Tattooing in the Marshall Islands


Rarely has an artform found so diverse evaluations as tattooing. The ancient Greeks, who considered everyone non-Greek as barbaric, observed and condemned tattooing among the "barbaric" Thracians and Scythians, and the ancient Romans observed it among Gauls, Britons and Germans. The Romans also tattooed (marked) slaves and convicted criminals and regarded tattooing as a mark of low estate. Early Christians had borne the sign of the cross as a tattoo, but when Emperor Constantine I. made Christianity the official religion of Rome (A.D. 325) he banned tattooing. After the advent of Christianity in these areas, tattooing was also forbidden in central and northern Europe. [1]

In the opinion of the public of modern westernized societies tattooing still has an infamous reputation: more often than not the mental image of tattooing is connected with what are perceived to be societal fringe populations, such as sailors, motor cycle gangs, circus artists, prostitutes and "jailbirds". Most of this stigma stems from historic roots: [2] the bible forbids tattooing as such;[3] and tattooing to mark and number convicts, used as early as Roman times, was wide-spread practice in 19th century British and American penal systems and attained more recent infamy during the Nazi period where Jews delivered to concentration camps were thus marked.[4]

Yet, on the other hand, almost all early European visitors to the South Seas, beginning with Cook's visit to Tahiti, found tattooing most intriguing. The English word "tattoo" is in fact a loanword from the Polynesian word tatau. [5] European visitors saw the Marshallese tattoos as "eye capturing" [6] and some, such as Adalbert von Chamisso, even desparately ventured to attain such body markings. In his eyes, "tattooing neither covers nor disfigures the body, but rather blends in with it in graceful adornment and seems to enhance its beauty". [7]

Following such enthusiastic reports from the South Seas, tattooing became for a short while rather fashionable in the age of romanticism, both in England and continental Europe, and a number of illustrious high-ranking people obatined tattoos. In the late 19th and early 20th century tattooes then became wide spread in some trades and professions. [8]

For Pacific Islanders of the pre-contact period tattooing was a simple -- though painful -- fact of life, for both sexes a major step towards becoming a fully accepted member of society. In contrast to Europeans, where dress and body are seen as separate entities and where the tattooes consist of mainly isolated pictures rather than whole body compositions, Oceanic tattooes are intrisically linked to the body they decorate and the dress which covers that body.

Tattooing in Oceanic Cultures

In traditional Oceanic cultures tattooing is closely connected to the social and spiritual custom of a population. [9] The motif complex utilised by prehistoric and historic populations in the Pacific covered several art forms, ranging from bark cloth, rock art, pottery (where extant) and wood carving/painting to body ornamentation. In all cases the ornament set was seen as a group identifier, classifying the bearer as distinct from strangers and regional neighbours; [10] it was an visual expression of being Tongan, Marshallese, Gilbertese, In addition, it functioned as an identifier of subgroups within a population, such as distinguishing chiefly from non-chiefly people. [11]

Body ornamentation comes in three forms: body painting, i.e. the application of paint or mud; pigment tattooing, i.e. the application of pigment under the epidermis; and scar tattooing, i.e. the piercing, slicing or burning of the skin to cause a scar, thus creating a three-dimensional ornament. While body painting is a reversable ornament, the latter two are permanent. All three methods of body ornamentation are common in Oceania and especially Micronesia, although only pigment tattooing, and--to a very small degree only--scar tattooing were practised in the Marshall Islands.

The Marshall Islands

The Marshall Islands (Aelon Kein Ad), comprising 29 atolls and 5 islands, are located in the north-west equatorial Pacific, about 3800km west of Honolulu, about 2700km north of Fijil and 1500km east of Pohnpei (Ponape) (figure 1). [12] With the exception of the two northwestern atolls, Enewetak and Ujelang, the Marshall Islands are arranged in two island chains running roughly NNW to SSE: the western Ralik Chain and the eastern Ratak Chain (figure 2).

Figure 1.Location of the Marshall Islands in the Northern Equatorial Pacific Ocean. (The frame shows the area covered by figure 2).

Not counting the five islands, Jemo, Jabwat, Kili, Lib and Mejit, the atolls of the Marshall Islands range from very small, with less than 3.5 sqkm, such as Nadikdik (Knox) Atoll to very large. With 2,173 sqkm lagoonal area, Kwajalein Atoll has the distinction of being the atoll with the World's largest lagoon.

The Marshallese environment

The atolls of the Marshall Islands, comprising well over 1200 islands and islets are scattered about in an ocean area of well over 600,000 square miles. The total enclosed lagoonal area is a bit more than 4,500 square miles, while the total combined land area of the atolls is as little as 70 square miles.

The atolls support narrow sand cays set on the more or less ring-like reef platform. Only few of the islands on the atolls have a land area greater than one square kilometre and on most of them the distance between the lagoon and the ocean side is less than 300 metres.

Figure 2. Map of the Marshall Islands

The environment the Marshallese lived and still live in is dominated by the sea. Land is scarce, and the sea and its inhabitants are omnipresent. Thus it is hardly surprising to learn that the Marshallese were avid navigators who ventured far beyond the Marshall Islands. Inter-atoll canoe traffic was common and the exploitation of varied marine resources a well developed skill.

As will be shown further below, the sea and marine life also plays a very important role in Marshallese tattoo designs.


Because traditional tattooing in the Marshall Islands is largely a dead art and most knowledge has been lost, this study had to rely heavily on historic and ethnographic sources discussed in the next chapter.

Where known, the Marshallese terms for the motifs and ornament fields, as well as for tattooing utensils are given. The spelling of these words uses the modern phonetic spelling proposed in the Marshallese dictionary adopted by the Marshallese Language Commission. [13] However, as most words are no longer in useage, and are thus not included in the dictionary, the words recorded and transcribed by the German ethnographers were transcribed into the modern phonetic system. For reference, the original renderings are given in footnotes. A complete list of words can be found in the glossary at the end of the volume.

On the following pages we will investigate Marshallese tattooing from a number of angles. First we will lay a foundation for the study, by having close look at the sources available for the enquiry. We will discuss their validity and reliability. Thereafter we will focus on the traditional Marshallese dress and its relationship to the body ornaments, both permanent and temporary. This leads to a discussion of the Marshallese tattoo motifs, their meaning, as well as their origin, as far as this can be elucidated. A discourse shows the close ties to mat weaving motifs. On this foundation, then, we will look at the mens's and the women's tattooes in their entirety and how the individual motifs and ornament zones relate to each other. We will also look at the tattooing utensils used to create the ornaments.

In the third part we will concentrate on the social context of tattooing by discussing the traditional Marshallese society, the tattooing ceremony and the spiritual and social importance of being tattooed. We will show that tattooing was an integral visual part of the social system. A look on the differences between Marshallese tattooes and those of their immediate geographical neighbours concludes this section.

The final part of the volume will look at the frequency of tattooing over time and will investigate the reasons for its demise. With the spread and acceptance of Christian belief structures by the Marshallese, tattooing became rapidly associated with the old culture, and thus untenable. It died out as a viable practice long before the Japanese outlawed it during the period of their mandate. A short section on the potential future of tattooing in a modern Marshallese society concludes the volume. Although tattooing has become more common among the young male populaton in the urban centres of the Marshall Islands, it is a copy of the Euro-American motif sets, and in its splendour a far cry from what once flourished.

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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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