Tattooing in the Marshall Islands

The Men's Tattoos


In their entirety, Marshallese men約 tattoes are very striking. As a number of authors have pointed out, a completely tattooed Marshallese man appears--at least for European eyes--to be dressed in a chainsuit, resembling a medieval knight. [136] A men約 tattoo is laid out in a series of ornament zones which bear descriptive Marshallese names, such as "mast", "ocean" "swell", "boat", "clouds" and the like, all of which find their origin in the seafaring nature of Marshallese men.

With the exception of the tattoo of the face and the upper shoulders, which was the prerogative of the irooj, all men (could have) had the same basic tattoo lay-out.

There are a number of photographs available, mainly in black and white, but the tattoos stand out only in a few of them to such a degree that the tattoo patterns and ornament lay-out can be studied. [137] The mainstay of the documentation rests on the drawings reproduced by the early visitors and the German ethnographers.

Let us first have a look at the men約 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 Tattooes

According to Chamisso, poet and naturalist on the Russian exploring expedition 1815-1817, among Marshallese men the chests and backs are preferentially tattooed, while the women have their arms, as well as their shoulders ornamented. [138] The basic designs seem to have been stable for a long time. In 1817, according to Chamisso,

"the artistically delicate tattooing. [i]n men. forms a triangle that encompasses shoulders and chest and comes to a point at the navel and consists of smaller, variously connected lines. Similarly well蚾rdered horizontal lines frame the back and the abdomen." [139]

A complete men約 chest tattoo consists of three main tattoo components, which can be added to. These main areas are the upper and the lower chest triangle as well as a central vertical ornament field (figure 24).

The upper chest triangle (menin lob) [140] 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. [141] Tattooing motifs seen in this ornament field include kein k穖 (motif 1a), lijja (motif 3), k穌o (motif 4), l房jak (motif 7), pako (motif 21b), kadikdik (motifs 23a & 23b) and motif 26.

The lower chest triangle (itt╰) [142] 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 those waves reflected from the land. [143] Tattooing motifs seen in this ornament field include kein k穖 (motif 1a) and k穌o (motif 4a).

Both chest triangles are split into two halves by the central vertical ornament field (kiju) [144], which is defined by the supra sternale, the upper part of the sternum, at the top and the navel at the bottom. This field bears the meaning of "mast". Tattooing motifs seen in this ornament field include lijja (motif 3), k穌o (motif 4b), l房jak(motif 7), wajid (motif 10a), tokrak (motif 11), anijjar (motif 12a & 12b), looj (motif 13) and d糿nin w穞 (motif 18).

Added to these three main components could be other ornament fields, such as a shoulder tattoo (see next section), 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, [145] is limited to the irooj. Tattooing motifs in this ornament field are mainly zigzag lines (kein k穖, motif 1) and wavy-lines (k穌o motif 4). [146] The stomach band is a belt-like ornament field running horizontally over the stomach area. This band, which may be-partially--intersected by the mast and the lower part of the lower chest triangle, commonly consisted of wavy patterns and is said to signify clouds. [147] Tattooing motifs seen in this ornament field include kein k穖 (motif 1a) and especially k穌o (motif 4a).

Hasebe also lists another ornament field on the chest, called anijjar, [148] a term which Krmer addresses as a motif. According to Hasebe, [149] the term ingidjar stands on Maloelap Atoll for a single zigzag line separating the upper and lower chest triangles. According to another of Hasebe約 informants from Kwajalein [150] this border line is called apar. [151]

Figure 24 Lay-out of a man約 chest tattoo

Shoulder tattoos

The area above the upper chest triangle can-optionally--be filled with a shoulder tattoo (waurok), which is laid out in horizontal ornament bands. On the back the shoulder tattoo also ends in a horizontal line connecting the shoulders. Tattooing motifs seen in this ornament field include eodikdik (motif 31), B穌 eo L穊穕l房 (motif 2), k穌o (motif 4a), elongwa (motif 5), kilin b╨ (motif 17).

In addition, the upper part of the shoulder can be decorated (borok) [152] 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 men's chest and shoulder tattoo, which have been recorded in the past by means of photography or drawing, will be described. It should be kept in mind that the number of documented tattoos is very limited.

Figure 25. Ornament zones of a chest tattoo of a young chief from Jaluit

Young chief from Jaluit

The chest tattoo of a young chief from Jaluit Atoll (figure 26) [153] consists of three main components, menin leob, ittut and kiju, with an additional shoulder tattoo and arm tattoos. In total nine different ornament and sub-ornament zones can be identified (figure 25). The upper chest triangle is decorated with a horizontal bands of dots interspersed at regular intervals by oblique strokes (motif 26a). 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 (20a) and then a double set of proper kein k穖 zigzag motifs (1), while the lower group utilises the pako motif (21a or 21b). 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穖 zigzag (motif 1).

Figure 26 Chest tattoo of a young chief from Jaluit (1910s). [154]

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 (12b). The lower mast section consists of a series of oblique strokes, similar to those in the upper chest triangle, but without the interspersed dots (motif 26b). This lower mast section is bordered by either l房jak(7) or p糳糽ijmaan (8) motifs. The mast ends in a navel ornament, the d糿nin w穞 (18).

The shoulder sections, save for the throat area, are tattooed with rows of kilin b╨ motifs (17). The upper arms show two sets of doubble zigzag lines giving the appearance of bands worn on the arms. The frontal tattoo has all ornament fields save for the stomach band.

Figure 27. Ornament zones of a chest tattoo of chief from Mile

Young chief from Mile

The chest tattoo of a young chief from Mile Atoll (figure 28) shows all the components: it has an upper and a lower chest triangle, a mast, a stomach band and shoulder/neck tattoos. In total, nine different ornament and subornament zones could be identified (figure 27).

The upper chest triangle which is evenly covered with the kadikdik motif (23c), is well set out and reaches from the shoulder joint to the lower end of the sternale. The triangle is bordered both towards the shoulders and towards the lower chest triangle with continuous zigzag line (kein k穖 1). At the upper border only the throat area is spared. The border band towards the lower chest triangle is then split into two segments. On both sides the upper segment consists of two additional kein k穖 lines, while the lower segment consists of a wide l房jakmotif (7).

Figure 28. Chest tattoo of a chief from Mile

The lower chest triangle, which has indented sides with the turning points approximately at the lower rib area consists of horizontally aligned kein k穖 zigzag lines (1). The central mast ornament field is not well distinguishable in the upper chest triangle. Only the change in the orientation of the offsets indicates a break in the ornament. Like the tattoo of the young Jaluit chief (figure 26) the chest tattoo of the Mile chief shows two pairs of three-pronged anijjar motifs (no12b) at the junction of the upper chest triangle and the lower chest triangle the mast. The lower mast section consists of a series of multi-pronged horizontal motif units, either looj (13) or addijokur (30). This lower mast section is bordered by either p糳糽ijmaan (8) or, more likely, l房jak(7) motifs. The mast ends in the stomach band. The rather narrow stomach band, which begins slightly above the navel, consists of horizontal k穌o motifs (4a).

The neck tattoo reached from the shoulder zone to the lower border of the mandible and consists a series of oblique oriented zigzag lines (kein k穖?, 1), with the direct frontal area at the throat and Adam約 apple spared. This vertical, tattoo free zone is bordered by a series of dots (ibeiro, 10b), aligned vertically to provide a clean border for the jagged zigzags.

Figure 29 Ornament zones of a chest tattoo of a commoner from Mile Kajur from Mile

The chest tattoo of a commoner (kajur) from Mile Atoll (figure 30) shows all the components: it has an upper and a lower chest triangle, a mast, a stomach band and shoulder/neck tattoos. In total, seven different ornament and subornament zones could be identified (figure 29). Thus it is, on the whole, similar to the previous tattoos, yet in its details it differs substantially. For one, the shoulder and neck tattoo does not cover the neck as such, and the mast is not as well defined as in the two irooj tattoos described previously. Another major difference is the lack of the set of anijjar motifs in the mast at the point where upper chest triangle joins the mast.

In the tattoo, the upper chest triangle is composed of rows of interconnected, filled oblique ovals (lijja 3a) which are connected with vertical filled ovals (motif 3b). The chest triangle does not have a well defined border as the previous tattoos. Instead, a wide new ornament field is introduced consisting of sets of tokrak motifs (11). This field, which has an overall Y-shaped appearance, converges into a mast, where the tokrak motifs are arranged symmetrically. The mast runs out in a pointed fashion at the navel, where it is joined with the lower chest triangle.

The lower chest triangle is comprised of oblique oriented zigzag lines (kein k穖?, motif 1). At the area of the arm pits the new Y-shaped ornament field is bordered by two short zigzag lines (kein k穖) set at right angles to the previous zone. The sides of the triangle are slightly indented, the turning points being in the area of the nipples.

The quite broad stomach band begins well above the navel and reaches far down, apparently to the onset of the pubic triangle. The band, which is intersected by the pointed lower parts of the mast and lower chest triangle, consists of horizontal k穌o motifs (4a).

The shoulder ornament, which keeps the entire neck and throat area free, shows two different tattooing motifs. The right shoulder is covered with vertically aligned rows of the elongwa motif (5), which in the applied orientation seems a set of wide-spaced zigzag lines with dots at the turning points, the B穌 eo L穊穕l房 motif (2).

Figure 30. Chest tattoo of a commoner (kajur) from Mile Atoll in the 1900s.

Figure 31 Ornament zones of a chest tattoo of a young chief from Jaluit Atoll

Another Young chief from Jaluit

The chest tattoo of a young chief from Jaluit Atoll (figure 32) is similar in lay-out to the previous tattoo. It too shows all the components: it has an upper and a lower chest triangle, a mast, a stomach band and shoulder/neck tattoos. Further, an area on the arm is tattooed. In total, eight different ornament and subornament zones could be identified (figure 31).

In the tattoo, the upper chest triangle is composed of rows of interconnected filled oblique ovals (lijja motif 3a) which are connected with vertical filled ovals (motif 3b). The chest triangle does not have well defined border as the first two tattoos. Instead a wide new ornament field is introduced consisting of sets of tokrak motifs (11). This field, which has an overall Y-shaped appearance, converges into a mast, where the tokrak motifs are arranged symmetrically. The mast runs out in a pointed fashion at the navel, where it is joined with the lower chest triangle.

The lower chest triangle is comprised of oblique oriented zigzag lines (kein k穖?, motif 1). At the area of the arm pits the new Y-shaped ornament field is bordered by four short zigzag lines (kein k穖) set at right angles to the previous zone. The shape of this triangle are fairly complex. It has a rather wide base, reaching well onto the upper arm, and uses the nipples as a turning point. It runs out in pointed fashion in the navel area.

The quite broad stomach band begins well above the navel and reaches far down, apparently to the onset of the pubic triangle. The band, which is intersected by the pointed lower parts of the mast and lower chest triangle, consists of horizontal k穌o motifs (4a). The shoulder ornament, which keeps the entire neck and throat area free, shows two zones of oblique zigzags (kein k穖, 1).

Figure 32 Chest tattoo of a young chief from Jaluit Atoll (1900s)

Figure 33 Ornament zones of a chest tattoo of a man from Mile Atoll (1930s)

Another kajur fromMile

Hasebe depicts a very unusual chest tattoo, which lacks both the mast and the lower chest triangle (figure 33). Instead, there is a very large upper chest triangle made up of rows of interconnected filled oblique ovals (lijja motif 3a) which are connected with vertical filled ovals (motif 3b). The area which runs out in a point at the navel area, is well defined by a double zigzag border (kein k穖 ?, 1). The stomach area is covered with a very wide stomach band which is intersected by the pointed lower parts of the upper chest triangle, consists of horizontal k穌o motifs (4a).

The shoulder ornament, which keeps the entire neck and throat area free, shows two zones of oblique zigzags (kein k穖, 1) set in a different orientation.

Back tattooes

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

The back triangle (wo eo) [155] 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".[156] Tattooing motifs seen in this ornament field include predominantly zigzag motifs (kein k穖 motif No 1). According to informants to Hasebe the tattoos of the commoners had single lines, while those of the chiefs had compound lines, making the tattoo more prominent. [157]

Figure 34. Chest tattoo of a man from Mile Atoll (1930s) [158]

This back triangle is often bordered by two or three parellel executed zigzag lines running at right angles to the main fill of the field. [159]

The upper back band (eotelap) [160] is a horizontal band of varying width, running below the back triangle. It runs from the arm pit to the arm pit. The width of the band has been described as "one hand spa".[161] The tattoo motifs are horizontal, but aligned in such a manner that they form vertical groups, referred to as posts (joor). [162] 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) [163] two "back posts" (joor in limolik) [164] and three "front posts" (joor in limoar). [165] The explanation for the individual terms thus could point to parts of chiefly or meeting house. On the other hand, the upper back band is said to represent the sea.[166] In view of this an entirely different interpretation is possible, based on joor in dilep which is also a used term for a wave feature in Marshallese navigation. [167] While the spine posts are the central wave reflected from the island, the other two posts are the waves reflected from the ocean and the lagoon side of the island. [168]

Hasebe counted eleven vertical groups (posts) on the two complete tattoos he could investigate in 1932. These vertical groups consiste of three or four groups of compound horizontal lines connected by oblique lines to the lines of the next outer adjacent column, staggered by one line. Tattooing motifs seen in this ornament field include kein k穖 (motif 1a), k穌o (motif 4a), tokrak (motif 11), and k糳ikdik (motif 23a).

The lower back field (tokrak) [169] is bordered by the upper back band at its top and the beginning of the os sacrum at the bottom. Tattooing motifs seen in this ornament field are almost exclusively kein k穖 (motif 1a), k穌o (motif 4a) and jikin uwe (?) (motif 28). [170]

Figure 35. Lay-out of a men約 back tattoo

Description of selected back and shoulder tattoos

In the following a selection of complete back and shoulder tattoos, which have been recorded in the past, will be described. For the following tattoo we also have the chest tattoo on record (figure 26).

Figure 36 Ornament zones of a back tattoo of ,Kabua

Irooj of Jaluit

The back tattoo of ,Kabua, irooj laplap of Jaluit and most of the Ralik Chain, 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 (24c). The field covers the entire back from the last thoracic vertebrae to the beginning of the os sacrum area. The upper thorarcic 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 wider lines, the joor in limoar. This upper back band goes around the torso and is tattooed partially under the arms. Above the upper back is the upper back triangle, which consists of oblique zigzag lines (kein k穖 ?, 1). 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 attoo. 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 ornamanet field of the upper arm tattoo. It is covered with zigzag lines.

Figure 37. Back tattoo of ,Kabua, irooj laplap of Jaluit (1903?). [171]

The upper arm areas are covered with horizontally arranged looj motifs (13), with the prongs pointing downwards. The upper arm area ranges from the above mentioned line, shoulderblade to shoulder joint, to the lower end of the deltoid muscle. The area from the lower end of the deltoid to the midle of the lower arm is covered with vertically arranged looj motifs, with their prongs pointing towards the body. The lower arm area from the middle of the lower arm to the wrist is covered with el房wa motifs (5), which are suspended from the middle arm ornaments.

Figure 38. Ornament zones of a back tattoo of a man from Mile (1930s)

Kajur from Mile

In the 1930s Hasebe reproduced the back tattoo of a man from Mile. Here the lower back field was ornamented with vertically arranged thick zigzag lines (kein k穖, 1) while the upper back band was made up from single, horizontal zigzag lines (kein k穖?, 1). The upper back triangle was covered with oblique zigzag lines and bordered with four sets of long zizgzag lines (kein k穖) running from the shoulder joint to the upper lumbar region.

If this tattoo is correctly rendered, then the motif and ornament field arrangement for this tattoo, as well as the underlying spiritual reasoning differs substantially from that used for Kabua約 back tattoo. In view of the sparsity of known back tattoo arrangements, we cannot conclude whether this difference is due to a difference in the individual約 rank, or whether the Mile tattoo is a mere corruption of the traditional lay-out, brought about by time and lack of tattooing practices.

Figure 39. Back tattoo of a a man from Mile (1930s) [172]

While the chest, back and shoulder tatoos common among men, neck and head tattoos were restricted to males of chiefly rank. [173] The neck tattoo (eooten-boro) [174] consists of horizontal bands running around the neck, leaving only the area of the Adam's apple free. [175] 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 (figure 41). This tattoo has the meaning of a a magic necklace. [176]

The face tattoo (eoon-maj) [177] 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. [178]

Figure 40. Head tattoo of irooj Laninat of Mile. Note the pierced and extended earlobes.

A photograph of irooj laplap ,Murjel of Maloelap taken in 1887 shows him clothed in European dress. Yet both the extended earlobes and the neck and cheek tattoo, similar to that shown in figure 40 are clearly visible. [179] The photograph does not show any tattooed lines in the face or the forehead itself, thus confirming Krmer約 assertion. Hasebe (1932), however, depicts a drawing of the face of irooj ,Moses of Aur Atoll, [180] which shows both tattoo marks on neck and cheek, but also lines on the chin and across the face (figure 41).

A British visitor to the Marshall Islands in the 1870s, not a resident or trader of this part of the world, made the following, pertinent comment:

"In one of these canoes there was another king; and I find that the chiefs may always be distinguished from the common people by their being tattooed in parallel blue stripes from the base of the ear to the chin."
[181]

Figure 41. Face tattoo of irooj Moses from Aur Atoll (1930s) [182]

Arm Tattoos

The tattooing of the arms is extremely 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 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[183] 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. The tattoo motifs are commonly horizontal and aligned in vertical groups which emphasise the outline of the arm. Tattooing motifs seen in this ornament field include kein k穖 (motif 1a), and k穌o (motif 4a). On one occasion documented the entire area of the upper arm had been ornamented with a tattoo. The motif used was the looj (motif 13), which was arranged in densely set rows of horizontally aligned motifs.

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. Tattooing motifs seen in this ornament field include kein k穖 (motif 1a), pako (motif 21b), and wun (motif 27).

The central part in between is commonly left blank. In the few instances where a tatoo is known, such as the tattoo of Kabua, the entire ornament zone is covered with densely set, vertically alingned looj motifs (motif 13).

Very common was the tattooing of only a couple of bands around the upper arm. [184] These bands, mainly using horizontal zigzag lines (kein k穖, motif 1a), go all around the arm in the form of a bracelet (lukwo or roja縫e). [185] Hasebe約 1930 census of 238 men 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.

Leg Tattoos

Leg tattoos (wunne) [186] are commonly restricted to the front and the middle of the outside of the upper thigh (figure 42). [187] Tattooing motifs seen in this ornament field include vertically aligned zigzag lines (kein k穖 ? motif 1) and the otherwise quite rare motifs 22a and 22b, said to symbolise "spirally peeled sticks" or "intertwined slingplants", both symbols of sexual intercourse. [188] Most leg tattooes, however, are restricted to a few double lines or bands of the wavy-line (k穌o motif 4) or zigzag motif (kein k穖 motif 1) 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[189] consists of a rectangular band which covers the lower os sacrum area and the occasionally the side of the buttocks. Tattooing motifs seen in this ornament field include turtle shell motif (bod motif 19), which can sometimes extend to the hip. Close to the thighs the otherwise quite rare motifs 22a and 22b can also be found. [190]

Figure 42 Men's leg tattoo. [191]

The tattoo next to the armpit[192] was executed on the person's back. It was a small triangle with the 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. [193] This ornament field was recorded as seen once and was ornamented with zigzag lines (kein k穖, 1).

A further tattoo, apparently also confined to men of chiefly rank, was the tattooing of the penis including the glans. No details on motifs used or the frequency of occurrence are known.

It has been pointed out by some scholars[194] that the areas mainly covered by tattooes are those which are not covered with clothing. This seems to be borne out by the evidence compiled. Thus in the case of Marshallese men, the main dress to be worn would have left the upper body and arms, as well as the sides of the thighs and possibly parts of the buttocks (when squatting) exposed. These were the areas which were tattooed. [195]


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Bibliographic citation for this document

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (1998). Tattooing in the Marshall Islands Second edition. Albury:
URL: http:/marshall.csu.edu.aus/t-men-test.html

CONTACT:
Dirk H.R. Spennemann, Institute of Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789, Albury NSW 2640, Australia.
e-mail: dspennemann@csu.edu.au


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