Tattooing in the Marshall Islands

The Frequency Of Tattooing

In this section we will look at the frequency of tatooing, both be gender and over time.

Frequency of tattooing by gender

In 1879 tattooing was far more common among the men than among women. [398] This statement seems to hold true through the ages. For example, Hasebe's census of 348 people conducted on Jaluit in 1932 showed that women were substantially less often tattooed (14.6%) than men (45.8%). Even today Marshallese men are much more commonly tattooed than women.

Frequency of tattooing over time

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 more rare. Men with complete tattooes were already a rarity, even among chiefs. Finsch estimates that about half of the adult population of the atolls seen by him was not tattooed, as well as almost all children. [399]

Unanimously all sources of the German Colonial era indicate that tattooing was increasingly on the decline and that only the old people were still tattooed. [400]

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 among 348 men and women on Jaluit Atoll (table 6), and found that 57 (16%) had traditional patterns, 68 (19.5%) had European letters or motifs, while 223 (64%) had no tattoos at all.

Table 6 Census of tattoos conducted by Hasebe (1932) on Jaluit

Traditional European Untattooed Total
N % N % N % N
Men 52 21.8 57 24.0 129 54.2 238
Women 5 4.6 11 10.0 94 85.4 110
Total 57 16.4 68 19.5 223 64.1 348

Of his male population examined, only eight (2.3%) had a complete chest tattoo, while the majority of the men bearing traditional tattoos had only horizontal bands on their arms and legs. The knowledge of tattooing was rapidly fading in the 1930s, as can be documented by the fact that all zigzag motifs [401] were now called elonga.

Writing of his ethnographic observations in 1946, A.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 piercings of the ear lobes" . [402]

Today there are no traditionally tattooed men or women known to the author or the staff of the Alele Museum.

Table 7 presents an analysis of the frequency of word relating to tattooes in the various editions of the Marshallese dictionary. [403] As can be readily seen, the representation of words related to tattooing dramatically decreased between 1906 and the end of World War II, indicating that tattooing had lost its importance.

Table 7 List of words related to tattooing in various Marshallese-English dictionaries

Year of publication No of terms No of words Total Index(%) Source
1906 21 3550 5.92 Erdland 1906
1945 3 3850 0.78 Carr & Elbert 1945
1986 3 3850 0.78 KEC 1968
1976 5 8500 0.59 Abo et al. 1976

Today traditional tattooing is no longer practised and even European-style patterns and motifs are rare. It would appear that less than 5% of the adult male population under 40 years of age, and none of the women of the same age group are (visibly) tattooed. [404] This for example, can be compared with Fiji, where the majority of young Fijians [405] is tattooed.

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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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