Tattooing in the Marshall Islands

The Women's Tattoos


The data available on women's tattoos are, overall, less frequent than data on men's tattoos. This is mainly due to the fact that the ethnographers were mainly men, who of course had little access to the female world - both by inclination and by cultural opportunity. [196] Few, like Erdland , would expressedly state that their knowledge of the women's tattoos is limited. Others such as some German government individuals, would simply deny that women were tattooed, which nicely reflects the gender bias in their reports:

"Men in the entire group are tattooed on the back and breast, varying according to rank Tattooing is not practised in the case of women." [197]

In fact, those Marshallese who maintained the tattooing after the intervention of outside forces tradition were women, rather than the men.

One exception in recording was that done by Elisabeth Kr´mer , who accompanied her husband Augustin to the Marshalls, and who could break through the gender barrier.

According to all descriptions, women's tattoos are substantially more uniform than men's. Women's tattoos are also laid out in a fixed system of ornament zones, and the tattoos are restricted to the shoulders, arms, legs, and fingers. In 1817, according to Chamisso :

"On women only the shoulders and arms are tattooed. The tattooed spot is very dark, sharply drawn and raised above the skin." [198]

Figure 43. Tattooed Marshallese woman photographed on Likiep Atoll (?) at the turn of the century. Note the motifs on the cloth mat. (Photo: Courtesy deBrum Photo Collection, Alele Museum Neg.No D-212).

Figure 44. Tattooed Marshallese women

SHOULDER TATTOO

According to Father Erdland , the Marshallese placed great importance on the female shoulder tattoo, "because as it is explained in sorcery rhymes and chants, the popularity of a woman is placed in her shoulders." [199]

The shoulder tattoo is very complex and consists of a number of motifs. The female shoulder tattoo is also the only tattoo where pigment is used in a more surface-covering manner. Tattooing motifs seen in this ornament field include almost exclusively the bwilak motif (16) of which several variations and combinations have been used (see figures 45-49).

We can distinguish two major types of women's shoulder tattoos: Type I consists of the bwilak motif both on the back and the chest, while type II has this motif only on the back.

Type I has on either shoulder four sets of the bwilak motif of the back, ending at the shoulder ridge in a single set of triangles. On the chest side, there are again four sets of bwilak motifs on either shoulder, again with the little triangles added at the shoulder ridge. These sets of motifs, however, have a different lower end, where a double set of lines is added creating a zigzag border, from which small triangles are suspended. Two variants are known, one where the zigzag lines are made up of double lines with a space in between (Type Ia, figure 45) and one where the zigzag line is a broad pigment band (Type Ib, figure 46).

Another variant of type I tattoos is Ic, where the back and the front are arranged symmetrically, and the back also has the small triangles suspended (figure 47). [200]

Type IIa and IIb (not depicted) tattoos are similar to types Ia & Ib with the exception that the motifs are joined on the sternum and a central triangle is suspended.

Figure 45. Female shoulder tattoo Type Ia (the arrows indicate the shoulder line) [201]

Type III also has on either shoulder four sets of the bwilak motif of the back. However, rather than ending at the shoulder ridge in a single set of triangles, these motifs continue over the ridge onto the chest, where the lines part and merge with the lines of another motif into an ovate form. At the neck the left-over solitary line of the bwilak motif is elongated and curves around towards the Adam's apple (figure 49).

Figure 47. Female shoulder tattoo Type Ib (the arrows indicate the shoulder line)

Figure 48. Female shoulder tattoo Type Ic (the arrows indicate the shoulder line)

Figure 49. Female shoulder tattoo Type III (the arrows indicate the shoulder line).

The number of female tattoos recorded is limited, [202] but there is some variation known, although considerably less than for the men. For example, all three known type II tattoos stem from Arno Atoll . Table 5. lists the geographical distribution of the known tattoo types.

Table 5. Geographical variation of female shoulder tattoos. [203]

Atoll Ia Ib Ic Iia Iib III
Arno ğ ğ ğ
Jaluit ğ
Likiep (?) ğ
Majuro ğ
"Ratak" ğ
Wotje ğ
Jaluit (?) ğ

ARM TATTOO

The arm tattoo consists of two main parts, the decoration of the deltoid muscle and the decoration of the remaining arm to the wrist. The wrist area itself has another small ornament band. The deltoid muscle is commonly tattooed with a multiple zigzag band. The band runs across the arm, then downwards at the side, across the back of the arm and up again on the inside. There can be three or four parallel bands of zigzags. Hasebe , relying on information by the tattooed person herself, identifies the deltoid muscle ornamentation as eo idikdik , or small tattoo. [204] The area between the wrist and the deltoid muscle is tattooed with vertically aligned looj motifs (13). The E-shaped motifs commonly open towards the front of the person. On occasion the looj motif may be present, but the zigzag lines may be absent.

The wrist area was tattooed with ornament bands running at right angles to the arm, providing the appearance of cuffs or armbands. [205] Tattooing motifs seen in this zone are predominantly zigzag bands ( kein kım motif 1) and wavy-line bands ( kıdo motif 4).

Often the complex arm tattoo was replaced by some simpler armband-like tattoos. [206]

Figure 50. Side view of a woman's tattoo (Composite picture)

LEG TATTOO

On the whole, documented women's leg tattoos were fairly rare. If recorded they consisted of a tattoo of the thighs and a separate and unconnected tattoo of the calf. The tattoos of the thighs were apparently confined to thin bands or single lines and were restricted to the front of the leg. [207] The calf was decorated with horizontal lines only (figure 50). [208] Tattooing motifs seen in this ornament field include the zigzag tattoo ( kein kım motif 1).

TATTOO ON THE BACK OFF THE HAND

The tattoo on the back of a hand ( eo in peden-pa ) [209] consists of wavy-line ( kıdo motif 4) and zigzag lines, the kein kım motif (1) running across the back of the hand. [210] Female hand tattoos were apparently not only restricted to women of chiefly rank, but were also very personalised, so that women could be identified by the tattoo of their hand. [211] For example, Erdland retells a folk tale of an ogress, the aunt of Jemalivut , who had died during childbirth and had come to annoy people. She had detached her hand and sent it to steal bananas, but was recognised by the tattoo.

FINGER TATTOO

The finger tattoo ( eoon-addin ) [212] is also restricted to women of chiefly rank and consists of small ring-like bands around the entire finger (figure 51c,d), or, more commonly, only on the backside of the middle digit (figure 51a,b). Tattooing motifs seen in this ornament field include zigzag bands ( eodikdik motif No 1). [213] The most commonly tattooed finger is the middle finger, and only occasionally the ring finger or the little finger are tattooed.

The ring-like motifs mentioned for the first digits, appear to be a European-influenced design motif, imitating European finger rings. Traditionally, the Marshallese had no rings on their fingers. [214]

Figure 51. Finger tattoos

OTHER TATTOOS

In addition, women could have a "secret" tattoo (bıd en LıbıllıË) [215] which is "commonly invisible to the eyes". [216] It appears that this tattoo covered the mons veneris, in a fashion similar to the tattoos in other parts of Micronesia. [217]

Figure 52. Chest tattoo of Lijamer, a woman of chiefly rank on Majuro Atoll taken in 1945 (drawn from published picture of a partially visible tattoo).

Figure 53. Chest tattoo of Lijibrik, a woman of chiefly rank on Arno Atoll.

Figure 54. Back tattoo of Lijibrik, a woman of chiefly rank on Arno Atoll.

Figure 55. Chest tattoo of Nen, a woman of chiefly rank on Arno Atoll.

Figure 56. Back tattoo of Nen, a woman of chiefly rank on Arno Atoll.

Figure 57. Chest tattoo of Lijolok, a woman of chiefly rank on Arno Atoll (Schematic lay-out).

Figure 58. Chest tattoo of Lijolok, a woman of chiefly rank on Arno Atoll.

Figure 59. Back tattoo of Lijolok, a woman of chiefly rank on Arno Atoll.

Figure 60. Upper arm tattoo of Lijibrik, a woman of chiefly rank on Arno Atoll. Note the the upper border of thekemotifs is lacking. (Photo taken in 1950 courtesy of Leonard Mason).

Figure 61. Side view of the shoulder tattoo of Lijibrik, a woman of chiefly rank on Arno Atoll (Photo taken in 1950 courtesy of Leonard Mason).

Figure 62. Shoulder tattoo of Lijibrik, a woman of chiefly rank on Arno Atoll, as seen from the back. (Photo taken in 1950 courtesy of Leonard Mason).

Figure 63. Shoulder tattoo of Nen, a woman of chiefly rank on Tinak, Arno Atoll, as seen from the back (Photo taken in 1950 courtesy of Leonard Mason).

Figure 64. Chest tattoo of Nen, a woman of chiefly rank on Tinak, Arno Atoll (Photo taken in 1950 courtesy of Leonard Mason).

Figure 65. Arm tattoo of Nen, a woman of chiefly rank on Arno Atoll (Photo taken in 1950 courtesy of Leonard Mason).

Figure 66. Shoulder tattoo of Lijolok, a woman of chiefly rank on Arno Atoll taken in 1950, as seen from the back (Photo taken in 1950 courtesy of Leonard Mason).

Figure 67. Right shoulder tattoo of Lijolok, a woman of chiefly rank on Arno Atoll taken in 1950, as seen from the back (Photo taken in 1950 courtesy of Leonard Mason).

Figure 68. Left shoulder tattoo of Lijolok, a woman of chiefly rank on Arno Atoll taken in 1950, as seen from the back (Photo taken in 1950 courtesy of Leonard Mason).

Figure 69. Left shoulder tattoo of Lijolok, a woman of chiefly rank on Arno Atoll taken in 1950, as seen from the front (Photo taken in 1950 courtesy of Leonard Mason).

Figure 70. Chest tattoo of Lijolok, a woman of chiefly rank on Arno Atoll taken in 1950 (Photo taken in 1950 courtesy of Leonard Mason).

Figure 71. Arm tattoo (inner arms) of Lijolok, a woman of chiefly rank on Arno Atoll taken in 1950 (Photo taken in 1950 courtesy of Leonard Mason).

Figure 72. Arm tattoo (outer arms) of Lijolok, a woman of chiefly rank on Arno Atoll taken in 1950 (Photo taken in 1950 courtesy of Leonard Mason).

Figure 73. Hand tattoos of Lijolok, a woman of chiefly rank on Arno Atoll taken in 1950 (Photo taken in 1950 courtesy of Leonard Mason).

Figure 74. Chest tattoo of Lijolok, a woman of chiefly rank on Arno Atoll taken in 1950 (Photo taken in 1950 courtesy of Leonard Mason).

Figure 75. Chest tattoo of a woman of chiefly rank on Likiep at the turn of the century.



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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-women-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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