Tattoos, totems and taboos off the beaten path

Many of the crew members on the Aranui freighter were covered with tattoos - some even had their faces tattooed like the man pictured below. This friendly crew member helped passengers on and off the ship after excursions. It was hard not to be fascinated by his tattoos and curious about their significance. Luckily, our cruise included lectures by a leading authority on the arts of the Marquesas, Dr. Carol Ivory, who co-wrote the notes to an exhibition of Marquesan art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. See her treatise at Thanks to her informative lectures we were able to learn a great deal that made us appreciate the art of the tattoo in the Marquesas.

Travel off the beaten path tattoos on Aranui

Through history, tattoos were used to denote the noble status of the bearer and both men and women were tattooed. The women had more limited tattoos, generally on their hands, ankles and lips. Warriors usually began the tattooing process at age 18 and by 30 were completely covered. Being tattooed from head to toe did not stop a warrior from seeking more tattoos. At times the body would be so covered that the tattoos would run into each other making the warrior's skin appear almost completely black. Tattooing was a sacred art that involved the ritualistic application of pigments made from charcoal under skin that had been cut by sharp blades fashioned from human or animal bones. The process was painful, time-consuming and very valued for its decorative and religious significance. With the arrival of missionaries and Western civilization came the temporary end of the art. It was only revived in the 1970s as a way for Marquesans to reclaim their cultural heritage. Our very tattooed crew member, in fact, was proudly the wearing his ancestral history on his skin for all to see.

Tikis in the Marquesas are a far cry from the plastic tiki glasses we all see at summer parties. The stylized representations of a god's body are taken very seriously. We were taken to the jungle ruins of Puamau where our guide spoke about the significance of the site. It is the most important archaeological site in the world for tikis (after Easter Island).

Tikis off the beaten path

The Tikis are human-like figures found at ceremonial sites. They often represent ancestral deities and even today the sites are considered to be sacred. It is tapu (taboo) not to show respect when visiting a Tiki area especially since Tiki is the name given to the god who created the Marquesas Islands. Our guide told us many stories at the archaeological site, including one that was particularly shocking. He had visited with a fellow Polynesian who insisted on posing for silly pictures in front of one of the statues. Our guide said chillingly, "He died in a car accident the next week." We were very respectful.

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