Tattooing in the Marshall Islands

A Future For Marshallese Tattooing?

At present the Marshall Islands experience a great amount of development both on the economical and the social planes. Both have impacts on the historical and cultural resources of the Republic. The traditional culture is faced with an onslaught of foreign influences, ranging from western technology and work patterns to videos and foreign cultural values. More and more traditional skills and traditional values are becoming obsolete as the younger generations embrace without criticism what is being presented to them. As a result many of the traditional skills are becoming extinct.

The Marshallese national identity is not (yet) challenged. Throughout modern history, and despite the invaguaries of colonial administrations, [427] the Marshallese have proven to be a cohesive group with strong ties to their home atolls, although not without some elitism of the southern atolls and the inevitable inter-atoll jibes. A common and predominant language, Kajin Majol prevails, and previously existent boundaries of regional dialects imposed by traditional communication systems have become blurred if not obliterated altogether. [428]

Yet on the other hand, like in other parts of Micronesia, the young adult male population of the Marshall Islands has a very high suicide rate, which seems to be correlated to a breakdown of the traditional family values and the traditional family support system in the past ten to fifteen years. Acculturation or cultural transition problems are seen as key problems afflicting young adult males who mainly come from families who recently moved from the outer islands to the urban centres. [429]

In addition, social pressures within a family have increased as the available resources became less for each individual. The increase in the average size of households on outer islands is an indicator for the trend of concentration and increasing internal pressures. Modern urban society based on a monetary system of exchange tends to favour a general loss of identity and a loss of male role models to strive for. This is hardly surprising. Of the traditional male role models most have entirely or largely ceased to be relevant or socially permissible: excellence and endurance in voyaging, excellence and bravery in warfare, endurance of pain in elaborate tattooing, excellence in fishing, excellence in horticultural food production. All that has been offered as a replacement as male values is copra production, which, as far as the urban centres is concerned is also not applicable. In the urban centres, as expected, the incidence of suicides is the highest. [430]

Tattooing serves in some countries as a rallying point for personal and national pride. Western Samoa is a good example for this. Here fast economic development is connected with numerous side effects described for the Marshall Islands. Yet people take great pride in being samoan and uphold Samoa customs (fa'a Samoa). Many men take pride in being elaborately tattooed. This process is even more exemplified by the fact that more and more Samoans, living overseas, such as in Auckland, New Zealand, and actually being citizens of that country identify their heritage as Samoan. This identification is visually shown by tattoos.

Tattooing may once again play an important role in identifying the Marshallese (male) self if modern, Christian belief-induced values can be overcome.

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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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