When you learn more about historical tribal art from all over the world, the one thing you realise is that it’s use as an expression of communication between peoples is actually a staple of the human story. On this page I will try to offer a more in depth view of some of these different cultural arts and their ideographic, logographic and logosyllabic ‘languages’.
Entrenched in the rich tapestry of Polynesian mythology is the Samoan story of the Demi-God Siamese twins, Taema & Tilafaiga, born on the sacred island of Ta’u, the smallest and most westward of the four major Samoan islands. When they were grown, they told their father they wished to see more of the world; and he gave them his blessing along with a small magical stone.
They swam away from Ta’u, but strong currents caught them and they were suddenly at the mercy of a canoe bearing down upon them. The canoe struck them, severing their physical bond. Unimpeded, the now separated twins swam on to the island of Tutuila, where they became fierce, but fearing they may kill their own people they decided to travel further and so swam on to Fiji.
When they arrived on Fiji, they encountered two male tufuga (tattoo artists), Tufou and Filelei, who are on their way to work. The twins learned the practice of tatau from Tufou and Filelei, and are told to recite an incantation in memory of the two mentors, whenever they work:
O Fi Filelei, like a necklace of whale’s teeth
Aid us when we seek to get ready for war
And Tufou, descended from the gods, aid us
Adorn us with your victories
Tilafaiga and Taema then swim back to Samoa, this time to Savai’i, where Tilafaiga decides to remain as chief and war goddess. She tells her sister Taema,“You are to go back to the island of Tutuila and dwell. There you will practice tatau. When you are tattoing, remember me and you will prosper.I will remain here to do my work, which is fighting. You must remain neutral in the business of war. By and by, when war reaches our country you must remain neutral, you must turn your back on our family on Ta’u, but keep your front toward me. If you do not, you will be overcome with vines.”
Taema returned to the island of Tutuila where she practiced tatau.
|tat·too ta-‘tü (transitive verb) to mark or colour (the skin) with indelible pigment
Origin: Tahitian tatau, noun, tattoo c1769
Traditional tattoos from Melanesia, Polynesia & the Philippine islands all have a common ancestral origin and therefore carry many of the same meanings despite looking somewhat different to each other. The Philippine Batok, with its distinctive lines and dots to the chest; customary Melanesian tattooing of women after marriage; Maori Ta Moko, carved with a chisel like instrument called the uhi; Samoan Pe’a (male) and Malu (female), with their sharp, linear patterns; and the heavy dark blocks motifs of the Marquesan people all play their part in the parentage of the modern day Polynesian tattoo. Crossover of design between the islands is not uncommon, and examples of this can be seen in early Marquesan ornaments such as the otipi, which bear a resemblance in style to Maori elements.
Polynesian tattoo design drew upon the nature and culture that surrounded its peoples for inspiration; often following the visual shapes of the plants and animals that were part of everyday life. Many elements translate easily, for example the ocean & waves into journeys of life; ferns and unfurled ferns (koru) for life, new life, new beginnings; the fish hook (hei matau) for bringing prosperity and success; and ancestral markers like enata for support and protection. Cultural imagery such as weaving or braid, and spearheads are also used in the designs, creating meanings for family, strength and much more.
Put simply, the Polynesian tattoo is a storyboard upon the skin, and yet these stories were not undertaken lightly and held deep rooted meaning for both the wearer and the community.
Polynesian tattooing began over 2000 years ago and, with each island group adopting it’s own style, is as diverse as the people who wear them. Once widespread in Polynesia, the arrival of western missionaries in the 19th century forced this unique art form into decline. Although Christian religious beliefs vilified the tatau as unholy, and much information was lost, some Polynesian tattoo artists preserved this vital link to their culture’s history by continuing to practice.
Traditionally Samoan tattooing was undertaken by the tapping method; using a tool, called the au, made of wood, teeth & shell, the artist would literally ‘tap’ the pigment into the skin. This method of application was slow and very painful, but to shy away was to risk being labelled a pala’ai or coward. The Maori, as well as pigment, chiseled designs into the skin using a bone chisel. First, deep cuts were engraved into the skin, then the chisel was dipped into a soot based pigment such as burnt Kauri gum or burnt vegetable caterpillars, and then tapped into the cut. The Marquesan people, of the Marquesas island group, were probably the most extensively tattooed; with both men & women displaying tattoos from head to toe. Their designs, heavily geometric in patternwork, were documented by early Western explorers and we are lucky to have this referencing today.
Today the island styles live on not only in Polynesia, but have been widely accepted into Western culture also due to the attractive patternwork & deep meaning. It is still possible to arrange a tradtional tatau, in Polynesia, by the tapping method; I advise anyone interested in this method to research thoroughly & arrange before they travel.
There are important things to consider as a non-Polynesian when choosing to have this kind of work done, and some historical, tribal and sacred implications must be taken into account so as not to offend tribal heritage in any way. Choosing to have your design drawn up by Nimanoa, means investing in a respectful design drawn specifically for you, that can tell the story of your life, your achievements, aspirations and ideals; the story of who you are.
Mehndi (Henna) (Lawsonia Inermis), is a tropical plant that renders a reddish brown pigment from it’s dried and pressed leaves. The pigment has a semi-permanent colouring effect on the skin and can be easily removed. The name Mehndi stems from the Sanskrit word ‘mendhikā’, and with subtle coloquial differences is the recognised name throughout Asia & India; in Arabic countries the name Henna, stemming from the Arabic ‘ḥinnā’, is the more recognised form.
Mehndi designs do not actually have a name of their own – instead borrowing the title from the plant material used.
Cosmetic use of the Mehndi plant’s pigment is thought to have started around 5,000 years ago in North Africa and in the Middle East; then in the 15thC the traders, travellers and conquerors of the Mughal (or Mogul) Empire brought Mehndi to India. Mehndi, commonly used to inscribe beautiful and intricate designs on the arms, hands, and feet of women, was and still is an important component in both Indian Hindu Vedic, and Middle Eastern ceremonies.
Whilst also used for many other ceremonial events, the elaborate patternwork of Mehndi in India most commonly adorns the hands and feet of a Hindu bride for her wedding days, and is considered among the most auspicious of the wedding ‘ornaments’, the reddish brown colour standing for the prosperity that a bride is expected to bring to her new family.
Arabic and Indian Mehndi differ slightly in their overall form, but the complex yet feminine, nature-based patterns of both are not just stunning to look at, they also carry meaning; the ornate lines, curves and forms weaving a story of beauty, love, faith, fidelity and more onto the skin.
In the Western hemisphere, Mehndi has become more popular over the last few decades, and is now often seen as a fun, painless, temporary alternative to the tattoo. Both Arabic Henna and Indian Mehndi design styles easily translate into permanent tattoo, as well as beautiful works of art for display.
The Maya civilisation (2000BC-1697AD) covered a large area of the Americas, and over time its peoples engaged the neighbouring cultures (Aztec, Teotihuacan, Olmec, Zapotec et al) in all the usual aspects of trade, conflict, and slavery. Due to the long period of it’s existence, Mayan empire study is historically divided into three classic periods. All the Mesoamerican cultures of these times were noted for their architecture, calendars, astronomy and mathematics, and whilst not the earliest Mesoamerican writing system, the Maya are also most notably known for the only fully developed writing system of the pre-Columbian Americas.
Generally when people think of Aztec or Maya artefacts they will think of stone and clay; of the carvings and calendars inscribed onto the walls of their structures, or the figurines found in archaeological excavations. Less well known is that Mesoamerican cultures also created books (or codices) full of imagery and colour. These codices are intriguing; certainly the system of communication is not ‘writing’ as ours is today, however it may be that the effectiveness of this imagery was enough to convey the intended message.
Their books too were different from ours – using either bark or skin as a base for the images the books were made by folding one long strip of prepared bark or skin into ‘pages’. It is thought that one of the functions of these books was to provide moral advice to the people; each section (like a chapter) containing different information inside pertaining to different calendar cycles. This information, considered to emanate from the divine world, gave insight as to the auspiciousness of certain days or time periods for the future, travel, marriage, birth and good fortune, and were likely used as a kind of almanac by diviners or priests, to guide the people in their choices in life. As with all oracle type guidance, the content was always open to interpretation.
The symbols and elements of Mesoamerican imagery are, once again, based around nature and the everyday things they had in their lives; with much of the works concentrating on the extolling of personal or tribal prowess and greatness, astronomical information, and of course physical and spiritual guidance. It is possible however to use this imagery and it’s meanings to create modern designs that can speak of certain criteria and ideals.
The Vikings (Old Norse víkingr), were Northern European (modern day Norway, Sweden & Denmark) seafarers who sailed, traded and of course raided across large areas of the world; the Viking age is commonly referred to as the period between 790AD-1066AD, although their culture existed in some form before and slightly after these dates. At different periods, Vikings ruled over not only their own lands but territories across Europe and North America; leaving their mark upon the language, arts and heritage of the people of those lands; traceable factors that still exist today. Today we are still learning new and exciting things about the Vikings’ daily lives and their behaviours and attitudes; and although definitely a warrior collective, there are other less violent although no less structured parts of their society that are shining through.
The Viking belief system was one of a holistic life approach; deities existed in, and guided, the everyday lives of all people and worship & ritual were commonplace; some of the surviving Viking art depicts the meaningful images of this belief carved into or from stone, metal, bone and other resistant materials. The Vikings also created abstract and intricate animal designs, many with interlacing lines; as the Viking Age progressed, the designs varied and six distinct but overlapping art styles developed, named after the area decorated artefacts were found in: Borre, Oseberg, Jelling, Mammen, Ringerike & Urnes . Although far less common, evidence also exists to suggest that the people were also elaborately and heavily tattooed; likely decorating their bodies with the interlacing lines and spirals (similar to Celtic design) and imagery, as marks of belief, status and prowess. Viking written language consisted of a runic alphabet called runor and inscriptions have been found on thousands of stones and artefacts where Vikings lived.
Today we can use the imagery, patternwork, and runic elements of the Vikings to create historical designs with meaning, in modern formats.
Whilst Egyptian culture and hieroglyphs are well known, the sheer number and complexity of Africa’s historical tribal peoples means that it would be impossible to write on one page the creative and written lingual history of them all, however if we look at examples such as the Ashanti Empire’s Adinkra (Ghana), Nigeria’s indigenous Nsibidi script, and even the elements of the Berber’s woven designs we can discern that the graphic forms created in their pottery, fabric, wood, and stone has one common theme throughout – and that is the conveyance of thoughts; the representation of concepts, morals, truths and observations.
Again, this wealth of design can be borrowed from to create modern day works of art.
Historically, ancestral Native American Indian tattoos were not used as modern day tattoos are, and they had little to do with aesthetic look or overall design. The tribes used different markings for specific purposes such as tribal identification or accomplishments; for those they encountered who had the same marking, it symbolized a connection and understanding between them. As in many other cultures, their tattoos were also used as a way of showing status, with the highest ranking individuals receiving unique or specialized designs.
In addition Native American Indians used some tattoos as generators of spiritual power; they believed that by tattooing the body in a specific way, they could gain the powers associated with the image; bears, wolves and eagles are but a few examples of this. In the same vein, spirit guides were sometimes also tattooed on their bodies.
There is a misconception that all tribes passed down their emblemic designs to the next generation; in fact many of the modern day tribal tattoos were created in the last few decades and bear little connection to the ancestral tattoos.
Today we can draw upon the designs used throughout the Native American Culture, from the flora & fauna of their world through to woven patternwork and beading to create modern day representations of the spirit and ethos of their culture.