The Marquesas Islands are a group of islands that are one of the most remote in the world.
Somewhere in between Tahiti and Mexico, these islands are part of French Polynesia after France established control over the islands in 1870.
As for tattoos, they are just as rich, known for showing off a special societal status, creating an image of a famous person or place, or having a meaning that is spiritual or even practical in its ability to bring fertility or protection.
In fact, Marquesan men especially still wear tattoos over their entire bodies to this day.
Marquesan tattoos are a unique part of the Polynesian tattoo group and deserve their own discussion.
What are Marquesan Tattoos?
More than just tribal tattoos, Marquesian tattoos are body armor that can cover the wearer from head to toe in meaningful symbols.
There are even specific patterns for each Marquesan tribe on the different islands.
So how does the process of a Marquesan tattoo differ from other Polynesian tattoos?
The pigment used was traditionally from the ama nut, which was cooked over a fire and the soot was then captured onto stones and dried on banana leaves.
The resulting soot was then made into an ink concoction with either coconut oil, water, or vegetable juice which makes an ink that is both safe to use in the skin and also permanent.
As for the tool used to make the tattoo, all different native bones were used.
Each bone had a specifically shaped tip depending on the type of the tattoo, which is interesting because instead of just one comb there were different sized tools for each new line.
Today, tattooing is still done on the Marquesas islands, however, it is more likely to see a Marquesan using a tattoo machine than a bone tool.
Getting a tattoo for a Marquesan traditionally wasn’t as simple as sitting down for a few hours and having one done.
People went as far as building a house for the tattoo artist to stay in and cooking them meals.
This would be reserved for wealthy families and could take weeks or months depending on how many tattoos the person was going to have done.
Marquesan tattoos often were done to symbolize an event, especially coming of age.
For example, Marquesan men would get a tattoo as early as fourteen years old to signify that they have reached the age of maturity.
This was the same with girls, who when they became a woman (got their first period) they too would receive a tattoo in honor of their adulthood.
Girls would also be tattooed on the buttocks which meant they were ready for marriage.
As for warriors, these were the most tattooed guys around.
They believed that tattoos offered protection in battle, so they would be tattooed head to toe.
Every time they accomplished something, they would get another tattoo in honor of that event.
History of Marquesan Tattoos
The Marquesan islands are divided into a Northwest group and a Southeastern group of islands, and although they did not have a written language for most of their history, we do know that in 100 BCE the islands began to be settled by Pacific travelers.
The Marquesans, unlike some of their Polynesian neighbors, were known to be egalitarian.
Everyone had their own place in life which was relaxed and not ruled simply by chiefs.
For example, warriors were warriors, and family shamans had great influence in the community.
The top chief himself was not often tattooed, however, many others were and they treated the tattoo artists with the utmost respect.
As we’ve mentioned, they even housed them and fed them so that they lived comfortably.
It was only something the wealthy could afford because of this unless they wanted to use a less-known and less-trained artist.
The best artists were well taken care of by their wealthy clients.
The Spanish were the first to visit the Marquesan Islands in the 16th century.
Before intense European contact, the Marquesan islands were doing just fine as they are rich in natural resources.
Eventually, the French took over and banned tattoos in the 19th century.
This didn’t stop the Marquesan people from getting their tattoos, as they were very important to them.
Western explorers witnessed hundreds of different tattoo designs when they arrived at the islands.
Examples of some of these symbols that would have been seen tattooed on the Marquesan’s bodies were centipedes, geckos, geometric tattoo designs, arches, and circles, tattooed from the face all the way down the legs.
Each symbol was tattooed with a slight variation from the others to make each one have a unique look.
They were not simple copies.
These design elements added in would reflect that person’s heritage, tribe, and accomplishments.
One famous explorer who visited the islands was Captain Cook, who brought back these tattoo styles on the bodies of his own sailors and spread both knowledge of them and their popularity in the West.
Marquesan Tattoos Designs and Their Meanings
Marquesan tattoos are all about communication.
They communicate heritage, tribal history, individuality, legends, and much more.
There are hundreds Marquesan tattoo designs, but most of them tend to be simple and one of many variations of the same tattoo (always done in its own unique fashion).
Here are some interesting Marquesan Tattoos to learn about and perhaps pick out for your next tattoo:
Tiki Marquesan Tattoo Meaning
Many of the early Marquesans celebrated tiki, which they believed was the first man on Earth.
Tiki is depicted as a human figure with big eyes, a nose, a mouth, and ears.
Many Marquesans still get a tattoo of tiki, usually emphasizing his eyes or him with a big head filled in with tribal patterns.
The word tiki also refers to any figure, so when you are getting a Marquesan tattoo of any human figure or any figure at all it can be called a tiki.
Tiki hands are typically three fingers shown in symbolic form and can mean something different depending on the tribe, such as the ability to make fire.
The meaning of the tiki tattoo is to celebrate the legend of the first man on Earth and to celebrate life itself.
Typically, the tiki represents protection from evil in the world as well as fertility since he was the first man to produce children to create life on Earth.
Marquesan Cross Tattoo Meaning
A Marquesan cross tattoo consists of a quadrant centered with rounded symbols with a thick line circled around it.
Understandably, it is a difficult tattoo to describe, because there is so much going on with it.
It does not look like any type of cross you may have seen in Western culture.
This tattoo was traditionally worn behind a woman’s ear to promote fertility and the symbol represents the womb.
It was especially important for pregnant women because they believed it offered them protection from bad spirits.
These days, the Marquesan cross is widely used and isn’t just for women.
It is seen as an important protection symbol.
It is not only used for tattoos– it is carved into wood, church altars, and pretty much anything needing protection from evil spirits entering the body.
Marquesan Lizard Tattoo Meaning
The lizard tattoo is typically outlined in black and filled in with all sorts of tribal symbols.
Its scales are shown as alternating triangles and its eyes are dots attached with a line to the inside of its head.
The lizard to all Polynesians is divine.
It symbolizes all of the Gods and their abilities to make magic happen.
Therefore, it is considered a good luck charm for all who wear it.
They have access to the Gods and are a form of communication between humans and spirits.
However, they do have a dark side.
They have the ability to bring death and destruction from the Gods if you so deserve it.
Enata Marquesa Tattoo Meaning
The enata symbol typically looks like two ‘Y’’s joined together in thick bold black ink.
Its meaning in the Marquesan culture is ‘person’ or ‘people’.
There are many variations of the enata and it can look very different depending on the way it is joined and even look more like a figure with squares attached to the ends of the joints.
The meaning of the enata is different depending on its variation.
One meaning of this tattoo is to represent an ancestor.
Another meaning is to represent any sort of divinity or even an ancestor that the person thinks of as being divine.
More examples of enata meanings are, for example, when the two ‘Y’ figures are joined together inside of a long band it can signify marriage.
Or, if many ‘Y’ shaped figures are put together straight in a row it refers to an important legend.
This legend is that the Earth and the sky were once hugging each other tightly until they released and let in light to allow for humanity.
This motif signifies the meaning of this legend which is that we owe everything to the ancestors and the Gods.
Marquesan tattoos are interesting because the same tattoo can be shown in so many different ways.
When these variations are places all together to cover the entire body, there is so much to look at in awe at the beauty of their designs.
Although these designs are simple in nature, they are able to form powerful imagery.
The beauty too lies behind the heritage of the Marquesas culture and the meaning behind what they decide to place on their bodies.
Alyssa Renee McCormack is a writer, curator, and photographer who publishes articles on the topics of the arts, culture, and social justice. She graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology with a degree in fashion business and art history and museum professions. Her experience working with a variety of art institutions, her world travel, and her inquisitive nature provides her with a unique insight. Check out her about page, she would love to connect with you!