Rapa Nui Tattoo

Rapa Nui tattoo Easter Island tattoo Hjalmar Stolpel mostrando los tatuajes rapa nui de Tepano
Engraving by Hjalmar Stolpel showing Tepano Rapa Nui tattoos

Rapa Nui tattoos, like body painting, are one of the characteristic artistic manifestations of the culture of the inhabitants of Easter Island.


Tattoo in the Polynesian culture

Proceso de tatuaje de un hombre a la antigua manera polinésica
Process of tattooing a man in the ancient Polynesian way

The practice of tattooing has been present in different cultures throughout the history of man. The oldest traces found date back to the Neolithic, and it is believed that the appearance of the tattoo in the South Pacific would have its origin in the Lapita culture that spread in successive migrations from Tonga and Samoa more than 3,000 years ago.

The name of this unique technique of permanently decorating the body comes from the Polynesian term “Ta” which means hitting or marking. Hence the word “Ta Tau” or “Ta Kona” common in several Polynesian islands.

The word tattoo spreads in the Western world through the stories of European sailors who visited the different islands of the Pacific in the eighteenth century. In their diaries they describe, with surprise, the colorful designs that the natives showed and that they called “tatau”.

The tattoo was a widespread custom in Polynesia and Micronesia and was very present in the life of the islanders. The different decorative designs showed the identity of its wearer, since they indicated the family clan to which he belonged, his age, his social status or his spiritual beliefs. At the same time, the marks on the skin represented the strength and courage of the individual to endure pain, something especially valued among warriors and tribal chiefs.

Although Polynesian tattoo art has common characteristics throughout the region, over time, each island or group of islands developed new designs and meanings adopted from their own culture. The originality of this new iconography stood out especially in Rapa Nui, due to its remote location that made contact with other peoples difficult.


Origin of the Rapa Nui tattoo

Dibujo de Ludwig Choris representando un antiguo habitante de Isla de Pascua con tatuajes rapa nui
Drawing by Ludwig Choris representing an ancient inhabitant of Rapa Nui with tattoos

We do not know for sure how and when the practice of tattooing was incorporated into the customs of Easter Island. It is possible that it was introduced by the first settlers who arrived in Rapa Nui or later through the sporadic but permanent contacts that took place with other Polynesian islands.

Oral tradition has preserved a story that mentions the use of tattooing in ancient times and links it to a possible supernatural origin. This Rapanui legend tells how two aku aku or female spirits, Vi’e Moko (lizard woman) and Vi’e Kena (gannet woman) who came from the island of Hiva, toured various places in Rapa Nui until they reached the Motu Nui islet.

These women, whose bodies were completely tattooed, were paired with two brothers, named Heru and Patu, who lived in the Te Ana Ai Patete cave. From this double union their children a’Heru (son of Heru) and a’Patu (son of Patu) were born and their mothers tattooed them in another cave on Motu Nui called Ana Ta Humu Ta Mata Pea. These children of mortal parents spread the knowledge of the tattoo among the other inhabitants when they left Motu Nui and went to live on the main island.

The first historical references to the practice of tattooing in Rapa Nui can be found in the drawings and descriptions made by European visitors who arrived on Easter Island from the 18th century. In their chronicles they tell us how the ancient natives were practically naked, but they wore a striking combination of tattoos and paintings that covered their bodies as clothing.


Meaning of rapa nui tattoos

Tribal chief with tattoos on his face | Engraving based on drawing by Pierre Loti

It is really unknown why the ancient islanders began to tattoo themselves. Surely the art of tattooing was developed to adorn and differentiate that patent and monotonous nudity that equaled all bodies. The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss already said that paintings give the individual his dignity as a human being, turning the animal into civilized man and nature into culture.

Both tattoos and facial and body paint were used as an element of personal identity and social position within the group. Thus, the marks and symbols on each person’s skin established to which family or tribe they belonged, where they lived, and, as in our days, they also reflected significant events that they wanted to remember. The greater the extent and beauty of the tattooed motifs, the greater the rank and wealth of that person.

Experts also believe that this art had a fundamentally spiritual connotation, as an old proverb from the island of Borneo says: “A man without tattoos is invisible to the gods“. A thought that shows the importance of tattoos as a link between human and divinity.

In Rapa Nui, the priests and rulers had many more tattoos than the rest of the population, attributes that expressed their wealth, hierarchy and connection with mana or divine force.

In the same way, some moai figures, representatives of the ancestors, preserve remains of pigments and engravings that represent tattoos on their surface, indicating the great relevance that the art of tattooing had in the Rapanui culture.


The rapa nui tattoo process

Tattooing was practiced by experts, called ma’ori takona, who trained for years to make the necessary materials and instruments and masterfully execute their art. These specialists consulted the most auspicious dates with the priests (ivi atua) and requested the consent of the ariki or supreme chief before proceeding with their trade.

Instruments and materials for tattooing

Planta "ti" (Cordyline fruticosa) | Fotografía de Daniel Barthelemy (cc-by-sa)
Plant “ti” (Cordyline fruticosa) | Photograph by Daniel Barthelemy (cc-by-sa)

The first step consisted in the manufacture of vegetable ink. Father Sebastian Englert, in his writings, explains the technique:

A hole was dug in the ground and a fire was built in it. On the lit fire they threw a good amount of dry leaves of “ti” (Cordyline fruticosa) and sugar cane. The hole was covered with a smooth slate stone, leaving enough opening so that the fire would not go out. Smoke from the burning leaves rose to the stone top, covering it with soot. Once the leaves were consumed, the grime was scraped from the stone, letting it fall into a gourd or a hollowed-out stone or taheta. Sugar cane was then chewed and the saliva was spat on the dust of charred leaves. It could also be mixed with the juice of poporo (Solanum nigrum). The resulting dark pigment was kept in a small box or gourd to be used later.

Agujas de hueso en el Museo Antropológico Sebastian Englert
Bone needles exhibited at the Sebastian Englert Anthropological Museum

The instrument for tattooing called uhi (or iuhi) was a needle or small comb made from bird bone or fish bones. It has an average length of about 6 cm and a width of about 4 mm. One end is cut into 5 or 6 points or teeth, like a tiny comb. Some of these needles have been found in excavations carried out in the caves of the island and are currently exhibited in various museums.

The needle was attached to a small stake that served as a handle so that the tattooist could hold it more easily while hitting it with a wooden mallet called a miro pua uhi and thus introduce the plant pigment under the epidermis.

Tattoo in children

The tattooing process began when children were 7 or 8 years old and ended in adulthood. The tattooed took long periods of rest between sessions to recover from a slow and very painful procedure. In many cases it produced fever and sometimes infections, which they tried to mitigate with medicinal plants.

Boys were tattooed on their legs (kona) and hands (rima kona) and girls had drawings printed on their foreheads (retu) and cheeks (pangaha’a).

When the tattooed youth recovered from their first tattoos, the parents would organize an umu ora o te tatú, a curanto of gratitude to which the ma’ori takona and the whole family were invited.

The children were then brought before the ariki in Anakena where they were judged for their tattoos. If these were beautiful and well made, the king sent the children to a place called Ahu Runga, otherwise they were sent to Tunaroa, shaming the family.


Symbols of traditional rapa nui tattoos

Dibujo de Pierre Loti mostrando una pareja con tatuajes rapa nui
Drawing by Pierre Loti showing a Rapanui couple with tattoos

There is not much documentation on the designs and particularities of the traditional tattoos that were made in Rapa Nui. This is due to the fact that this ancient art ceased to be practiced at the end of the 19th century, due to a series of historical causes that had an impact on the island’s way of life.

The few descriptions of Rapanui tattoos are found in the stories, drawings and engravings recorded during the visits of Europeans to Easter Island that began 300 years ago. A couple of photographs have also been preserved with the last people tattooed in the old fashion and some wooden figures and tapa dolls (mahute cloth) that reproduce various tattoo designs.

As far as we know, both men and women tattooed their bodies, and although several witnesses affirm that women showed fewer marks on their skin, the extension of the tattooed surface would have more to do with the rank and hierarchy that each person had in the society than with their sex. In this way, tribal and family chiefs would flaunt their power and wealth with a greater number of tattoos than the rest of the population.

It is possible that the motifs used by men and women in their tattoos were slightly different, but there is not enough information to indicate that there were concrete and specific designs for each gender.

However, there is evidence that certain designs were repeated in the majority of tattooed individuals, forming a general pattern that was transmitted from generation to generation. Also, it is likely that each clan or tribe had unique designs with which they identified their members.


Original and realistic designs

Tatuajes rapa nui en mujer-dibujo de Linton Palmer-1852
Young woman with rapa nui tattoos | Drawing by Linton Palmer 1852

A characteristic of Rapa Nui tattoos, unlike other places in Polynesia, is the originality and variety of their designs. In addition to geometric drawings, realistic motifs from everyday life were used.

Among the most represented images were the ao (baton of command), komari (female vulva), mangai (rapanui hook) and the mask of the creator god Make Make. These Rapanui symbols of power, fertility, fishing, and spiritual energy are also recurrent in paintings and rock art on the island.

On the other hand, each individual allowed himself to incorporate new and different motifs that reflected his own taste or some relevant fact of his personal history. For example, the Rapanui known as Tepano, portrayed by Hjalmar Stolpe in 1884, had a tattoo on his forearm depicting the famous moai Hoa Hakananai’a being dragged by various English sailors.


Types of ancient rapa nui tattoos

Each tattoo received a different name depending on the part of the body where it was applied. Let’s see some of them.

Tatuajes rapa nui en dibujo basado en boceto de Katherine Routledge
Drawing based on sketch by Katherine Routledge showing different tattoos

Tattoos on the forehead – Retu

The retu, which was more common among women, consisted of a band formed by two parallel lines divided into three semicircular sections. Its central part was located in the highest area of the forehead and the other two framed both temples. This band was accompanied by a series of small circles that, like a garland, fell on the forehead and extended to the ears.

In men, under the retu, several solid and parallel vertical stripes could appear, reaching up to the eyebrows. It seems that the designs on the forehead were the first tattoos done in childhood.

Eye tattoos – Matapea

A dark stroke along the eyebrow runs parallel to a line tattooed on the upper eyelid. The lines meet with a curved stroke that follows the inner corner of the eye and extends towards the triangle tattooed on the top of the nose.

In other cases, the eye was completely surrounded by a line that meets an oval design at the temples.

Tattoos on the cheeks – Pangaha’a

The cheeks were often covered by solid triangular shapes with somewhat rounded sides. It seems that this design symbolized an ax with a tilted blade. Oval or crescent-shaped figures were also drawn on the cheeks.

Tattoos on the lips – Ngutu tika

A fairly common pattern was a tattoo made up of three vertical strokes running down from the lower lip to the chin. Most people had their lips completely tattooed or decorated with alternating perpendicular lines.

Another motif, more frequent in women, was a ring tattooed around the mouth called ngutu tika. In men, the upper lip could be crossed by a solid band resembling a mustache.

Vista lateral de Tepano con tatuajes rapa nui en el cuello Grabado de Hjalmar Stolpe
Side view of Rapanui Tepano with tattoos on his neck | Engraving by Hjalmar Stolpe

Neck tattoos

Neck tattooing was essentially a male practice, consisting of a series of wide, wavy stripes running down from the lower jaw to the beginning of the thorax. These stripes alternated the dark color of the ink with the natural skin that was decorated with finer dots or short lines. In the quarry of the Rano Raraku volcano you can see some moai statues that preserve remains of this type of tattoo on their necks.

Sometimes, the schematic figure of a bird with a large beak with its head down, an elongated spindle-shaped body and small wings was also tattooed on the throat. An image that could represent the frigate bird or makohe, in the Rapanui language, making a dive.

Tattoos on the hands and arms

The back of the hands or rima kona was completely tattooed with a solid color that extended to the nails or only the wrist and part of the hand. The arms could be decorated with parallel lines or other geometric designs.

Mujer de alto rango con tatuajes rapa nui en espalda y muslos Dibujo de Pierre Loti
High-rank woman with tattoos on torso and thighs | Drawing by Pierre Loti

Tattoos on the torso

Chest tattoos were more common in men and were very varied. Among them were figures of ao, a command insignia; mangai or hook, komari or vagina in married men, etc.

In the area of the abdomen, a kind of wide girdle finished off with pairs of loops could be drawn. Sometimes, instead of hooks, obsidian points called mata’a were represented schematically. And the rounded paddles of the ao often became human heads with eyes, noses, and spiky hair. These designs, which were often repeated symmetrically on both sides of the body, were known as pare pu.

Tattoos on the thighs – Kona

The thighs, in both men and women, were usually fully tattooed with solid color or covered with closely spaced thin stripes from the waist to the knees. Some experts think that this type of tattoo imitated the “culottes” or shorts worn by the first European visitors to the island.

Sometimes the decoration of the thighs was divided into several zones with different patterns. Other motifs also included oblique bands and leafy branches encircling the legs. Women used to tattoo only the solid color tattooed inner thighs, similar to the crotch gusset of riding breeches.

Rapanui woman with tattoos on her back and legs | Drawing by William J. Thomson

Tattoos on the calves – Humu

Below the knees the most common tattoos were geometric designs, especially filled perpendicular strokes separated by strips of natural skin. Another possible influence of stockings worn by Europeans. Around the ankles could appear tattoos with circular shapes.

Tattoos on the back – Tu’u haingoingo o te tu’a ivi

The tattoo on the back featured many variations. Sometimes the band tattooed on the abdomen continued down the back in two bands that rose past the waist. In the area between the shoulder blades an anthropomorphic ao or dance palette with eyes and nose was drawn.

Obsidian points, called mata’a, could also be tattooed on both the upper and lower back, as could other geometric motifs such as lines and dots.

On the lower back and on the buttocks, coiled lines were tattooed, some in the form of a circular labyrinth. This motif is also frequent in many wooden images and in some stone statues, as can be seen in the moai of the Ahu Nau Nau in Anakena.


Takona, the Rapa Nui body painting

Concursante describiendo los símbolos de su pintura durante el festival Tapati Rapa Nui
Contestant describing the symbols of his painting during the Tapati Rapa Nui festival

Apart from the tattoo, the ancient Rapanui had the custom of decorating their bodies with natural pigments in rituals and special celebrations. These temporary paints, which enhanced the dark blue designs of the tattoos, were made from plants, clays and minerals to obtain different colors.

Currently, the term kie’a is used, in a generic way, to name the different natural pigments of white, black, red and orange. However, this Rapanui word was originally associated with the red powder that is obtained after pulverizing a volcanic rock that is found in places such as Poike, Vinapú and the Motu Nui islet.

The art of body painting on Easter Island was recovered from oblivion at the end of the 20th century, when the practice of this ancestral custom was included as a competition in the Tapati Rapa Nui Festival that is celebrated every February.


Decline of tattooing on Easter Island

Dibujo de Pierre Loti con hombres de Isla de Pascua con tatuajes 1872
Rapanui men with tattoos on demolished moai | Drawing by Pierre Loti 1872

William J. Thomson during his trip to Easter Island in 1886 mentions that tattooing was no longer practiced and except for the oldest, who had their bodies adorned, there was no young person tattooed. In 1911 there were only four women with tattoos and in 1930 there were only two alive: the elderly Viriamo and Ana Eva Hei, wife of Atamu Te Kena, penultimate ariki of Rapa Nui.

Why did the tattoo disappear in Rapa Nui? There are several historical factors that triggered the cessation of this traditional art.

In 1862, several ships from Peru entered the island and took more than a thousand natives as slaves to force them to work in the guano deposits in Chincha. Among the victims of this brutal outrage were many of the wise men who still knew how to decipher the RongoRongo tablets and several experts who had mastered the art of tattooing. In this way there was an irreparable loss of ancestral Rapanui knowledge.

Shortly after, in 1864, the first Catholic missionaries arrived to evangelize the island. These new apostles offered consolation and protection to the few inhabitants who remained after the slave abductions, but they also made an effort to prohibit any native custom that violated the principles of Christian morality.

Of course, the display of naked “painty” bodies and adorned with feathers was not considered typical of civilized people but of savages. For this reason, the natives gradually abandoned their old traditions and adopted those imposed by the religious.

Finally, the successive migrations, which took place with Tahiti and later with continental Chile, contributed to an increase in miscegenation and greater cultural exchange. As a consequence of this, the oldest traditions were forgotten, among which the body tattoo was included.


Rapa Nui tattoo today

Modernos tatuajes de isla de Pascua con símbolos de Make Make y manutaras
Modern rapa nui tattoo with symbols of Make Make and manutaras

Until not long ago, the tattoo in Western culture was considered an expression of rebellion against the established order. No one “decent” had a tattoo as it was generally associated with criminals, workers in certain trades and members of the counterculture.

However, currently tattoo has become a massively and universally accepted phenomenon. The tattooed bodies of elite athletes, pop artists and other successful personalities have popularized the custom of tattooing all over the world. His millions of followers copy the designs of their idols, while incorporating other symbols according to their taste and personal history.

This huge global tattoo boom has brought this forgotten ancient art back to Easter Island after many years.

The new Ma’ori Takona

El gran tatuador Mokomae posa en la costa de Rapa Nui
The great tattoo artist Mokomae poses on the coast of Rapa Nui

In recent times, several young Rapanui have revitalized the practice of tattooing on the island, making it their job and livelihood. Among them are Mokomae Araki, one of the pioneers of modern Rapanui tattooing and the most famous tattooist on the island, Ataranga Tatto, a very talented young man, and Tekuhei Kaiha, of Marquesian origin, specializing in Polynesian designs.

Craft inks and ancient bone needles have given way to modern electric tattoo machines that get the job done faster and less painfully.

Most of them use traditional designs in their creations that are typical of the Rapanui and Polynesian cultures, but also incorporate foreign motifs adapted to the local idiosyncrasy.

In this way, although the designs used have lost the symbolism of yesteryear, they do make up a new catalog that recovers the sense of cultural and individual identity.

Many inhabitants of Easter Island, especially young people of Rapanui origin, proudly wear tattoos that represent a way of life and a culture that was violently taken from them.


You may also like

Leave a Comment