Several hula sisters I dance with in Hula Halau Kalehuapuakea have had themselves tattooed.

Their tattoo artist, Tihoti Faara Barff from the island of Tahaa in Tahiti, has been on Oahu for a week sharing his enthusiasm for the art.

When Tihoti came to speak to our halau about the evolution of tattooing in Tahiti, I dutifully went to hear him because our kumu Keu Ostrem urged us to attend. I have no interest in getting a tattoo.  I grew up in the era when tattoos were considered the purview of convicts and drunken sailors. I was certain Tihoti’s presentation would fail to capture my imagination. But what he told us was fascinating.

Tattooed from head to foot, Tihoti was beautiful to look at.

Tihoti Faara Barff, tattoo artist from Tahiti

Tihoti Faara Barff embraced tattooing in Tahiti when he was 14.

Courtesy of Maiki

Funny how a person’s opinion about a subject slowly shifts when one part of the perspective changes.

Tihoti says one side of his face is tattooed to reach back to the ancient world and one side of his face is bare to keep a foot in the modern world.

In his talk, he made it clear that the essence of a Polynesian-style tattoo is not like getting a heart or a butterfly inked on your shoulder or an exotic symbol on the ankle as a souvenir of a trip to a foreign country.

“I took my designs from the Tahitian world.” — Tihoti Faara Barff

“It is not about fashion. Fashion changes. A tattoo is on your skin for life. You must be proud of it for life.  It is about a tradition that stretches back thousands of years, ” says Tihoti.

Tattooing was a tradition that nearly died in many parts of Polynesia, including Tahiti and Hawaii.

The word tattoo comes from the Tahitian word tatau, meaning to mark.

To ancients in Tahiti, a tattoo marked a person’s social standing, a memory of their past and a connection to the natural universe. It was an individual’s social passport emblazoned on flesh.

Tihoti talked about how he first embraced tattooing when he was 14 years old, a few years after former Kahala Avenue resident and Polynesian entertainer Tavana Salmon sparked the revival of tattooing in Tahiti in 1982. I knew Tavana back then.

Tavana became interested in Polynesian tattoos when he was living in his beach residence at Kahala and directing his Tavana’s Polynesian Revue at the Moana Hotel.

Tavana Salmon

Tavana Salmon, seen here in 2008, sparked the revival of tattooing in Tahiti in 1982.

Courtesy of Tricia Allen

Tavana’s lead dancer, Ioteve Tuhipua, a young Marquesan, wanted a full body tattoo, which was unheard of at the time.

Tavana took Teve to Samoa, where traditional tattooing was still done with traditional instruments by hand.  Teve’s body was covered with a Marquesan tattoo modeled after a design Tavana had seen in the archives of the Bishop Museum.

Tavana was later tattooed in his Kahala home by the same Samoan artist, Lesa Lio.  I remember visiting Tavana at the time he was being tattooed and watching him tough it out through the excruciating pain.

The designs were hand-hammered into his body as he lay on a lauhala mat in a cabana by his swimming pool.

Later, Tavana brought three Samoan tattoo artists to demonstrate their art at the Heiva festival in Papeete in 1982, and Tahitians began to revive their own tattooing art.

The revival of tattoos in Tahiti coincided with social and political movements sparked in Hawaii and other parts of Polynesia when islanders began to renew their pride in traditional arts and cultural practices, including tattooing, says Tricia Allen, a tattooist and author of   “The Polynesian Tattoo Today” and “Tattoo Traditions of Hawaii.”

Reviving a Dormant Art

Tihoti says,  “I was always passionate about art. I had been teaching myself drawing since I was 7 years old. When I first saw a man tattooed, I was impressed. I wanted to be like him.”

Tihioti says at 14 he was the youngest in a group of teenaged friends who started inking their bodies. There were no implements available then, no tattoo shops; they invented their own tattooing tools from bamboo sticks, razor blades and their mothers’ sewing needles and they applied their designs by hand.

Later, the Tahitian teenagers created a crude mechanical tattooing device out of a battery-powered electric shaver.

Tihoti says he was so enchanted by tattoos he would tattoo anybody who asked him, rarely for money.

“We bartered. I was paid with fruit, fish or even pareos.”

Tihoti Faara Barff, tattoo artist from Tahiti

Tihoti Faara Barff, right, works with modern equipment today, but started out with bamboo sticks, razor blades and sewing needles.

Courtesy of Tihoti Faara Barff

At that time, Tihoti says there were only about six tattoo artists in all of Tahiti. Now he says there are more than 100.

And the technology is modern.  He works today with an electric tattooing machine.

Tihoti says his father, who was born in 1940, never talked about tattoos. His father and his father’s friends were tattoo-less. That’s similar to what I saw growing up in Hawaii. If you weren’t a sailor or a crook, chances are you were not tattooed.

The art of tattooing had been dormant in Tahiti for more than 150 years, outlawed soon after the missionaries arrived in Tahiti – Caucasian men and women coming first from England, then from France.

After Tahitian King Pomare II converted to Christianity,  at the prompting of the missionaries, he wrote a new set of laws in 1819 called the Pomare Code, which was patterned after British law and banned many traditional Tahitian practices the missionaries scorned as barbaric.

In the code Pomare wrote, “Nobody shall be tattooed and this practice shall be abolished. It is an old and bad habit.”

“I walk in both a white world and a Hawaiian world. My tattoo holds me to my Polynesian part.” — Renee Ane

The prohibition ended centuries of widespread tattooing. Early European explorers had written about seeing almost everyone in Tahiti adorned with tattoos.

While on his first trip to Polynesia from 1768 to 1771 on the HMS Endeavor, Captain James Cook wrote, “Both sexes paint their bodies. Tattow as it is called in their language.”

Capt. Cook was so fascinated by tattoos that when he returned to England from his second voyage he brought along a tattooed Tahitian named Omai.

Omai was presented at the court of King George III and had his portrait painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds before he sailed back to his home in Polynesia with armloads of gifts from his English admirers.

Many of Cook’s crew members had themselves tattooed while they were in Tahiti, including Cook’s botanist, the aristocrat Sir Joseph Banks.

Marquesan Designs Remembered

After the missionaries and King Pomare II ended tattooing in Tahiti, memories of the ancient tattoo markings faded. The only drawings of traditional tattoos left were the etchings made by explorers and missionaries.

Marquesan tattoo designs were better remembered.  Karl Von Den Steinen, a German doctor and explorer, had made 400 drawings of Marquesan tattoos from 1897 to 1898.

Since most modern Polynesian tattooists such as Tihoti had no ancient practitioners to teach them, their images are their own interpretations of traditional designs often influenced by Marquesan markings.

Etching of tattooed Marquesan man

This etching of a tattooed Marquesan man was drawn during the first Russian voyage around the world, 1803-1805.


Tihoti says, “ You have to remember there was no social media when we started tattooing, no Facebook. No sharing. We had no tattoo book to follow. We had to create our own designs.”

Tihoti says he found his images by closing his eyes and thinking of the natural world around him.

“Every valley in Tahiti has a name, every bird, every animal, every plant, every mountain, they all have a name.  To find my designs, I took my designs from the Tahitian world.”

What he said reminded me of the words of the song, “The Colors of the Wind,” sung most famously by Vanessa Williams about Pocahontas and Native Americans’ embrace of their natural world.

Tihoti says, “My father had his own traditions, and I am creating my own traditions, just as those who come after us will have their own traditions.”

Anthropologist Jocelyn Linnekin has written, “…the selection of what constitutes tradition is always made in the present. The content of the past is modified and redefined according to modern traditions.”

Renee Ane, one of my hula sisters, was tattooed by Tihoti. He marked her tattoo around her waist like a belt to include images Renee says are important to her past.


Tihoti Faara Barff gave Denby Fawcett a new appreciation for tattoo art, but she plans to remain a blank canvas.

Courtesy of Maiki

“I am not the type to get a butterfly tattooed on my shoulder. That would have no meaning, no mana,” says Renee.  Her father was a former Punahou football star and Hokulea crewman Gilbert Ane. Her late mother Beverly Graham was a onetime Olympic swimming hopeful from Portland.

“My tattoo holds me. It has all the things that hold me close to who I am. I walk in both a white world and a Hawaiian world, ” says Renee. “My tattoo holds me to my Polynesian part.”

Tihoti’s body took 15 years to tattoo. The thousands of ink marks hold him to his Tahitian past and to his present.

He says, “The tattoo is from the divine world. It marks your tradition in your time, it marks your skin, it marks your body and it marks your Polynesian essence.”

I still plan to go to my grave tattoo-less. I am from another era: the age set of Tihoti’s father.

But when I look at Polynesian tattoos now, it will be with a different eye.

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