Posts Tagged ‘polynesia’


Just wanted to post the progress shot of a full back piece in progress. This pic was taken on the second day of work, as I broke the piece into halves. The left side was done on day one; the right completed the next day. This piece will also incorporate taulima Samoan elements in the final lower stages, the upper portion maintaining Maori and Marquesan motifs. When it is completed (by July) I will post the breakdown.

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Aloha, and thanks for taking the time to read  my blog.

I did this calf piece the other day; it is a mixture of traditional Marquesan, modern Maori, and modern Hawaiian, done in the modern Samoan taulima style.

Taulima (meaning, armband) is popular in Polynesia right now, and when people think ‘Polynesian’ tattoo, they are often referring to this style.

Taulima combines the weave structure and motifs found in the Samoan pe’a. But because the pe’a process is so time consuming and painful, many people prefer to have taulima instead. That being said, the taulima is not conducive to providing the genealogical information that the pe’a easily conveys and is mainly done for aesthetic purposes.

The main reason for this is because the structure of the pe’a is built upon the structure of the home or dwelling, with the house post (think the main beam of a house), ‘aso e tasi, being the foundation from which the other beams (‘aso fa’aifo, ‘aso fa’alava, ‘aso laitiiti) subsequently radiate from. The pe’a is built on this foundation and is finished off with, at the small of the back, a canoe shaped motif that symbolizes the generations of families of a given individual.

The taulima is not as expansive, nor is the shape, generally placed on the shoulder/chest/arm region, symmetrical and therefore does not lend itself to the elegance of the pe’a. The pe’a, when completed, is meant to resemble the shape of a flying fox, hanging upside down, wings folded against the body.

However, this does not diminish the efficacy of the tattoo! And as you can see, the taulima is something that the artist can have fun with and it looks great too.

This client wanted to have a piece that reflected his spirituality, his love for his children and a new beginnings.

The breakdown is as follows:

a)- papa konane: this lauhala variant is a modern Hawaiian interpretation of the lauhala mat, that symbolizes family, unity and exclusivity

b)- pepehipu: this Marquesan element is a simple band of black. The word means “pounded or beaten” and it symbolizes the flattened bark of the mulberry tree, or tapa (kapa) that was used as a rudimentary armor of sorts. It is meant to protect.

c)- aveau: this Samoan motif is the star of the sea and it is meant to symbolize guidance, spirits of  the deceased and devotion.

d)- ama kopeka: this Marquesan motif represents a flame and represents in this instance, illumination.

e)- mata: this Marquesan motif symbolizes a row of eyes that look forward and backward, up and down,or threats or harm.

f)- ani ata: this Marquesan motif represents the sky, heaven, ancestors and the horizon.

g)- a’aka hala: this Marquesan/Hawaiian motif represents the weave of the fronds of the pandanus tree. It is meant to symbolize family, unity, armor and protection.

h)- koru: this Maori symbol of the unfurling fern head symbolizes new beginnings, growth, life and breath.

i)- poiti and pahoe, these two Marquesan symbols represent this person’s son and daughter, respectively.

j)- hena: this Marquesan motif for the hand is used to affix the tattoo to the body.

Well, I hope you enjoyed the read!

Aloha, Roland

The mata hoata, or ‘brilliant eyes’, seeming ubiquity in Marquesan tattoo, places it in a position of prominence in the hierarchy of motifs utilized by the Marquesans. As I touched upon in the above post in regards to the ‘evolution’ of the poi’i via mata komoe (death’s head), which I believe is incorrect, the general ‘understanding’ is that the mata komoe begat the mata hoata.


My intention for presenting index theory arguments regarding Marquesan tattoo imagery is to provide a different reasoning to the conventional accepted wisdom, on the basis that such wisdom often originated from a non-Polynesian perspective desperate to ‘fit’ the Polynesian mindset into a westernized viewpoint and ideology. Much of what we know in regards to Marquesan tattoo comes from Langsdorff, Krusenstern, Von den Steinen, Handy, and to a greater extent, the intellectual acrobatics of Gell. Naturalists, explorers, artists and anthropologists, the lot of them, but still, they might as well have all been aliens landing on a foreign planet called the Marquesas. And they were.

Von den Steinen created the most complete account of the art of the peoples of the Marquesas. His three volume set sheds a glaring light where none had shone before. He illuminated a very important part of Polynesian culture that would have surely become lost to time had he not done so. In fact, if he did not possess incredible artistic talent (coupled with the classic Teutonic predisposition for accuracy and meticulousness) I would have very little to write about on the subject of Marquesan tattoo!

That being said, Von den Steinen relied on, and became obsessed with, a very popular scientific theory of the time, that being Darwin’s evolutionary theory. Von den Steinen was born four years after, On the Origins of Species, was published.

I do not intend to get into Von den Steinen’s head, nor pretend to know intimate details about the man, but I will say that his obsession with recognizing evolution in everything around, was what caused him to make broad generalizations about many of things that he encountered. To a fault (in my humble opinion).

This particular skewed perception is what he based all of his account of Marquesan tattoo art; to a lesser degree with Marquesan plastic art.

The mata hoata is one such symbol that he felt ‘evolved’ from other symbols. Not necessarily  in the sense of a chronological evolution (like the latest sports car taking styling cues from a line of predecessors), but in the sense that if you took ‘exhibit A’ and turned it clockwise, then cut it in half, it would form ‘exhibit B’. He believed that much of Marquesan art maintained this sort of progression; that one thing begat another, then another begat another, and so on.

Looking at Marquesan tattoo art from this perspective, it is easy to see why he believed he was correct. A great deal of the artwork looks indeed like bastardized versions of completely unrelated subject matter. The Kea (turtle) motif, if split in half and turned 90 degrees does indeed seem to form the basis for the Kena’s bath motif, as well as the general shape of the Hope Vehine (women’s buttocks) motif. The Aniata motif (clouded sky or heaven) does look like a dumbed down version of an extended Etua (gosling) motif. The concept of dualities and multiplicity was something that the Marquesans certainly embraced as a culture, but to gloss everything that they produced as ‘evolutions’ of one or another base concepts, does not place much value on the artist, or his/her agency. Inspiration is a very key ingredient of creation (if any of you have had the ‘pleasure’ of reading Gell’s books you will see this theory argued>into>the>ground) and simply stating that it is evolution is a great disservice to the field.

My argument, in terms of Marquesan art not being solely a product of re-iterations of themes, stems from two simple points.

First, despite Von den Steinen creating an exquisite collection of Marquesan art, he only spent 6 months in the islands, in the year 1897. This is not enough time to establish any basis of evolution. In order to establish evolution, one must go back to the prototype, and clearly 6 months does not allow time for that to happen (granted, he spent the next 20 years honing his research before he published his three volumes on the subject).

Secondly, the time in which he performed his field work, was at the end of what is considered the evolution of the Marquesan culture as a whole. He encountered relics and artifacts that although may have appeared ancient, were indeed created in the nineteenth-century, and if they were not, how was he to know? Marquesans treated time not as a procession of days, to months, to years, but rather as collection of extended instances, that could span a life time. Every day was a continuation of the last, as was every night. They had no seasons (except dry and wet) and relied on the good favor of the gods to produce fruit, for example. They did not rely on seasonal changes to dictate their lives; they just lived.

Now, that I have succeeded in boring the reader to tears with the back story, I will waste no time, and get directly to my argument.


Mata hoata are known as, “Brilliant Eyes”. They are a stylized rendition of the upper part of a face (although some have mouths), mainly the eyes, nose, ears and cheeks.


As you can see from this classic Von den Steinen illustration, the mata hoata motif was used extensively and is, in my opinion, the cornerstone of Marquesan tattoo art.

The Marquesans believed that the body consisted of several entities, that collectively, made the body a whole. Legs and arms, the neck and head were all considered separate beings that were attached to a main body, that was itself, a separate entity. Collectively the body and its sub-parts were considered as one, yet, they were also considered independent, so to speak, from the rest. If an illness or sickness overcame the foot, for example, the foot was treated as an independent being, and while the person was being treated, the kahuna (priest/doctor) would speak to the foot and treat it as a completely distinct entity (Melville, p.100, 1846).

I mention this only because it will help to illustrate my point about mata hoata placement. As you can see from the illustration, some of the mata hoata are upside down (shoulder area), and some are sideways (back of thigh and knee). For the most part they appear right side up, but I think it is important to distinguish the variations.


Going back then, to my statement that Marquesans considered their bodies to be an assemblage of ‘parts’ that create a whole, one can easily see how this concept plays out. The top two mata hoata are placed  on each arm, facing backwards to ‘see’ danger from behind. They are upside down because when the arms are lifted over the head (as in battle when swinging a club) the eyes then become right side up. The next instance is on the rib cage protecting the person from harm from the side. Moving down we see a mata hoata placed sideways on the upper thigh, this placement makes the image ‘right side up’ when the leg is crooked at a 90 degree angle, just as it would be when running or swinging a club. The next instance on the knee is placed with the same intention in mind.

Mata hoata are also found on the front side of an individual as well, on the arms, chest, torso, hands and legs.


You can see the variation of the motif in I and II. I believe that like all art, the difference in style of mata hoata are clearly a reflection of the artist’s subjectivity. There was a certain accepted ‘look’ that I think everyone agreed was what defined the image, but other than the obligatory elements of the ‘face’ construct, I think that the overall size, shape and form that the mata hoata took was completely up to the person applying the tattoo. Perhaps there is more to it as far as one tribe having certain favored elements included in the design and so on, but I won’t get into that now.

This argument is, after all, about the index and not of the agency.

Again, I believe that the index of the mata hoata was not an evolution of a pre-existing motif. Yes, if you were to split the Hope Vehine motif in half and turn each part 90 degrees and put them back together, you will have the rough shape of the mata hoata, but to say that the Marquesans were breaking out their protractors while designing tattoos, or convoluting their art to that extent, is a path I choose to steer clear of for the moment. I like to think that people (artists) are inspired by what surrounds them, what they come in contact with on a regular basis. I know that I am. Whenever I attempt to make things ‘tricky’ to solicit wonder, it almost always falls flat. I don’t think the Marquesans were much different.

My theory is this:

The index of mata hoata derived from a sea creature, namely, the crab.


The purpose of Marquesan tattoo was to protect the wearer from the contagion of ‘sacredness’ that surrounded them on a daily basis (Gell, p.174, 1993). The individual segments (paka) which can be seen in the Von den Steinen illustration, fit together like armor, which is the reasoning behind the shapes of the paka. A ‘seam’ runs down the back of this person segmenting the area, not unlike a shell. The same application can also be seen on the legs and arms. Tattoo, as far as the Marquesans were concerned, acted as a metaphorical device (Gell, p. 181, 1993).

Why a crab?

Well, the crab was an animal (like the turtle) that the Marquesans would come into contact with frequently, it was armored (a trait the Marquesans felt compelled to emulate) and it was something that was totally relatable (think of how many people have dragon tattoos, but have never seen a dragon). They put images on their bodies that they could recognize and that were ‘real’ to them. Even the evil spirits (fanaua) of women that had died giving birth to a child (this happened a lot) were considered real, which was why the fanaua was another highly utilized motif.

If you look at the structure of the crab’s face, with its retractable eyes and armored mandibles, you can plainly see the mata hoata. The ovoid shape of the eye is apparent, as is the sunlight that reflecting from it.


Again, the other facial elements differ. In ‘I’ above you can see different nose forms. Some appear to be poka’a (a, d), one is a papua (b), and c has a nose comprised of an etua. In ‘II’, the eyes in b are etua, while the eyes in c are a combination of eel bones and poka’a.  All of these flourishes are subjective, the base of the design is still very much intact.


In this photo, the recesses of the eyes and the mandibles clearly form the mata hoata shape.

Therefore, it is my belief that the mata hoata index derived from a crab face. The crab is armored and is protected from all sides. It can see danger approaching from any direction.

The Marquesans believed that the tattoo was armor to protect them from the contagious sacredness of being. Life in the mortal realm was fragile and one needed protection from the will of the gods, whose power could manifest suddenly and bring dire consequences. Not to mention protection from their enemies, who often lived in the next valley over.

Unfortunately, their tattoos could not protect them from the intrusion of western culture, and the misunderstandings that such contact precipitated.