Since Captain James Cook arrived in the Marquesas in 1774, sailors have been getting tattoos. And while I know they’ve grown into the hip thing to do—I’m still doing mine for the traditional reasons: I sailed over a big bloody ocean, crossed the equator, and ended up somewhere cool. A place where they used to eat people (after storing them by hanging them in a tree, then bashing their brains out when it was time for dinner, or so Maia tells me).
Tattoos have been an important part of Marquesan culture for as far back as their oral history goes. Boys got their first ones when they became teenagers—and with each stage in life and each accomplishment more tattoos were added. Women were also tattooed—but not to the same degree.
I was worried about being a tourist and getting a traditional Marquesan tattoo—wondering if it was a form of cultural appropriation. So I asked Mahekua how traditional Marquesans feel about ‘sharing’ their ancient symbols. He explained that because the designs and motifs are different for everyone, and each tattoo tells an individual story, it was okay—the tattoos are a gift from the islands.
He showed how on mine there is a symbol that tells Marquesan people that I came in peace and with love, and another that says I want to share their bananas (there is a chance I misunderstood this bit…), and how another says I am traveling a long distance.
And then it was time to start. I’m not sure if it was the rhythms of the music he played (harmonies from the church) or his relaxed attitude—but the actual tattooing seemed less painful than the pen had. He worked quickly, drawing straight lines over my curved flesh (faster than I could draw on paper)--singing as he filled in the old symbols with black ink. Now and then he would stop to ask me a question, or alter a drawing. And then we were done.
My story now winds itself around my ankle—showing the world I’ve sailed a long way and that I have many more miles to go. And that I’d like to share some bananas.
“Did he use a hollow comb tipped with watered-down fruit ash and then pound in the colour with a little mallet?” Maia asked me when I got home to the boat.