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"Under the Skin" - The people behind the archives at Grassi. Photo © Anne-Coralie Bonnaire

Polynesia and the accidental tattoo model

in Arts/Travel by

As I turned 30 in 2015 and handed over my last thesis, my first action was to go on a long vacation at the other edge of the planet. The destination: French Polynesia, where one of my best friends has lived for many years.

Public domain photo.
Public domain photo.

It’s 118 islands lost in the Pacific, from which the closest mainland is Chile at a distance of nearly 8,000 km. Only half of the islands are inhabited. My plan was not to lie down on a beach under a coconut tree (which is actually very dangerous), but to get acquainted with this culture, in a territory officially belonging to France (where I’m from) and yet so far.

Besides capturing and influencing Gauguin and Jacques Brel for life, one of the global legacies of French Polynesia – actually much older than the art of those two – is the tattoo. The term “tattoo” even derives from the Polynesian word for it: tatau, considered tapu (taboo), that is to say, reserved for only the initiated, the priests.

Polynesians were tattooed almost all over their bodies before the European conquest of Polynesia (the present region of French Polynesia and Samoa). Tattoos would tell a person’s story, and indicate their origins, status, and rank as a warrior and member of the tribe. A Samoan legend says that originally the women were tattooed, but forgot it. Another legend, from today’s Society Islands, French Polynesia, explains that a warrior had his body decorated with tattoos to seduce the beautiful daughter of a king – hence the tradition.

Public domain photo.
Public domain photo.

The tattoo represented a coming-of-age ritual for both young girls and boys in Polynesia, a threshold to adulthood through body change.

A century of Western dominion and Presbyterian prohibition had made almost all motifs and known examples disappear. I read about those stories and the role of the tattoo in Polynesian societies and, even before I set foot in Papeete, Tahiti (the capital of French Polynesia), I had already decided to get a tattoo in Polynesia.

The more I was getting to know the cultures where I went (the Tuamotu Archipelago, the Society and Marquesas islands), and sharing my plan to get a tatau, the more people were warning me that my tattoo would have to have a special meaning, otherwise I’d want to get rid of it. A man told me that his tattoo was a link to his siblings, and hence he was always carrying his family around with him.

Mine was to make me an adult, signifying a personal ritual into responsibilities. This is also what I told my tattoo artist when he first asked what I wanted to have. And this is what happened.

Anne-Coralie Bonnaire with the tattoo she got in French Polynesia, which became part of a Grassi Museum exhibit in Leipzig. Photo © Anne-Coralie Bonnaire
The author with her Polynesian tattoo, which became part of a Grassi Museum exhibit in Leipzig. Photo © Anne-Coralie Bonnaire

In 2016, Leipzig’s Grassi Museum für Völkerkunde invited all Leipzigers and beyond to create a tattoo and piercing living archive.

The collection would feature photographs of and interviews with the subjects. The museum organised special evenings, lectures, live tattoo sessions, and photo shoots. In April 2016, a Sunday lecture and performance about tattooing in Oceania hit home. I became interested in proudly showing the piece of art on my shoulder.

Everyone received a soft copy or a print of a picture taken during their shoot. Obviously, everyone knew that some pictures and stories of the living archive would be used for an upcoming exhibition, to be launched in September 2017, but I was sure I wasn’t going to be part of it. My tattoo is quite small, after all.

So I was quite surprised when the curators wrote inviting me for the vernissage, saying my photo had been chosen.

Collections of tattoos from local ethnologues (early 20th century). Photo © Anne-Coralie Bonnaire
Collections of tattoos from local ethnologues (early 20th century). Photo © Anne-Coralie Bonnaire

The exhibition did not only show pictures from the living archive, but also artifacts from both Leipzig and Dresden ethnological collections. The latter tracked the history and cultures of tattooing across time and distance. On display were historical picture collections, as well as some traditional tattooing needles and combs brought to Leipzig by local explorers.

To be sure, it was not only sea travelers and Polynesians who’d worn tattoos in the past. For instance, I learned that pilgrims to Jerusalem would have a Jerusalem cross marked onto their skin as a remembrance and proof of their pilgrimage – even through the explicit prohibition by the Church.

The Grassi exhibit was divided into three main aspects of tattooing.

Artifacts from Indonesia and the Philippines; traditional tattoo combs. Photo © Anne-Coralie Bonnaire
Artifacts from Indonesia and the Philippines; traditional tattoo combs. Photo © Anne-Coralie Bonnaire

The first part, “Over the Skin,” presented historical aspects and so-called “noble savages” exhibited in Europe, such as “Omai” (1751–1780); and Europeans such as Jean-Baptiste Cabri (around 1780-1822), a Frenchman who was tattooed on the Marquesas Islands and even married a dignitary’s daughter. The second part, under the motif “Through the Skin,” presented artifacts, tattoo machines and traditional needles.

The last part presented what’s “Behind the Skin” – the people interviewed and allowed to tell their stories. My story.

Named “GRASSI invites #4: Tattoo und Piercing – Die Welt unter der Haut,” the exhibit was prolonged and ran for nearly seven months, closing on 8 April. Curators Lydia Hauth and Kevin Breß finally explained the research behind the whole exhibition, anecdotes, and also the reasons why my tattoo story as well as 12 other ones were chosen. It’s that all tattoos tell a story, but most of them have generally three meanings for those who carry them: grief, remembrance, and protection or a wish. Like the others, my tattoo pertained more to the moment where I let an artist freely create his art on a piece of my body – and my wish became to tell the tale itself.

A live performance of Polynesian traditional tattooing at the Grassi. It consists of an actual needle or even comb that is knocked into your skin. Photo © Anne-Coralie Bonnaire
A live performance of Polynesian traditional tattooing at the Grassi. It consists of an actual needle or even comb that is knocked into your skin. (pacific-mana-tatau.jimdo.com) Photo © Anne-Coralie Bonnaire

The exhibit indeed provided an important ethnological point of view over a traditional and current phenomenon, for instance explaining the origin of the stereotype of tattooed people as criminals. It mostly came from a best-selling book by famous Italian physician and criminologist Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909), which claimed, for example, that tattoos were a sign of unfinished human development and criminal tendencies.

While many tattoos are still made in prison, more than a fourth of Leipzig’s population between ages 18 and 29 nowadays bears one or more tattoos. As Marie Beyer, herself a Leipzig tattoo artist and a model for the exhibition, put it during its last guided tour: “Anyone can bear a tattoo. You just have to look through the skin, to the person themselves, and not judge from the appearance.”

The documentary Numbered, about the numbers tattooed on the prisoners at Auschwitz, was screened as a conclusion to the exhibit. It reminded me that I’d first hesitated to get a tattoo because my great-grandfather, probably part of the Jewish resistance, had been sent to Auschwitz where he likely got a number tattooed too. But at last, the ethnological and growing-up aspects won out for me.

By Anne-Coralie Bonnaire


A part of the living archive, Grassi Museum. Photo © Anne-Coralie Bonnaire
A part of the living archive, Grassi Museum. Photo © Anne-Coralie Bonnaire

You can still catch the exhibit Tattoo & Piercing – Die Welt unter der Haut, slated to travel to the Völkerkundemuseum Herrnhut near Görlitz. It will be on from 18 May-16 September 2018.


Cover shot: “Under the Skin” – The people behind the archives at Grassi. Photo © Anne-Coralie Bonnaire

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