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  • Tattoo
  • Rai a Mai (bio)

How do you feel when you meet somebody who has a tattoo stamped on his body? What do you feel, or what do you think?

The first time I heard about tattoo, I was still a little girl. My grandmother, who is a Pa'umotu, was telling me about her childhood in the Marquesas Islands. Mamie is from the island of Anaa, a very small atoll of the Tuamotu, lost between Heaven and sea in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean. But for some reason, her parents decided to migrate to the Marquesas Islands, called Henua Enana in Polynesian. They settled in Hiva 'Oa. My grandmother was telling me that the last woman in Polynesia to have the face entirely tattooed in those days was living in Hiva 'Oa.

"She was living in the valley. But she would often come down to the village by the shore. Maybe because she loved the ocean...Her whole face was tattooed and her hands and feet. For the body, I could not tell because she was always wrapped in tapa cloth. I used to play with the other village children at the shore. And she would come and just sit there, under the sun, for hours. She would stare silently at the sea. Not moving. Not talking. Not smiling. Not looking at anyone. Her eyes on the sea, as if captivated by these ever-rolling waves. Her body leaning with intensity toward the ocean, as if her whole being was listening to something we could not hear.

"I like people who can sit under the sun without moving and without talking, their eyes filled with dreams from another world...

"I was probably about your age when my parents decided to migrate to the Marquesas Islands. You know, child, the people over there have skin different from ours. Mine is black. This is Pa'umotu skin! Yours is white because you have in you the mixed blood of your ancestors. But theirs is a beautiful reddish color, like ahi mono'i, made from sandalwood and powder. The way they speak is also different. When they speak, you hear a song. They sound like the white birds that fly over the cliffs along the shoreline just before the rain.

"Yes...I do like people who can sit under the sun without moving and without talking, their eyes filled with dreams from another world...

"So, when we played tāpō, I would hide behind a rock not too far away from the tattoo lady and I would imitate her. I would sit against the rock and feel the pleasure of the sunrays trapped in the rock warming my back. I'd close my eyes, breathe deeply, and feel the sunrays on my eyelids. Then I would open my eyes again and just stare at the sea...I tried to hear what she was hearing... [End Page 180]

"But you see, child, I didn't have any tattoo around my eyes, and I couldn't see what she saw. I didn't have any tattoo around my lips and on my chin, and I couldn't shut my mouth for very long. I didn't have any tattoo on my forehead, and I couldn't concentrate on the ocean's language.

"Sometimes the tattoo lady would lift her hands up toward the sky. And from her hands would dance a few words among the clouds from Heaven. See, child, her hands were beautifully tattooed on the side of the palm and along the small fingers. At times, she would catch a word and bring it back to her chest, as if to bury it in her heart.

"I would see, then, tears run along the tattoo on her face...

"I went to see my mother, and I asked her why didn't we have any tattoo on our body. She told me that tattoo belonged to another time, when people were 'ētene. Now that popa'ā were here, we weren't 'ētene anymore. I couldn't get anything else from her. She went into silence, her eyes turned inside, toward her soul, and her body turned away from me.

"So I went...