Tattooing in the Marshall Islands

Tattooing Ceremonies

The tattooing ceremony was an integral part of the process. Unfortunately the sources available were all compiled at a time, when the tradition was already in steep decline. Further, none of the ethnographers actively or passively took part in the tattooing ceremony. The following is thus based on the fragmented information provided by the German sources.

Let us first look at the tatooing places in the Marshall Islands, and then at the ceremony as such.

Tattooing places in the Marshall Islands

The traditional tattooing places in the Marshall Islands were restricted. The main tattooing place for the (western) Ralik Chain was Ailinglaplap Atoll, and here the island of âne-pi¿, [255] which was the traditional chief dwelling and burial place of the irooj laplap, the high chief of the Ralik Chain.[256] The area is located at the western tip of Bouj Island, directly next to the South Pass. The area harbors the irooj cemetery, where Kabua ¯the Great² is buried, as well as a earthen mound, called "likijrik",[257] said to be the house location of Lew·j and Lanij, the two heroes who brought tattooing to the people of the Marshall Islands.[258]

Figure 79. Map of the Marshall Islands showing the distribution of tattooing centres.

Its soil was considered sacred, because the tattooing sacrifices [for the entire Ralik Chain?] took place on this island. The location on âne-pi¿ where the ceremonies took place was called katok [259] a term also used for the sacrifices given to the gods. [260] During the major tattooing season the inhabitants of numerous islands and atolls of the Ralik Chain would converge on âne-pi¿.

In the (eastern) Ratak Chain the atoll of Aur was also a chiefly place and used for tattooing ceremonies. [261] In addition, the Russian navigator Otto von Kotzebue mentions that the atoll of Erikup, just west on Wotje Atoll, was another tattooing traditional place. [262]

On all these traditional places of power several sacred stones were located.

Tattooing could also take place at a number of other, lowerÍranking chiefly places. [263] In 1859, only three years after the missionaries had established themselves on Ebon, a large number of people, some 800, temporarily left Ebon for Jaluit to execute their tattooing ceremony there. [264] This is also suggested by the content of a folktale where a number of people came to a tattooing ceremony on Jaluit, Jaluit Atoll. [265] However, it appears that having received one¼s tattoo at âne-pi¿ was especially important and prestigeous.

Figure 80. Map of Ailinglaplap Atoll showing the location of Bouj (âne-pi¿) and Airok, Ailinglaplap

Tattooing houses

We know very little about the traditional tattooing houses, as none of the sources describe them in any great detail. Traditional houses in the Marshall Islands were rather low, consisting of a large roof construction which served as house-cum-sleeping quarters. This raised ground/rooflevel created an airspace underneath, where airflow could bring cooling and relief from the daily heat (figures 82 and 83). [266]

One source who visited âne-pi¿ at the turn of the century,[267] mentions that after the divination and presentation of sacrifices to the gods of tattooing, a large tattooing house would be built. This is fairly likely, as the common dwelling places would not only be inappropriate from a spiritual point of view, but also unsuited from a pure technical point of view: their eaves were too low and no one could perform complex tattooing underneath them without difficulty.

Figure 81. Traditional Marshallese house seen on Maloelap in 1910.

Other observers mention that the tattooing took place in a large building which served during the rest of the year as a meeting house (emlaplap)[268]. It seems that every atoll in the Marshall Islands possessed at least one of these buildings, not necessarily for tattooing, access to which was prohibited for women. Also, the lagoonal beach in front of these buildings was emo (taboo) for the commoners, and not even driftwood was tolerated there.[269] The path leading from the lagoonal beach to the tattooing house was called jiadel[270], a term, which also applied to the grounds surrounding the path from the hightide mark to the tattooing house.[271]

Figure 82. Traditional Marshallese houses of deviating construction seen on Majuro in 1910.

Tattooing season

Tattooing could, in theory take place all year round, although practical reasons prevented this from happening on a larger scale. A tattooed person, for example, was likely to develop some fever, and be rather sore for a few weeks, thus reducing his/her ability to conduct hard work such as gardening. Thus seasons of plenty, when food was in abundance, and when other ceremonies would also be held, were a more appropriate time.

Thus it is not surprising to learn that the major tattooing season coincided with the breadfruit season.[272]

During the season, first a high chief, an irooj laplap, or at least an irooj would be tattooed, then the commoners (kajur) of Ailinglaplap. Only when their tattoos were finished, people from other atolls, apparently of whatever rank, were to be tattooed.

Another source from Lae Atoll[273] claims that tattooing was automatic for the irooj and other chiefly members of society, but that commoners had to earn it.

"In order for a commoner man to be tattoed, one man was selected to represent his jowi (clan). If he survived the jib in jowi (torture ceremony) all males of his entire clan could be tattoed. Even if a clan member was on another island during the time the selected man passes the test, at a later time this clan member could sail to Bouj and permission would be granted by the irooj for him to be tattooed, for his clan member had survived the jib in jowi.

The jib in jowi consisted of running with a husked coocnut along the beach for about a quarter to half a mile, between two lines of men with spears waiting to stab and club the man as he ran to a designated place where the nut was to be cracked open. If he survived the run, he would crack open the nut, return with it and grate it, to be used during his tattooing. At this point permission was given by the irooj to tattoo the man and his clan members."[274]

The permission to be tattoed was also used as a politocal tool by some powerful irooj. In the pre- and early contact time civil strife was a common occurence in the Marshall Islands. Because each irooj had favoured clans which were his followers and others, which were his enemies, the latter could be denied the right to be tattoed even though one of its members had passed the jib in jowi. Thus, never were all the clans allowed to be tattoed by the same irooj.

Tattooing ceremonies


A week or eight days before the tattooing was to begin, preparations for the tattooing ceremony began. [276] Food sacrifices (waloklik) [277] were placed onto (given to) the sacred stones on âne-pi¿, representing the gods who gave tattooing to the Marshallese Lew·j and Lanij. [278] The location where sacrifices took place was called lokatok. [279]

These sacrifices commonly consisted of food and fine mats. One source, relying on oral traditions, mentions that tattooing chisels for high ranking chiefs were made of the bones of sacrificed young men. [280] This sacrifice could be offset if the young man procured the wing bones of albatrosses from the norther most atoll of the Marshall Islands, Eneen-Kio (Wake Island).

No other source available mentions the Marshallese sacrifice of human beings to procure tattooing chisels. However, it needs to be kept in mind that most recording of oral traditions and ethnography occurred at a time when Christianity had gained a strong foothold and control of at least the larger atolls in the south. Thus it was not desireable to transmit information on the heathen past likely to blemish the Marshallese reputation. That such sacrifices are not out of the order of likelihood is evidenced by the fact that the Marshallese chiefs were not above using human bodies as rollers in order to put canoes into water in a hurry [281] or that foreigners drifting ashore in the Marshall Islands were either enslaved or killed.

When the tattooing ceremony was to commence, the person to be tattooed sat down on a mat inside the tattooing house or in another house pointed out by the chief for this purpose.

A hymn or prayer was offered, the text of which follows. According to Kr€mer, who recorded the text, the informants mention that the text and words are archaic, and the meaning of some unknown. In this, as in other cases of Marshallese texts, the Marshallese text as recorded by Kr€mer and an English translation of his German is given. [282]

Before the tattooing ceremony started a hymn was offered. The following is a text for the tattooing of Kabua, chief of the Ralik Chain, who hailed from Namu Atoll. [283] The transcription is that of Kr€mer at the turn of the century, using German phonetics:

1 J ean in imain inen djidnen

imain ee

J rak in imain inen djidnen

imain ee

5 Jueo wudjiae

Juen r€man imalablab

T€ddi buere irrim

L€ddi bulogo dagga meiein

Gadgie bonnin

10 Bonnidagai, bonid€ maedju

Euw€l€a anir?

Namo, Madjigin!

Deiedje d€bbbin

D€bbo, d€bbo, d€bbo

15 D€bbo erere Kabua

Ngaion ailingean!

1 In the north of this house our pleading shall be heard

for this house

In the south of this house our pleading shall be heard

for this house

5 For the thriving of the coconuts.

Bring the tattoed into the great house [284]

Long may he live, he there on his mat

Some live, some even die

But your name shall be praised

10 He shall grow

Where is your land?

Namo, Madjigin!

His standing increases

Standing, standing, standing [285]

15 The reputation of Kabua shall extend

over his islands!

Tattooing was also closely tied in with religious beliefs, and could not be undertaken if the omens were adverse. According to Chamisso, " those who wish to be tattooed spend the night in a house to which the chief who is to perform the operation conjures down the god. A perceptible sound, whistling, is said to announce his agreement. If this sign is lacking the operation is also left undone. For which reason it is never performed on some people. In case of transgression the sea would come over the island and all land would disappear. " [286]

The artist Choris who accompanied Chamisso on the Kotzebue Expedition, [287] mentions that this consultation of the gods could take several days until a more positive sign was received.

Before the tattooing ceremony could begin, a major chant was sung, apparently by all participants of the ceremony. Then a chief would perform a dance in front of and around the tattooing hut, as well as nearby coconut palms, accompanied by all the women, which were later to sit outside the tattooing hut. During that dance the women, who were carrying palmfronds, were not allowed to be looked upon by any of the men. [288]

When the person about to be tattooed was led into the tattooing house, [289] and the tattooing itself was about to begin, and the lines to be drawn, all males assembled in the tattooing house. The members of the irooj class would seat themselves at the lagoonal end of the tattooing house, those of the lower ranking chiefs (bwidak) at the oceanside, and the commoners(kajur) in the middle. [290]

Figure 83. Reconstruction of the spatial lay-out of a tattooing ceremony

The women (jareo) [291] who were not allowed to witness the drawing of lines nor the tattooing as such, would assemble and seat themselves in front of the tattooing house, underneath the coconut palms, [292] and begin beating their drums without singing. Only then when the tattooist began drawing the motifs onto the skin the women stopped their drumming and sang a chorus, with as little noise and no loud voices, as possible, so as not to distract the master craftsman at his drawing. Quite often even complete silence was observed.

This is exemplified in the following song: [293]

1 Djarrao djab ba

Eub boen dajub lagga


Binnao, djadje, djadje

5 Djedje €•€o, €•€o, €•€o!


€•€o n€ rio.

1 The drummers do not beat their drums

So that the colour

will not stain the fingers.

The drums do not hear, do not hear

5 while drawing the lines, the lines, the lines!

Do them well

the lines, you tattooers!

When the motifs for the days worth of tattooing and been drawn, the application of the tattooing with chisel and mallet began. Outside the hut, this was accompanied by the women¼s loud singing, wild drumming and thigh slapping in order to drown out the pain, as well as any cries or moans uttered. The following song exemplifies this well: [294]

1 Ua l€g€lagod

Ua €g€dagod

Ua je

B€ geria djou €a

5 €g€o, d€garreo

Ag€dagge mei


€ djok


10 Kamameman €•€o

n€ rio.

1 The song rises up to the gods

and enthusiasm returns

for the artist.

Beat the drums, beat hem in a circle

5 The €g€o and the black noddy [295]

come flying up

with their wings spread wide,

their blackness falls

on the tattoo

10 Do the lines well

you tattooers!

To prevent the onlooking men from seeing the face of the person to be tattooed distorted by pain and agony, the face was covered with a small mat (bunnenimij) especially woven for the occasion.

The following song, recorded from informants from Mejit, then shows the tattooing in full swing: [296]

1 Djuo adjieo

Bennareo iman €•€o,

Redjued ngirilok, ngirilok

Ngiridjob, ngiribogadak

5 Lanulang €u dood, €u dood

Kon djedje Redjolubu

Kamu dj€lili

Edju bogurran €lligin

Djaluidge le

10 Konalir mamodjin

Langin €dibung

Emedj oadiridir!

1 Put the drum to your left side [297]

Beat it for this tattooing house

He sighs, he sings out

He sighs loud, he moves

5 Lanulang beats, beats the mallet

You draw [the] Redjolubu [motif]

make zigzags

Vertical lines on this back

The people are watching

10 A miracle, the tattooing pigment

it falls from the sky

Ready are the dots!

A folk tale, dealing with the removal of an unwanted son during a tattooing process provides some other lines of the ritual. Even though highranking individuals were extremely powerful in normal times, during the tattooing ceremony and tattooing operation they were on the same level as their subordinates. In the tale, the mother holding the tattooing mat slaps her thighs and says: [298]

Rerelbo, je bo in l€; ko ron kuou jab momakitkit iomuin ni ne an Lewoj im Lanej!

Rerelbo [her son], we are relegated to mere subordinates, do you hear, so do not move under the needle of Lewoj and Lanij. [299]

The person tattooed was not allowed to step out to the public and show off the tattoos (k¼maran) until his wounds had completely healed off (kur) and the scab had fallen off. [300]

Figure 84. A wooden Aje Drum (Waist drum), commonly made from kone wood (Pisonia grandis), occasionally made from jo¿ wood (Bruigiera gymnorrhiza). The drums is open at both ends. The grooved upper part of a drum is covered with the inner lining of the stomach or the bladder of a shark (called dj€). When being played, the drum is placed at the left side of the body, the waist of the drum fitting between the waist and the left arm. The drum is held with the left arm and the beaten with the right.

After the tattoo was completed, a major feast was held for the tattoo master craftsman (rieo), apparently using a special (new ?) coconut grater (raanke) and a special (new ?) wooden bowl j¼pe). [301]

The tattooist was then paid (kabwijeran) [302] for his services with food and mats. The costs of a tattoo was high:

" In former times [tattooing] was connected with a whole series of complicated rites, and the fee which the priest received for it was so high that a poor man had to work for years before he could afford to have the desired ornament " [303]

According to Hasebe, the remuneration of the artist goes up with the execution of a large tattoo. [304]

Figure 85. Wooden food preparation and serving vessels.

1Ícollected on Majuro; 2-4Ícollected on Lae.


For the duration of the ceremonies the normal terms for men (mmaan; leo) [305] and women (kora,lio) [306]were emo (tabooed), [307] and the women of men about to be tattooed were called bokwi, [308] while the men of women about to be tattooed were called jomij. A completely tattooed male was also called jomij. [309]

Also for the duration of the tattooing ceremony those to be tattooed had to refrain from sexual intercourse with their partners or others.

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 [310] 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 (kadulo¿;) [311], place it on the skin and strike it with the mallet (kade) [312].

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. [313] Kotzebue's statement that the tattoo could be executed in one sitting is not correct. [314] 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 week's duration seem to have been not uncommon. [315] If fever complicated the affair, the application of a complete tattoo could be spread over two to three months. [316]

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.

Kabua ("the Great"), for example, of chiefly lineage but low birth had a complete body tattoo early in his adulthood, and only attained the face tattoo after attaining the chiefly rank following his marriage a high ranking leeroj. [317] In 1879 Lamoro, son of the irooj laplap of Ebon, was completely tattooed save for the face. [318]

Tattooing and healing

Tattooing with traditional materials produces the risk of the tools becoming contaminated with some bacteria and subsequent infection of the tattooing wound. The fresh tattoo was rubbed with coconut oil and covered with leaves of the nen (Morinda citrofolia, RUBIACEAE) to reduce the risk of infection. [319] Small and large-scale infections following tattoos seem to have been not uncommon at all. [320] Kotzebue's informant Langedju of Wotje Atoll asserted that "after tattooing the body swelled very much, and suffered a great deal of pain." [321]

Those parts, which had become infected, were washed with a medicinal solution made from the coconut husk. [322] Occasionally these infections could be very heavy, although they only very rarely led to the death of the infected person. [323]

It is therefore very likely that the professional tattoo craftsmen were at the same time professional healers. [324]

Figure 86. A nen tree (Morinda citrifolia)

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Bibliographic citation for this document

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (1998). Tattooing in the Marshall Islands Second edition. Albury:

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

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