently confined to thin bands or single lines and were restricted to the front of the leg. The calf was decorated with horizontal lines only. Tattooing motifs seen in this ornament field include the zigzag tattoo.

Tattoo on the back of a hand

The tattoo on the back of a hand (eo in peden-pa) consists of wavy-line (k–do) and zigzag lines, the kein k–m motif running across the back of the hand. Hand tattoos were apparently not only restricted to women of chiefly rank, but were also very personalized, so that women could be identified by the tattoo of their hand. A folk tale speaks of an ogress, who had died during childbirth and had come to annoy people. She detached her hand and sent it to steal bananas, but was recognized by the tattoo.

Marshallese Finger Tattoos

Finger Tattoo

The finger tattoo (eoon-addin) is restricted to women of chiefly rank and consists of small ring-like bands around the entire finger, or, more commonly, only on the backside of the middle digit. Tattooing motifs seen in this ornament field include zigzag bands (eodikdik). The most commonly tattooed finger is the middle finger, and only occasionally the ring finger or the little finger are tattooed. The ring-like motifs mentioned for the first digits, appear to be a European-influenced design motif, imitating European finger rings. Traditionally, the Marshallese had no rings on their fingers.

Other Tattoos

In addition, women could have a ËsecretÓ tattoo (b–d en L–b–ll–¾) which is commonly invisible to the eyes. It appears that this tattoo covered the mons veneris, similar to the tattoos in other parts of Micronesia.

Tattooing Utensils

For the creation of a pigment tattoo two main tools and a number of accessories were needed. The tools were the tattooing adze and the mallet which were used to deliver the pigment under the skin and to create the tattoo. A tail¡feather from a seabird was needed to draw the outline of the intricate tattoo, prior to the tattooing process. In addition, there were a receptacle for the pigment and a small mat, specially woven for the occasion to cover the head. In detail, the tattooing utensils needed were:

Raw Materials Used

The tattooing chisel was made of bone, commonly a wing bone of an albatross or frigate bird, or ¡ in the late 1870s ¡ the femur of a domestic chicken. Sometimes bundled fish spines were also utilized. The larger the diameter of the bone, the straighter the chisel could be. Oral traditions show that the Marshallese went to the northern atolls, where nesting seabirds were abundant, to collect birds. Eneen-Kio (Wake Island), the northernmost atoll of the Marshall Islands, was an especially favorite place to go. Here the short¡tailed or Laysan albatross (Diomeda immutabilis, Family Diomedidae) bred and could easily be caught, while it was largely an airbound visitor to the other atoll of the Marshall Islands and hence hard if not impossible to catch.

In the Marshall Islands the use of human bones for tool manufacture is known ethnographically, though not for tattooing needles. Tattooing chisels made from human bones, as part of ancestor worship and to foster clan cohesiveness are known from a large number of Pacific Island communities, where ethnographic descriptions could be made before the Pacific culture had changed under the influence of Europeans.

Manufacture of Tools

In order to manufacture the fine teeth of the chisel, a special file was used, made from a spine of a sea urchin, which had been ground flat into the form of a screw-driver head.

Tattooing Operation

The tattooing would begin with the person lying on his/her back, having the upper part of the chest tattooed first, and ending on the nipples, an area where tattooing is very painful. A folktale indicates a different sequence, there first the shoulder and the back were tattooed while the person to be tattooed lay on a mat.

The tattooing would begin after the tattoo artist had drawn the days worth work of tattooing on the body, and the face of the person about to be tattooed had been covered with a small mat, especially woven for the occasion. The tattooist would then dip the tattooing adze into the pigment container (kadulo¾), place it on the skin and strike it with the mallet (kade).

A complete tattoo, both chest and back, would normally take up to a month among commoners, and even longer for chiefs as they had their legs and face tattooed as well. Kotzebueˆs statement that the tattoo could be executed in one sitting is not correct. However, if the tattoo was not accompanied by fever, and if the person to be tattooed could withstand the pain, a complete tattoo could be executed within a week. Two weekˆs duration seem to have been not uncommon. If fever complicated the affair, the application of a complete tattoo could be spread over two to three months.

While these time lines refer to complete body tattoos, it needs to be pointed out that tattoos commonly went in stages. Children and younger adults had a few lines or bands tattooed on their arms or their legs. With the onset of man- or womanhood, the children becoming full members of the adult society, they could attain a complete tattoo. Even later, if the individuals were of chiefly birth and rose to chiefly powers, the chiefly insignia, the chiefly markers, such as face tattoo for the men, or finger tattoo for the women, were added.

The Fate of Tattooing

Because all traditional customs are being given up, tattooing had also become also a dying art in the mid of last century. Tattooing was also connected to ËstrengthÓ i.e. personal valor during the operation. Since the social values changed in the 1870s and tattooing has lost its significance ¡ Ëmuch to the regret of the chiefs and soothsayers, who formerly received much return for it.Ó

Exemplary of missionary attitudes may be the following. Describing a missionary visit to Hivaoa, Marquesas Islands, Warren (Boston Mission) mentions the tattooing of the Marquesas people and comments that

"their naked bodies were so disfigured by tattooing that their appearance was exceedingly revolting"

European aesthetic concepts also strongly prevail in the following passage:

"Tattooing is considered a mark of great beauty.... But we should consider the beauty of a man very questionable, to say the least, who had a large lizard pictured on each cheek, with its tail and legs spread in each direction, and looking as though it was ready to jump right into the manˆs eyes"

At another location the Marquesas people are said to "Ëtattoo their body horribly, from head to footÓ".

Tattooing was a custom which the missionaries had to put an end this for a number of reasons, each equally compelling to the missionaries:

On the balance, therefore, the missionary abhorrence towards tattooing was partially based on European narrow¡mindedness and European ideals of beauty and aesthetics, and ¡ for a fundamentalist ¡ was morally justifiable by the bible.

With the increased Christianization of the Marshall Islands and the wide¡ranging changes in traditions during the late 19th century tattooing had become outlawed and ceased to be conducted. The speed with which the missionaries could effect this change is astonishing.

In 1879 and 1880, when the German naturalist and ethnographer Otto Finsch lived for almost a year on Jaluit, Arno and Mile, tattooing was still practised, although already becoming rarer.

Men with complete tattoos were already a rarity, even among chiefs. Finsch estimated that about half of the adult population of the atolls seen by him was not tattooed, as well as almost all children.

In the 1930s the Japanese ethnographer Hasebe Kotondo undertook a survey of the Marshallese tattooing tradition and found that traditional tattooing was very much a dead art. He conducted a limited census of 348 men and women on Jaluit, and found that 16% had traditional patterns, 19.5% had European letters or motifs, while 64% had no tattoos at all.

Writing of his ethnographic observations on Majuro in 1946, Alexander Spoehr mentions that "neither tattooing nor enlarged ear holes in the ear lobes are common practices today, though probably most of the older people are tattooed on the arms and have enlarged piercing of the ear lobes".

Today, traditional tattooing is no longer practised and to the knowledge of the author or the Alele Museum there are no people alive who have complete traditional tattoos.

A small mat, possible a tattoo mat (bunninemij) collected on Jaluit in the 1880's (Knappe Collection; Photographs Courtesy Museum f‘r Th‘ringer Volkskunde, Erfurt)

[Next Page]      [Back to Table of Contents]

Bibliographic citation for this document

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (1998). Essays on the Marshallese Past Second edition. Albury:

Dirk H.R. Spennemann, Institute of Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789, Albury NSW 2640, Australia.

select from the following...
World War II

Digital Micronesia-An Electronic Library & Archive is provided free of charge as an advertising-free information service for the world community. It is being maintained by Dirk HR Spennemann, Associate Professor in Cultural Heritage Management, Institute of Land, Water and Society and School of Environmental & Information Sciences, Charles Sturt University, Albury, Australia. The server space and technical support are provided by Charles Sturt University as part of its commitment to regional engagement. Environmental SciencesInformation Sciences

© Dirk Spennemann 1999– 2005
Marshall Islands Kosrae CNMI Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Guam Wake Pohnpei FSM Federated States of Micronesia Yap Chuuk Marshall Islands politics public health environment culture WWII history literature XXX Cultural Heritage Management Micronesian Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences CNMI German Colonial Sources Mariana Islands Historic Preservation Spennemann Dirk Spennemann Dirk HR Spennemann Murray Time Louis Becke Jane Downing Downing