A tattooed tour of the islands

A man stands next to a horse and shows off the traditional tattoos on his upper arm.

Teiki Pao gathers coconut from the hills of Nuku Hiva. Dried coconut, called copra, is sold to make coconut oil, and it is an important industry here. Teiki works with his horse, Légende, and when I asked Teiki about his tattoos, he told me some of them represent the horse that he spends so much time with (above). Others represent him and his family (below).


Traditional tattoos on a local man's back.
Photo by Eric Guth

Tattoos are everywhere in French Polynesia, from the people who work in the hills to those who perform on a national stage.


Local men participate in a ceremony where their traditional tattoos are on display.
Photo by Eric Guth

The Heiva is an enormous cultural festival held each year, with participants from many parts of French Polynesia. The centre of the action is downtown Pape’ete on the island of Tahiti, where the biggest stage fills every night with large dance and music groups. Some tattoos, like the one here, are in a more modern style.


A man's hands and arms are covered in traditional tattoos.
Photo by Eric Guth

Tattoos on the hands of Kimi Teikiteetini on the island of Nuku Hiva.


A man with traditional tattoos carries food in a bowl on top of his head while a dog stands near him.
Photo by Eric Guth

On the island of Tahuata and in the village of Hapatoni, Heipua Timau has tattoos in the Marquesan style. The year after this photo was taken, she joined the military and moved to France, a popular option for young adults in this region.


A man stands shirtless as a woman holds up a historical sketch of a man covered in traditional tattoos.
Photo by Eric Guth

This drawing shows a Marquesan man adorned with tattoos in a traditional style. Young tattoo artists are now researching the placement and meaning of these symbols and building a resurgence of tattoo culture. Patutiki, this ancient practice, is one of many cultural elements that was prohibited during the process of colonization.


A heavily tattooed arm and hand up close.
Photo by Eric Guth

Teiki Huukena is one of the Marquesas’ renowned tattoo artists. Here, he holds an example of the tools used in traditional tattooing. They are rarely used these days, though many other aspects of the traditional practices are regaining popularity.

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