Tattooing in the Marshall Islands

The Tattoo Motifs


For those who have lived on one of the atolls making up the Marshall Islands, it is not surprising that Marshallese tattooing has drawn its elements and ideas for motifs from the environment surrounding the Marshallese people - the sea.

ORIGIN OF THE TATTOO MOTIFS

Many motifs are abstract forms of specific fish, or are said to represent canoe parts or the canoe's movements. Tattooing in general is called eo, [53] because the lines of the blue-striped or regal angelfish Pygoplites diacanthus (figure 15), according to Krmer also called eo, were considered to be exemplary. [54] Another source, Father Erdland, [55] mentions that the word eo [56] not only means to "tattoo" but also the lion fish (Pterois volitans). [57] Again, the lion fish serves as a prime example for a small, clean and well-ordered stripe design covering an entire body. [58] Whichever fish species was taken as the exact example after which Marshallese tattoos were modelled, it becomes clear that spiritually and conceptually Marshallese tattoos and their motifs are firmly rooted in the marine environment. [59]

The same applies to the colour of the tattoo. Here the blackness of the feathers of two seabirds, the black noddy (Anous tenourostris, LARIDAE) and the " go" [60] was considered to be exemplarily for the blackness of the tattoos. [61]

Figure 15. The Regal Angelfish (Pygoplites diacanthus) was for the Marshallese the apex of clear lines and example for tattooes.

The Marshallese tattoo motifs are in general character very abstract pictographs; their meaning, as outlined below, finds its roots in the environment: markings and shapes of fish, tooth marks of fishbites, motifs resembling shells or their ornaments and so on. Figure 16 shows a set of Marshallese tattoo motifs, namely the elongwa, addilajju, bd, addijokur and the pako motif, as well as the examples in the natural environment after which these motifs have been fashioned and named.

Figure 16. Marshallese tattooing motifs (right) and their natural examples (left). 1-Conus ebraeus and the addilajju motif; 2-Lepas anserifera and the elongwa motif; 3-Back of a turtle's carapace and the bd motif; 4-Back of crab's carapace and the addijokur motif; 5-Shark's teeth and the pako motif.

In no case are the Marshallese motifs elaborate, never life-image pictographs, as in other tattooing motif groups of the Pacific region. This may indicate that tattooing in the Marshall Islands has undergone a long development and transformation to more a iconic type.

One of the early sources claims that Marshallese tattooing was not executed in a systematic manner and that a number of motifs were of accidental creation. [62] As has been shown by other early studies, this was a misconception, and the motifs as well their arrangement in ornamental zones on a body follow strict patterns. Furthermore, tattoo motives were differentiated between island groups, that is between the Marshall Islands and others. Chamisso, for example, noted that Kadu, a navigator from Woleai living among the Marshallese on Aur, was tattooed in the Caroline fashion with

"faint figures of fishes and birds individually and in rows around his knees, on his arms and shoulders" . [63]

In their pictographic content, then, the Marshallese tattoo motifs are very distinctly different from motifs found in neighbouring populations, such as Palau, Yap, or Pohnpei (figures 17-18). [64]

Figure17. Tattooing motifs of neighbouring populations: Carolines.

Figure18. Tattooing motifs of neighbouring populations, Pohnpei.

Table 1 presents a pictographic list of all tattoo motifs and their Marshallese names. In the absence of previous studies, the numbering of the motifs has been conducted in an arbitrary fashion.

Table 1 Catalogue of Marshallese tattoo motifs (not drawn to scale)
No Motif Name
1

kein km
2

bd eo Lbll
3a

lijja
3b

lijja
4a

kdo
4b

kdo
5

elowa
6

mado
7

ljak
8

pdlijmaan
9

rolonjak
10a . wajid
10b ........ ibeiro
11

tokrak
12a

anijjar
12b

anijjar
12c

anijjar
13

looj
14a

imak
14b

addilajju
15a

ke
15b

ke
16a

bwilak
16b

bwilak
16c

bwilak
17

kilin bl
18

dnnin wt
19

bd (?)
20a _______________ eo
20b

eolap
21a

pako
21b

pako
21c

pako
22a

?
22b

mad pdpudi
23a

kadikdik
23b

kadikdik
23c

kadikdik
24a

tokrak (?)
24b

tokrak (?)
24c

tokrak (?)
25

?
26a

?
26b

?
27

wun
28

jikin uwe (?)
29

?
30

addijokur
31

eodikdik (?)
32

?

The meaning of the tattoo motifs

Many of the motifs shown in table 1 had been recorded both in the form of drawings and names during German times, commonly presented scattered in the literature without their entomology being cleared up. In the following we will have a closer look at the names of the tattoo motifs and the meaning of the individual motifs, which for convenience have been arranged in alphabetical order. As will become apparent, more than one name can apply to a given motif. This may be the result of unsophisticated recording at the turn of the century, which may have rendered graphically slightly different motifs in the same way; it also may indicate that different names werevapplied to tattoo motifs depending on the sequence of execution. The number of recorded tattoos is too limited to allow for a detailed analysis.

The most common tattoo motif is the straight forward zigzig, yet a number of names has been given to this motif (kein km, kbbork, pako). Supporting the previous assertion is the observation that a number of recorded variations of the zigzag motif exist, such as the lijj; (motif no 3), bd eo Lblln (motif no 2), pako (motif no 21b, c) and the like. Most motifs can be derived from variations of these two common base motifs. However, since the motifs-based on their meanings-are strong abstractions of real-life objects and would as such be based on more natural looking motifs, any evolutionary sequence such as shown in figure 19 is mostly a research artefact. Nonetheless, individual components of the sequece show how easily the tattoo motifs can be transformed by simple additions. The basis of the tattoo motifs seems to be the dot, the straight line and the zigzag line.

addijokur back of a crab, used as a finger tattoo. The motif embodies the trapezoid shape of the crab's carapace and the diverging linear depressions which are visible on the back of several land and water crabs (see figure 16.4 for the genesis of the motif) (motif 30). [65]

addilajju motif zone taken from the cone shell (Conus ebraeus, Conidae), used as a finger tattoo. The motif uses the closely set vertically aligned dots of the shell as an inspiration (see figure 16.1 for genesis of the motif) (motif 14b). [66]

anijjar "praying to the gods." The motif possibly symbolises a human body (kneeling?) prostrate on the ground, arms and head pointing downwards (motif 12). [67]

bd (?) joined hexagons, said to represent the dermal plates of a turtle shell (motif 19; see figure 16. 3 for the genesis of the motif) [68] The turtle shell has a special meaning in Marshallese custom and stands for strength and intellectual power and cunningness. [69]

bd eo Lbll; sign of the Lbll;, which Lbll ; invented as a past time (motif 2). [70] Tattoo on a woman's inner thigh or on the mons veneris.

bwilak tail end of the unicorn fish (Naso unicornis, Acanthuridae) (motif 16a, 16b, 16c). [71] According to informants of Hasebe [72] this motif is called jeleak (see deeleak) and the band with the three protrusions is called ble. [73]

deeleak fan motif ? (motif 16??). Krmer does not provide a picture of the motif. [74] According to informants of Hasebe [75] the bwilak motif is called jeleak [76] (see above)

dnnin wt "rain water", a motif executed with the pigment prepared last. According to Krmer, the Wshaped motif placed at the navel. [77] According to Erdland, however, a zigzag motif on the chest (motif 18). [78]

eo (straight) line; The term also means the fish Pygoplites diacanthus (regal angelfish) or Pterois volitans (lion fish; red firefish) because of their lines. Also general term for tattooing (motif 20a). [79]

eoelap thick lines (motif 20b). [80] Same as above, but executed thicker.

eokadikdik tattoo like the woven ropebelt (motif 31). [81]

elowa "Duck's foot" shell (Lepas anserifera) (motif 5). These shells are frequently found attached to driftwood, as well as on the bottom of vessels which have been in the water for a long time. [82]

ibeiro row of dots (motif 10b). [83]

jlili zigzag motif (motif 1?). [84]

jikin uwe (?) horizontal compound lines arranged in vertical groups, connected with oblique lines to the next outer group staggered by one line (motif 28). [85]

ke dolphin motif. The dolphin motif, restricted to the arms, consists of two- or three-pronged forks, executed with double lines. This motif commonly opens to the person's front, although occasionally the open ends may be pointing outwards. [86] The porpoise or Spinner dolphin (Stenella longirostris, Delphinidae) is very common in the nearshore waters of the atolls and often occurs in the lagoons(motif 15a/15b). [87]

kein km stick to pick breadfruit (motif 1). [88] Krmer argues that the zigzag motif developed from a row of these breadfruit pickers, similar to the sequence shown below:

kilin bl boxfish; skin of a boxfish (motif 17). [89] The skin of several box fish species is spotted with semi-rectangular motifs.

kdikdik Tile slats, described as a double concentric parallelogram on the chest (motif 23b). [90]

kdo clouds, a wavy line motif (motif 4a, 4b). [91] In some instances the motifs are separated by vertical oval motifs, possibly derived from motif 26b. [92]

lijja obliquely set oval submotifs, conneted by lines. The meaning of the motif remains unclear (motif 3). [93]

looj bonito (motif 13). The three prongs of the E-shaped motif are an abstraction of the three marked vertical fins which stand out far and well from the otherwise very straightlined body of the bonito (or "false albacore""). [94]

ljak tattoo on the chest of upper abdomen. Line tattoo with obliquely set lines (motif 7). [95]

mad pdpudi ""spirally peeled sticks", or intertwined sling plants, said to symbolise sexual intercourse (motif 22b, commonly running vertical). [96]

mdo net for cleaning arrowroot or soaking breadfruit (motif 6). [97]

imak teeth of the mak fish (needlefish). The motif resembles the tooth arrangement of the reef needlefish, Strongylura incisus , which is known for its numerous teeth (motif 14). [98]

pako shark's tooth, a zigzag motif with a baseline and, often, filledin triangular ornament fields (motif 21a, 21b). [99]

pdlijmaan "grass stalk on which flies sit", a line with short vertical strokes on one side (motif 8). [100]

rolojak chest tattoo (motif 9). [101]

tokrak firehook; stick used to spread the hot oven stones in the earth oven (um); (motif 11). [102]

wajid single tattooed dot (motif 10a). [103]

wude stepped zigzag motif (motif 32). [104]

wun (?) a fish scale motif, commonly running vertically (motif 27). [105] For some of the motifs shown in the catalogue (table 1) we have no name. These are:

? horizontal rectangles aligned on a line (motif 22a; depicted horizontal for). [106]

? series of oblique filled ovals interspersed with dots; the motif is arranged horizontally (motif 26a). [107]

? series of oblique filled ovals; the motif is arranged horizontally (motif 26b). [108]

? series of small diamonds without fill, aligned point to point (motif 29). [109]

? short horizontal lines set in a stepped manner, zigzag motif (motif 25). In addition to those motifs shown in the catalogue, there are some other motif names which have been reported, but for which we at present have no visual image:

klaplap "Shape of a body", described as a triple concentric parallelogram on the chest. [110]

kboborok a zigzag motif, "to cover the torso", commonly running vertical. [111]

kinejo Scar tattoo (?). [112]

ninninkat horizontal lines, usually only in the central vertical ornament field of the chest ("mast"). [113]

Figure 19. Possible interrelationship between several Marshallese tattoo motifs

No Sex Head Upper Chest Lower Chest Mast Sto-mach Band Back Tri-angle Upper Back Lower Back
1 M/F * * * - * * * *
2 M - - - - - - - -
3a M - * - * - - - -
3b M - * - - - - - -
4a M - - * - * - * *
4b M - * - * - - - -
5 M - - - - - - - -
6 M - - - - - - - -
7 M - * - * - - - -
8 M - * - * - - - -
9 M * - - - - - - -
10a M/F - - - * - - - -
10b M/F - - - - - - - -
11 M - - - * - - - *
12a M - - - * - - - -
12b M - - - * - - - -
13 M/F - - - * - - - -
14a F - - - - - - - -
14b F - - - - - - - -
15a F - - - - - - - -
15b F - - - - - - - -
16a F - - - - - - - -
16b F - - - - - - - -
16c F - - - - - - - -
17 M - - - - - - - -
18 M - - - * - - - -
19 M - - - - - - - -
20 M/F - * - * - * - -
21a - - - - - - - - -
21b F - - - - - - - -
21c M - * - - - - - -
22a M - * * - - - - -
22b M - * * - - - - -
23a M - * - - - - - *
23b M - * - - - - - -
23c - - - - - - - - -
24a M - - - - - * * -
24b M - - - - - * * -
24c M - * - - - * * -
25 M - * - - - * - -
26a M - * - - - - - -
26b M - * - - - - - -
27 M - - - - - - - -
28 M - - - - - - * -
29 F - - - - - - - -
30 F - - - - - - - -
31 M - - - - - - - -
32 M - - - - - - - -

various parts of the body

Shoul-ders UpperArm LowerArm Hand Finger But-tock Thigh Calf Other
- * * * - - - - -
* - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - -
* * - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - -
* - * - - - - - -
* - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - -
- - - - * - - - -
- - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - -
- * * - - - - - -
- - - - * - - - -
- - - - - - - - -
- * - - - - - - -
- * - - - - - - -
* - - - - - - - -
* * * - - - - - -
* - - - - - - - -
* - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - -
- - - - - * - - -
- - - - * * - - -
- - - - - - - - -
- - * - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - * - -
- - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - -
- - * - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - -
- - * - - - - - -
- - - - * - - - -
* - - - * - - - -
- - - - - - - - -

Frequency of tattoes described

According to Erdland [114] most tattoo lines are zigzag lines, which are said to represent shark's teeth. Shark's teeth are a symbol for strongly roused passion and a feeling which the tattoos are said to be intended to create. [115]

Sometimes the transition between motifs seems to be fluent. An example would the border tattoo for a an upper chest triangle tattoo of a young chief from Jaluit (figure 26). This border tattoo consists of two sets of zigzag lines. While bottom set at the sternum area uses the pako motif (21a or 21b), the upper set towards the armpits uses a straight line (eo, motif 20a), followed by a double set of kein km motifs (1). The only difference between the pako motif and the eo and kein km combination is that the triangles created by the latter are not filled and that there is a marginal space between the lower strokes of the kein km zigzags and the eo line. It is quite conceivable that at a later point this space could have been filled in, creating a pako motif. Further, migration of pigment causes the blurring of lines, which may merge over time the eo/kein km combination to an unfilled pako motif.

We are are only little informed whether the tattooes would be added to and amended over time, or whether a tattoo once executed was to be left the way it was. The former, though, seems more likely.

Foreign motifs

The historical sources mention, once in a while, a tattoo motif which appears to belong to a foreign influence rather than to the motif set of the Marshallese. In 1817 Chamisso noted a tattoo motif which warrants some discussion:

"Besides this regular design, which is executed only on adults and is lacking in a few, they all have groups of symbols or lines tattooed on them as children on loins, arms, or more rarely, on the face. We noticed a few times the image of the Roman Cross among those symbols". [116]

Otto Finsch in his treatise on Marshallese material culture argues that the cross observed by Chamisso was of purely accidental creation and was not intended as a specific motif. [117] On the other hand, if one looks at Pohnpeian or Palauan tattooes then it becomes apparent that Roman cross shaped tattoo motifs are rather common. In Pohnpei a large variety of such motifs was worn by both sexes on the upper arms as additions to the otherwise very formal pelipel tattooing (see also figure 17). [118] In Palau similar motifs were worn single or arranged as rows. [119]

With respect to the "Roman Cross", Chamisso remarks in an own footnote that

"natives of the Mulgraves Islands [Mile Atoll] who climbed on board of the Charlotte [a British transport en route from Port Jackson, Australia, to Canton in China in 1788] wore a cross hanging down their necks in the manner of the Spanish. We did not observe this adornment on Radak [Ratak] and endeavored in vain to discover any connection with Christians and Europeans in the sign that we mentioned" [120]

What this "Roman Cross" tattoo motif indicates is less a Spanish influence as has been surmised before, but that the Marshallese population at the time included some foreigners from other atolls. Chamisso, for example, noted that Kadu, a navigator from Woleai living among the Marshallese on Aur, was tattooed in the Caroline fashion with

"faint figures of fishes and birds individually and in rows around his knees, on his arms and shoulders". [121]

It implies, in short, that there were non Marshallese present in the Marshall Islands, who, even when seen by a casual observer, stood out from the crowd because of their differing tattoos. Being "other", defined the stranger, being "the same" identified the local.

Entomology of the Motifs

The entomology of the individual motif names has been explained in footnotes to the individual motif names. As has become rather obvious, the names of almost all motifs are taken from the environment. Table 3 shows the origin of the identified motifs by major category.

Table 3. Entomology of identified tattoo motifs Entomology

Category N % Rank
Fish 8 25.00 2
Shellfish 2 6.25 4
Other marine animals 2 6.25 4
Environment 2 6.25 4
Plants 1 3.13 7
Utensils 5 15.63 3
Other 12 37.50 1

The spiritual and cognitive world of the Marshallese is divided into a men's world and a women's world, although this dichotomy is not as markedly developed as in other cultures. Table 4 shows the tattoo motifs grouped as to deriving from the men's and the women's world and compares their occurrence on men and women.

Table 4. Gender classification of tattoo motifs

Classification Men's Women's Total
N % N % N %
Men's world 10 41.67 8 61.54 14 42.42
Women's world 3 45.83 4 30.77 7 21.21
Indeterminate 11 12.50 13 7.69 12 36.36
Total 24 100.00 13 100.00 33 99.99

One different interpretation of the motif etymology needs to be included, if only for completeness sake. Hasebe Kotondo, a Japanese ethnographer working in Jaluit in the early 1930s, stresses the point that zigzag motifs seem to predominate and that these have been patterned after rope. [122] This, as well as the horizontal banding of the tattoo motif, led Hasebe to argue that Marshallese tattooing strongly resembles rope binding of legs and trunk. He argues, based on examples from Palau that binding of extremities with rope, strings and the like was related to sorcery and healing. [123]

Modern Tattoo Motifs

Apart from the traditional motifs, Marshallese were quick to take up other motifs which took their fancy. This is especially documentable in the motifs of the mat weaving, as a great number of mats have survived in the museum collections. [124]

Given the influx of whalers and traders in the middle and late 19th century, the Marshallese had plenty of opportunities to observe the tattooing motifs of the American and European sailors. Some of these motifs were taken over. In addition, the German traders and administrators regularly received catalogues of fabric motifs as well as the common German colonial newspapers, [125] to which, at least, higher-ranking Marshallese had access to. [126] However, some of the motifs taken over were then substantially modified.

Figure 20. "Modern" Marshallese tattoo motif at the turn of the century.

For example, a picture taken in 1910 shows a man with a complex motif, which seems to reflect a rendering of a European crown, similar to that on the German Imperial eagle of the day with the letters "LM" underneath (figure 20). The general shape of the ornament, however, integrates a heart motif and roughly resembles a coconut split open lengthwise so as to make copra. The outer lines, resembling the legs of a spider or beetle cannot be explained.

No documentation of non-traditional tattoo motifs exists for any of the periods. A census was carried out in 1930 by Hasebe [127] but this effort was never followed up after World War II. [128]

Social and Regional Variation in Tattooing Motifs

At the time the Marshallese tattoos were recorded by traders and ethnographers there was little variation within the individual atolls of the Marshall Islands. However, according to oral tradition reported by A.Krmer [129] there had been a time in the distant past when the tattooing of the Ralik and Ratak Chain were markedly different. [130]

Since the Marshallese society is organised in clans (bwij), it is conceivable that some of the tattoo motifs used in men's and women's tattoos may be clan specific; thus using tattooing to visually differentiate between clans, while at the same time signalling that one was a Marshall Islander. A survey of the clans and their totems, [131] however, showed no such systematic correlation. [132] This may be the real case or an artefact of research given the limited scale of historic knowledge about these matters.

The motifs of Marshallese Mat Weaving

A quick glance at Marshallese fine mats will show that many of their weaving motifs are similar to tattoo motifs. This similarity has already been noticed before by other researchers and both motif groups have been discussed in conjunction. [133] Differences in the excution technique (weaving versus punctuation) brought about some variation in the motifs but similarities remain.

Mat weaving, more than tattooing, saw an influx of new, western motifs in the form of imported fabrics. Some of the motifs were readily adapted. [134]

Krmer and Nevermann list 29 mat weaving motifs, of which three, but possibly four motifs are shared with tattooing (13.8%). These motifs represent 10.5% of the set of tattoo motifs and submotifs catalogued earlier.

Figure 21. Structure of a Marshallese fine mat

The mat weaving motifs are set out in a series of ornament zones on a mat (figure 21). The names of these zones have connections with Marshallese society [135]:

  1. Llo - (to wreathe), the offsprings in a lineage who inherit their land rights through the mother.
  2. Joor - (pillar or post), the important positions held by the irooj (chiefs) and alap (lineage heads).
  3. Tiltil - (embroidery), the offsprings of a lineage inheriting their land rights through the father.
  4. Ii - (intertwined) the special relationship between the father's and the mother's lineage.
  5. Bokwj - (to embrace) the parental embrace tightly safeguarding the vauable bond of love, peace and harmony among the members of the clan.

As the mat weaving motifa are arranged on the mat space, the tattoo motifs are arranged in various combinations on specific locations, so called ornament fields, on the body. In the following two sections we will look at those ornament fields and the tattoo motifs represented there. The discussion is split into men's and women's tattoos, as there are strict gender differences between the tattoo designs.

Figure 22. Marshallese man in the 1880s seen from the front (after Kubary 1887).

Figure 23. Marshallese man in the 1880s seen from the back (after Kubary 1887).



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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.au/Marshalls/html/tattoo/t-motifs-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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