Western American and Polynesian Body Art

I propose to do research, on tribal tattoos and their meaning today in western America as apposed Polynesian tattoos. The research will focus on how Western Americans use body art in comparison to how the Polynesians used body art and tattoos. The research will critically focus, on what the body art and tattoos meant to the people and for those still applied, what they mean today.

Tattoos and body art have been used by people of all cultures. In some cultures, they were more pronounced than in others. Tribal tattoos among the Maori and Aborigines of New Zealand are known as ‘moko’. Maori art is very beautiful and their tattoos represented one’s social prestige. Today tattoos also symbolize patriotism. In America flag tattoos have become popular; people decide to have their tattoos together with the tattoo of their national flag.

Native Americans wore tattoos for many purposes. A warrior from the Osage tribe who is successful wore a tattoo to represent his success as a warrior. Omaha women wore tattoos as well; their tattoos were for honor, for example, to honor her father’s brave actions in society.

In western America, Eskimo girls were tattooed when they reached maturity. A line was tattooed from the lower lip to the chip and later when she got married, she got tattooed two more lines. This was to distinguish her as a married woman. Western Eskimo men, on the other hand, got tattoos for personal identification. The tattoos were represented something they have done successfully. In the past tattoos were used in Western America to mark criminals in jails. They were tattooed for identification.

A research paper on tattoos is bound to be a very exciting exercise. The first aspect of the work will be to look into the definition of body art and tattoos as used over the years. To accomplish this I will rely on the book “Material culture in America: understanding everyday life” by Sheumaker, Helen, and Wajda, Shirley, Teresa. In this book, the authors talk about what a tattoo is. On page 69, the authors describe a tattoo and how it is done. The book further talks about how the word tattoo came into existence.

Tattooing is described as the art of decorating the body using a sharp instrument like a needle of ink or any other colored pigment. The sharp instrument is inserted under the skin and an image is drawn. It is a permanent decoration of the body and it is an art that has been practiced since the old days.

Different people from different tribes and cultures worldwide have used tattooing for different purposes. The tattoo is a word borrowed from the Polynesian ‘tatu’ or ‘tatau’ which means ‘mark’. This practice has been practiced in the West since the Neolithic era.

The second book I will use is “Tattooed: The Sociogenesis of a Body Art” by Atkinson. This book looks into the increasing popularity of tattoos, especially among young people. The author tries to find how tattoos are used as a symbol of identity by different tribes and also for social communication. Atkinson tells us very little about tribal tattoos in Western America and their purposes. However, the book will be instrumental in understand tattoos and the application in defining tribal identity.

To understand the practice of flesh piecing, I will rely on Pitt’s book “In the Flesh: The Cultural Politics of Body Modification” This book looks into the rise of body modification including tattoos, body piercing, etc. The author of this book is both sympathetic and critical about the issue of body modification and offers a complete description of this phenomenon. This book is relevant because it provides an approach to the whole topic of body modification.

For more information about tattooing and body art in Polynesia, I will rely on the book “Gardner’s Art through the Ages: Non-Western Perspectives” by Fred S. Kleiner and Christin J. Mamiya. This book is about the practice of tattooing and how it was used as a means of representing cultural and personal identity in Polynesia.

The authors narrate how the practice started here and spread to many other countries. In Polynesian different tribes have tribal tattoos for identification. In Maori, wood carvers started using their carving skills on skins. This is how they started doing tattooing by using a sharp object with natural colors to curve design on the skin. Tattoos were also related to rank; a higher rank meant having more tattoos.

To better understand the practice of tattooing and body art in America in general, I will rely on DeMello’s book “Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community”. In this book, the author writes on how the tattooing practice emerged in the United States and how it has been embraced by many people.

Margo DeMello explains how tattooists have changed the belief about tattoos by associated certain tattooing with the working class people hence making it more palatable and attractive to middle-class people. This book is relevant to my topic as it will help me in understand tattooing practice in Western America.

In Western America, tribal tattoos were used to signify their culture and identity. Most Tattoos which are worn today are very different from those worn in the past. Some tattoos from the past that still exist today carry very different meanings from what they used to mean. In the past, Tattoos in Western America were meant to be seen by everyone because they signified something important in the culture.

Also, tattoos were used by Western Americans as a sign of social status. Tattoos were believed to be for low-class people and were ridiculed by middle and upper-class people. Today tattoos have changed their purpose. Modern tattoos in Western America are no longer a sign of social status, but it signifies one’s identity culture.

In conclusion, this the research paper will answer questions like how are western American and Polynesian tattoos similar. In what way are contemporary tattooing practices different from past practices both in western America and Polynesia? What meanings are given to tattoos in present western America? How do those meanings compare to past and present meanings of Polynesian tattoos?


Atkinson, Michael. Tattooed: the Sociogenesis of a Body Art. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.

Hodge, Frederick, Webb. Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Massachusetts: Digital Scanning Inc, 2003.

Kleiner, Fred, S. and Christin J. Mamiya. Gardner’s Art through the Ages: Non- Western Perspectives. Florence: Cengage Learning, 2009

Levy, Janey. Tattoos in Modern Society. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, 2008.

Margo, DeMello. Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000.

Margo, DeMello. Encyclopedia of Body Adornment. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007.

Sheumaker, Helen, and Shirley, Teresa, Wajda. Material Culture in America: Understanding Everyday Life. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2008.

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