Tattooing in the Marshall Islands


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, reflecting their membership, and their position within that society. T oday, some 150 years after the introduction of the New England Protestant version of Christianity, by and large tattooing is no longer practised in the Marshall Islands. Those who have tattoos, have "modern", that is Euro-American motifs, usually self-applied with inappropriate tools or obtained during overseas tri ps. At present, traditional Marshallese tattooing is a dead art.

Thus, a study of traditional Marshallese tattooing is actually a post mortem investigation. This booklet is destined to document Marshallese tattooing, as an art form with its rich ornaments and elaborate execution, and also the traditional social context in which tattooing needs to be seen. In keeping with the nature of a post mortem enquiry, then, this booklet will also examine the demise of the tattooing and attempt to highlight what caused it.

Information on 19th century Marshallese tattooing can be found scattered in a number of contemporary accounts. In addition, a few ethnographic treatises touch on the subject, most of them in German . To date there is no comprehensive overview on the topic. Furthermore, none of the information had been readily available for the Marshallese public. This volume is intended to fill that gap, although it is clear from the onset that there may be addition al information, especially oral history, not yet canvassed. A Kajin Majol (Marshallese language) edition is planned for the near future.

Because this volume is the first compilation on Marshallese tattooing, it was necesssary to ex tensively annotate and reference the study; since this scholarly apparatus is rather tiring for the general readership the book primarily wants to address, the commentary and footnotes have been relegated to the rear of the volume.


This study has been written with the assistance of a number of people, the help of whom is gratefully acknowledged.

I am grateful to Alfred Capelle, CEO Alele Musum and National Archives. (Ma juro), who checked on the transcription of some of the Marshallese words recorded by the Germans into the currently valid orthography, and also provided the available oral history data on tattooing. Rev. Kanki Amlejson>, oral historian, Alele Inc., kindly provided additional information.

Dr. Siegfried Seifert, Librarian, Frobenius Institute, Frankfurt (Germany) provided copies of a great number of German ethnographic references u sed in this book, which were otherwise unavailable in the Marshall Islands. His help is very much appreciated.

I am grateful to the deBrum family, custodians of the deBrum Photo collection, and as well as to Leonard Mason for the permission to use some of their negatives and photographs.

James Abernathy (Majuro) made available his scanner, as well as a more powerful computer to manipulate some of the scans and images represented in this volume.

I am also very much in debt with Dan Thome, Guam/San Francisco, who provided encouragement as well as very fruitful discussions, and who set me off on this path in the first place.

Above all, however, I am grateful to my wife, Jane Downing, who endured the prolonged gestation period of this volume and who provided good criticism of an earlier draft. To all those kommal tata Majuro Atoll December 1992

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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.

(c) Dirk H.R. Spennemann 1998
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