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Tattooing the World

Tattooing the World: Pacific Designs in Print and Skin

Juniper Ellis
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Tattooing the World
    Book Description:

    In the 1830s an Irishman named James F. O'Connell acquired a full-body tattoo while living as a castaway in the Pacific. The tattoo featured traditional patterns that, to native Pohnpeians, defined O'Connell's life; they made him wholly human. Yet upon traveling to New York, these markings singled him out as a freak. His tattoos frightened women and children, and ministers warned their congregations that viewing O'Connell's markings would cause the ink to transfer to the skin of their unborn children. In many ways, O'Connell's story exemplifies the unique history of the modern tattoo, which began in the Pacific and then spread throughout the world. No matter what form it has taken, the tattoo has always embodied social standing, aesthetics, ethics, culture, gender, and sexuality. Tattoos are personal and corporate, private and public. They mark the profane and the sacred, the extravagant and the essential, the playful and the political. From the Pacific islands to the world at large, tattoos are a symbolic and often provocative form of expression and communication.

    Tattooing the World is the first book on tattoo literature and culture. Juniper Ellis traces the origins and significance of modern tattoo in the works of nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists, travelers, missionaries, scientists, and such writers as Herman Melville, Margaret Mead, Albert Wendt, and Sia Figiel. Traditional Pacific tattoo patterns are formed using an array of well-defined motifs. They place the individual in a particular community and often convey genealogy and ideas of the sacred. However, outside of the Pacific, those who wear and view tattoos determine their meaning and interpret their design differently. Reading indigenous historiography alongside Western travelogue and other writings, Ellis paints a surprising portrait of how culture has been etched both on the human form and on a body of literature.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51310-4
    Subjects: Art & Art History, Language & Literature, History, Anthropology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. A Note About Pacific Languages
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    (pp. 1-31)

    The 1830s castaway James F. O’Connell sported a full-body tattoo. In the Pacific’s Caroline Islands, the traditional patterns gave him his life and made him fully human. In the streets of New York, on the other hand, women and children ran screaming from his presence, while ministers warned from the pulpit that viewing O’Connell’s tattoos would transfer the marks to any woman’s unborn baby. O’Connell identified himself as an Irishman and gained fame as the first man to display his tattoos in the United States. In an important way, he exemplifies the story this book tells: how tattoo moved from...

    (pp. 32-51)

    In two works by contemporary Samoan writers, tattooing produces and proclaims the psychological and social place of the tattoo bearer. Albert Wendt’s short story “The Cross of Soot”¹ depicts a young boy whose partially completed tattoo, begun by a condemned prisoner just before the man leaves to be executed, represents the way the boy “crossed from one world to another, from one age to the next.” The tattoo, as the boy’s mother recognizes, stands as a mark of that passage: “For the first time her son was no longer afraid to stare straight at her when she was angry with...

  8. 2 “The Original Queequeg”? TE PEHI KUPE, TOI MOKO, AND MOBY-DICK
    (pp. 52-73)

    Tattoo is the first signifier and a primary object of exchange. Captain Cook sailed away from his first visit to New Zealand carrying two toi moko, tattooed ancestral heads. In Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick,¹ demand is high for the tattooed Māori heads that Queequeg sells in the streets of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Queequeg presents the one unsold head to Ishmael, who donates it to be used as a block, a form around which hats are shaped. Melville shows the way tattooed ancestral heads were removed historically from the body of Māori culture, where the heads are sacred and each tattoo...

    (pp. 74-95)

    In the world market, tattoo may also encounter a vastly different standard of beauty. In Lee Tamahori’s film Once Were Warriors, when Nig receives a full Māori facial tattoo, his younger brother admires the pattern but says, “I wear mine on the inside.” Immanuel Kant, too, suggested that the designs are beautiful, but only when separated from the human face. The widely distributed versions of contemporary tattoo created in Alan Duff’s novel Once Were Warriors and Tamahori’s film based on it depict Māori facial tattoo as present only among Māori gangs. By contrast, this chapter identifies an aesthetic that celebrates...

    (pp. 96-132)

    When Christian missionaries and colonial laws arrived in the Pacific, tattoo became a flash point for conflict. Some nineteenth-century Christian missionaries banned tattoo, declared the practice dead, and in Tahiti even flayed tattooed skin to enforce their ban. In the face of such suppression, native people staged tattoo rebellions to assert their sovereignty. Tattoo embodies cultural survival and reveals a new history. For decades after it was proclaimed dead in the French Pacific, Hawai‘i, and Tonga, tattoo continued under the clothes imported by the missionaries.

    Across the Pacific, even in Samoa and Aotearoa New Zealand, where the traditions of tatau...

  11. 5 Locating the Sign: VISIBLE CULTURE
    (pp. 133-161)

    When the practice is first encountered, and after it is banned, tattoo serves as a sign of an entire way of life. The first white travelers to acquire tattoo were thus incorporated into the Pacific, making it difficult to return to their original homelands. In the 1820s, John Rutherford displayed his Māori and Tahitian tattoos in England in order to finance his return to the Pacific. In England his facial tattoo became a mark of his belonging to a foreign place, one that also signaled his desired destination. Before the discipline of anthropology existed, the patterns designated ways of life...

  12. 6 Transfer of Desire: ENGENDERING SEXUALITY
    (pp. 162-192)

    When viewed by scientists outside the Pacific, the mark of the foreign became the sign of deviance. Tattooed men (who sought penetration by the needle) were deemed homosexuals. Tattooed women were deemed promiscuous. Even today, many medical experts suggest that tattoo predicts a pathological sexuality. Fiji and Pohnpei, where historically women created and received the designs, reveal a general aspect of Pacific tattoo: body art designates a mature adult sexuality, and Pacific conceptions of gender and sexuality revise the strict axis of homosexuality and heterosexuality.

    “The very process of tattooing is essentially sexual,” Albert Parry declares in his book Tattoo:...

    (pp. 193-204)

    Just as tattoo may variously indicate membership or being cast out from membership, depending upon who defines its meanings, so, too, the patterns raise a related question of belonging. That is, who owns tattoo?

    Netana Whakaari declares that while a human being may lose human companions, land, and property, only death may deprive a person of her or his moko. By that account, the marks carved into the face would appear to belong to the person who bears them. Petelo Sulu‘ape, on the other hand, part of a long line of hereditary tattoo-priests, recounts a story of how tatau arrived...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 205-244)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 245-260)
  16. Index
    (pp. 261-275)