Article © 2005 Lars Krutak

A young Motu girl gets a tattoo, around 1930.

ALREADYAs old men and women remember, tattooing was a tribal custom of the coastal peoples of Papua New Guinea. Among the Motu, Waima, Aroma, Hula, Mekeo, Mailu and other related southwestern groups, the women were heavily tattooed from head to toe, while the men wore chest markings referring to their headhunting exploits.

However, by World War II, the tattooing tradition in Papua had largely disappeared for a number of reasons. Headhunting was prohibited. missionaries are advised not to perform initiation ceremonies; and tattoos associated with the trading voyages of Hula and Motu (lakatois) became obsolete, especially as motorboats replaced sailing ships, making these journeys much less dangerous. Today, only a few groups around Port Moresby and others, such as the Maisin who live near Collingwood Bay in southeast Papua, are the last of the coastal people to have intricate forms of tattoos on their bodies and faces.

Among all coastal Papuans, tattoos are generally given to women in a specific order. Many tattoo designs have been passed down in the family – from mother to daughter, and sometimes from father to son. Originally, girls between the ages of five and seven were tattooed on the back of their arms up to the elbows and from the elbows to the shoulders. Girls aged seven to eight are tattooed on their face and lower abdomen, vulva to navel, then waist to knees and outer thighs. By the age of ten, his armpits and nipples were tattooed, and soon after, his neck. As puberty approached, the back was marked from the shoulders down, followed by the buttocks, the back of the thighs and the legs. When she was about to get married, V-shaped drawings were tattooed from neck to navel. Sometimes special tattoos could be added if the girl's father, brother, or close relative had killed another man, or if he had shown skill in fishing or trading missions. All these signs were ritual, and in some cases also love. If the girl did not have them, she was not suitable for marriage.

(left) Waima woman with full-body tattoos, circa 1910. The tattoo on the sternum below the neck was called a "frigate-bird," and the branching lines on the abdomen were called a "centipede." A tortoiseshell pattern appears on the legs above the knee, and a "butterfly" or "flying spark" pattern represents the tattooed lines on the face. The photographer was unable to describe in detail the tattoo designs worn under the petticoat, although he faked this and several subsequent photos by painting them to make them clearer. This was not an uncommon practice in Papua, as tattoo pigments did not perform well on dark skin. For contrast, the subject is placed in front of a white screen. (right) Two Motu women tattooed on the back, circa 1915. Kaiakaro designs on the back or waist include an abstract 'star' motif, reminiscent of the Maltese cross or St. Andrew. The pattern is associated with flight and may also feature the bright colors of some butterflies from this region. Gado tattoos appear on the arms and buttocks and look like snakes crawling downward and horizontally.


Standard tattoo kits were quite simple and the technique used to apply the tattoos involved hand tapping. In Mot, it was called a wooden "hammer".ibokiand a needleduhthere was a lemon branch with a thorn sticking out of one end. Motu first painted the desired tattoo pattern on the skin and let it dry. WITHduhit is held in the left hand so that the tip of the thorn almost touches the skin, i.eibokiin his right hand he holds a small end, the so-calledduhhe was hit with such force that the thorn pierced the skin. To complete the tattoo,duhit may have had three or four thorns tied together for stuffing.

Motu's face tattoo, circa 1915.

Typically, the tattoo pigment comes from the charred remains of waxed walnut. candlestick (Molicana flour) was also used as a dye in Hawaii (light) and other Pacific islands in Polynesia. Interestingly, I discovered that the leaves and sap of the candles are used throughout Polynesia, the Philippines, China and Indonesia to treat arthritic joints or as a remedy for chapped lips, ulcers and sunburn. Even in Papua, the Sinagoro tribe specifically used various types of "medical" tattoos to treat rheumatoid arthritis. These signs were usually clustered around painful joints in the back, neck, shoulders and forehead. Triangular patterns seen under the left breast of a Sinagoros man in the 1880s appeared to one researcher to be "tattoos related to palpitations or disturbances in the region of the heart."

Tattoo of Hula's face, circa 1915. The tattoos on the woman's cheeks and nose show that her father participated in many successful trading trips. Some scholars, however, believe that this design developed from the idea of ​​the ulnar wing of a bird, possibly a bird of prey. The pattern on the neck indicates that the woman is married.

Traditionally, tattoo artists were almost always women, and different women were employed to tattoo certain parts of the body. It seems that among Maila, facial tattoo artists earn more because this work was the most demanding and dangerous. Around 1900, typical payment for facial work included two sets (pairs) of bracelets, a certain amount of cockatoo and parrot feathers, and a drawstring bag, while the rest of the body could only carry small portions of cooked food.

The back of the Meke shows the centipede and frigate symbolism and designs for the torso of the Meke, circa 1915. A V-shaped insignia running from the shoulder to the center of the sternum denotes marriage and a "spirit bird" motif below the neck in the shape of a double "M" possibly symbolizing frigate. Between the navel and breast is a "star" or concentric diamond design, and zigzag tattoos under each breast represent a centipede. other patterns are simply known as designs used in tattooing.

Perfumed woman, circa 1915. All parts of the body are tattooed with different designs. The Pau-lo, or bamboo chest pattern, is similar to the design found on Aroma decapitation knives. A frigate design appears on her nose and a centipede (aivamele) design appears on the lower right of her abdomen. Other subjects are anonymous or possibly unknown. Tourist postcard of an elderly Waima woman from the Bereina area, around 1970.


The tattooed tribes of coastal Papua seem to have preferred abstract motifs depicting natural objects, falling objects (stars), birds in flight, especially birds of prey (frigatebird, falcon) or other creatures associated with movement and predatory habits (such as centipedes, snakes and crocodiles). were quite common. But some of these animals were tattooed on living skin for other reasons. they managed to combine day and night life, thus conquering the world of light and darkness. For the Papuans, this otherworldly existence was perceived in abstract reality as "life" on the supernatural level of the living and the dead. And it's no surprise that most, if not all, of these animals were believed to ward off evil spirits and their consumption was completely forbidden.

A group of Waima girls with a frigate motif on the sternum, a centipede motif on the sides of the abdomen, circa 1915.

However, frigates seem to occupy the highest places on the tattoo design map. Frigates, in folklore characterized by a predatory, voracious and voracious sea predator, were usually associated with Papuan mysticism of bounty hunters, somehow giving power to the bearer and even the family of the tattoo, playing the role of a kind of spiritual "helper". This belief was common as many other bounty hunter groups in Polynesia, Melanesia and Indonesia tattooed the emblem (Note: frigate tattoo motifs had already spread from Easter Island bounty hunters).

Mailu's tattooed face, circa 1915. This woman has an aisava pattern on both sides of her forehead. It consists of two parallel lines that form a double curved zigzag on both sides of the central line of the forehead, and ends with a coil at the upper end. Aisava means "frigate bird". The "burn" design curves up and back near the corner of the eye and appears to be another bird design. The curved lines that run from the corner of the nose to the ear are called floats or "creep heron" patterns. The repeating zigzag that forms the dominant element of the face represents the frigate. Some scholars suggest that among some coastal Papuans, the frigate symbolized "the host of the spirit of the dead."

Sometimes the tattoo motifs were in the form of harmless birds, such as a noisy hornbillbinabetween Hula and Motu Papuans. Among the Ibans of Borneo, the horn was tattooed on the chest of bounty hunters as it was believed to provide protection against the attacks of evil spirits. It was associated with the upper world and was a sacred bird of omens. This relationship between man and bird came to the fore in tattooing, as well as in dance, song and the use of feathers as a symbolic decoration imitating birds. Among the Papuan Hula in the 1880s, warriors who took human life wore white cacao feathers in their hair, pronghorn jaws on their foreheads, and other feathers as headdresses, not to mention tattoos on their legs and chests. As stated earlier, even sons, daughters and wives of decapitated men were entitled to tattoos on their skin.

Hula kadidih, or "armpit" tattoo design, circa 1915.

However, Papuans who hunted heads were considered impure until they performed special purification ceremonies. Usually, after returning from an expedition, the bounty hunters would isolate themselves from the community for a while and then reintegrate into the village when, as one of the elders put it, "they were sure they could scare away the spirit of the dead." a traveler to Hula noted in 1883 that: "Even the dead ancestors of the tribe are careful not to inflict disease or death on anyone they dislike, and the natives are especially careful not to do anything that might incur their wrath."

WWII postcard showing two Motu girls demonstrating the correct method of hand punching. Author's collection.


The bodies of men and women along the Papuan coast no longer speak their complex and ritualistic language. And while skin continues to ripple in the humid jungle heat, it no longer glistens with intricately patterned tattoos.

The Maisin women of Collingwood Bay, Oro Province, who today are among the last Papuan women on the coast to wear tattoos. The Maisin tattoo (buwaa) began "when the heavens and the earth appeared" and when the Maisin people appeared from a land far to the west. Tattoos were put on at the beginning of puberty, and especially before the months leading up to the big folk celebrations where newly tattooed girls appeared. After marriage, women could not get tattoos. Maisin women were tattooed by close relatives. Maisin tattoo kits were similar to other Papuan groups, except that the pigment came from a plant called buwa kain ("tattoo medicine"). Photo of an old Motu warrior circa 1900 with an award tattooed on his chest, circa 1900 1900 This man wears a gado pattern on his torso and probably represents a collection of his victims. According to the early 20th century scholar A.C. Haddon, such chiefs had "tattoos on both arms and two zigzag stripes down the middle of their backs." They show that he killed three people, two men and two women. Hila, the deposed leader of the Motu and a rather modest man in Anuapata, is richly tattooed on his chest and arms up to the wrists. It has double open stripes on its chest like a female reptile. Sometimes zigzag stripes are found only in young people. In this case, they were inherited from their father and it does not mean that the party killed someone". Interestingly, Sinagoro used a similar deadly sign called mulavapuli. It was applied to both men and women of the Sinagoro tribe. It should be noted that the root 'mulava' is the name for an evil spirit believed to bring death.

Today, coastal Papuan tattooing is a form of abstract art that is barely recognizable and largely forgotten. Yet each indelible symbol allows us to glimpse the meanings and ideologies of a cultural code that once served to represent a complex of lived experiences in the physical and spiritual worlds of Papua New Guinea's tribal headhunters.

(Left) There is an ialata pattern on the deltoid muscle of her arm. This pattern refers to the backbone of a particular local fish. Throughout Polynesia and the Pacific, spines or zigzag patterns symbolize genealogical ties, resembling a "family tree" of ancestors. The bin design, or "horn", is often tattooed on the back of the hands of Hula women. In this photo, Bina may mean that her father succeeded in a recent bounty hunt. (center) A Motu woman's tattoo, circa 1915. Like the Waima pattern, the V-shaped design signifies marriage. In Mot, the lower line is called sinana - mother, and the upper line - natuna - child. However, in the Sinagoro language, this pattern is called "wing of flight". The dotted patterns probably represent stars and sparks - things that fly. and the diagonal gado pattern that runs across her chest may mean that her father succeeded in his bounty hunting spree. (Right) A Mekeo woman with a V tattoo on her chest indicating future matrimonial ties, and a "spirit bird" (frigate) motif adorning her sternum below her neck, circa 1915. Other designs are unknown, although many appear on carved pumpkins. Among the Mekeos, gourds are associated with water and fertility.


Barton, Francis R. (1918). "Tattooing in Southeastern New Guinea".Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland48: 22-79.

Guise, R. E. (1899). "On the Tribes Inhabiting the Mouth of the Wanigela River in New Guinea."Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland28 (3-4): 205-219.

Haddon, Alfred C. (1894.).The Decorative Arts of British New Guinea: A Study of Papuan Ethnography. Dublin: Dom Akademii.

Eason, Barry. (1974). "Motu's Pari and Hanuabad Tattoos".Gigibori1 (1): 41-57.

Oldham, Roland V. (1934). "Tattoos of the Motu Tribe, Papua".Museum Repository of Australia5: 269-272.

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