Tattooing in the Marshall Islands

Scar Tattooing

In addition to the pigment tattoos the Marshallese also used scar tattooing, although much less frequently. Scar tattooing is not tattooing in the strict sense. This type of body ornamentation is differentiated by some ethnographers into "real" scar tattooing, i.e. the piercing, slicing or cutting away of skin, and burnmarks, caused by the application of a hot item, or by insertion and setting alight of flammable material under the skin. All types of this tattooing cause a scar, thus creating a three-dimensional ornament.

German sources mention that scar tattooing (kinejo) occurs within the chest tattoos [218] or on the arms. These tattoos seem to have been restricted to men. In order to create the tattoos young men had a small charred piece of a midrib of a coconut leaf inserted under the skin, which was then set alight. Such tattoos could be rather extensive covering large parts of the chest, but commonly were smaller. [219]

A photograph of a chest tattoo of a man from Mile, reproduced in Kr•mer shows some raised skin areas, which either were scar tattooing or scars left by infections of the tattoo (figure 76).

It would appear that scar tattooing, to commemorate the death of a relative, was common in the Gilbert islands (Kiribati). [220] Given the frequent contacts between the southern atolls of the Marshall Islands and Kiribati a limited introduction of scar tattooing is possible. [221]

Having discussed the individual tattoo motifs, as well as the general tattoo designs, let us now have a look at the implements and utensils associated with making tattoos, before going to discuss the tattooing ceremonies and the social context of tattooing.

Figure 76. Chest tattoo of a commoner from Mile Atoll, showing the location of scars (after a photograph in Kr•mer 1904).

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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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