Tattooing in the Marshall Islands
The Tattoo Motifs
For those who have lived on one of the atolls making up the
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,  because the
lines of the
The same applies to the colour of the tattoo. Here the blackness of the feathers of two seabirds,
Figure 15. The
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
Figure 16. Marshallese tattooing motifs (right) and their natural examples (left).
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.  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
"faint figures of fishes and birds individually and in rows around his knees, on his arms and shoulders" . 
In their pictographic content, then, the Marshallese tattoo motifs are very distinctly different
from motifs found in neighbouring populations, such as
Figure17. Tattooing motifs of neighbouring populations:
Figure18. Tattooing motifs of neighbouring populations,
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.
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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 (
? Í horizontal rectangles aligned on a line (motif 22a; depicted horizontal for). 
? Í series of oblique filled ovals interspersed with dots; the motif is arranged horizontally (motif 26a). 
? Í series of oblique filled ovals; the motif is arranged horizontally (motif 26b). 
? Í series of small diamonds without fill, aligned point to point (motif 29). 
? Í 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:
Figure 19. Possible interrelationship between several Marshallese tattoo motifs
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various parts of the body
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
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.
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
"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". 
With respect to the "Roman Cross",
"natives of the
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.
"faint figures of fishes and birds individually and in rows around his knees, on his arms and shoulders". 
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
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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
One different interpretation of the motif etymology needs to be included, if
only for completeness sake.
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. 
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,  to which, at least, higher-ranking Marshallese had access to.  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
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
Since the Marshallese society is organised in clans (
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.  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. 
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 :
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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