I never thought much about getting a tattoo. Not that it bothered me or was too permanent, the thought just had never crossed my mind before sailing to the Marquesas. Before the trip Erin and I read, and read, and read about the islands and people. We read cruising guides, travel guides, memoirs, fiction, and non-fiction books. In reading about the Marquesan culture the theme of tattooing is prevalent, dating to the earliest times of the culture. Men and women alike went under the needle, or boars tusk at the time, and had their bodies adorned with meaningful symbols.
The tattoos were large and no body part was off-limits. Arms, necks, legs, torso, face, and even eyelids were used to tell a story and denote a person’s accomplishments. Marquesan warriors were often covered head to toe, a slow and painful process that continued over their entire lives. Symbols were shaded in as the warrior progressed into adolescence, adulthood, and finally death. This tradition still lives on although it is a little more subdued. No more full bodyface tattoo’s, although we did see someone with a design encircling the back of his shaved head. Nearly every Marquesan has a few visible tats, ladies included. Most of them are concentrated on the chest, arms, back, and legs.
On Fatu Hiva we were referred to a local named Tiava, apparently the only artist in the small village of Hanavave. After his day job working for the city he moonlighted as a tattoo artist using his back porch as a studio. We dropped by one afternoon and had a look at a few of his samples. His work was incredibly artistic, and completely original. This wasn’t a follow the pattern and fill in the blanks type of guy. He drew an outline of the design directly onto your body with a pen, then filled in all the details free hand with the tattoo gun.
Brady, already having a tattoo on his left ribs and right shoulder blade, opted to go first and made an appointment for the following evening. We arrived at 4:00 the next afternoon and Brady told Tiava he wanted a Tiki, wave, and Marquesan symbol combination and denoted an area just blow his shoulder stretching to just above his waist.
Tiava sat back and tilted his head for a few moments. There was an immediate change in Tiava’s demeanor, he was all business now. You could see the wheels turning as he created the design in his head. A few minutes later he grabbed a black felt pin and feverishly began to draw on Brady’s side. At times he would erase or tweak or portion. After a solid two hours of free hand drawing the outlines of the tattoo were complete. Brady took a look in a full length mirror, gave him the thumbs up, and laid back down on his side.
For the next 4.5 hours Tiava worked the needed up and down, back and forth, stopping only for a few smoke breaks. There was a rhythmic drumming in the background adding to the ambiance as the locals were practicing for an upcoming dance in the community center down the street. Sometimes he would pause, point to a blank area, point to his head, and utter the words “Inspiration”, and which time he would completely erase the outline and go at it with the gun alone. Other times he would continue adding details to an area he thought looked a little empty. Brady winced each time one of Tiava’s “Inspirations” would come as it meant more and more pain was on the way.
Tiava constantly worked until the once bare marker outline was now a beautiful combination of Marquesan symbols representing strength, protection, sun, and ocean. Finally well past 10:00Pm the gun was silent. Tiava and Brady both looked completely exhausted. Tiava repeated “Suffrir” a few times and pointed to Brady. The ribs are an especially painful part of the body for a tattoo and he indicated Brady had suffered much. It was too late to get my tattoo done so Tiava asked us to return tomorrow afternoon.
When we returned we found Tiava wrapped in a blanket, looking very ill. It was over 90F and he was still shivering. Between bouts of coughing Tiava explained that he’d absorbed much of Brady’s pain and suffering last night and would not be able to work for a few days. It made us think of the movie “The Green Mile” where the inmate took in other’s pain and suffering. I felt very disappointed as we were due to leave the next day, and we wanted all our tattoos to be done by Tiava. We debated whether or not to stay and wait. It could be two days or four days, we had no idea. Finally we decided the experience with Tiava was worth it and we would stick it out a few more days. After all, Fatu Hiva is a not a bad place to be for a few more days!
We returned two days later to find Tiava looking recovered, but still a little under the weather. Upon seeing us he simply smiled and started setting up his gear, insuring us that he felt good enough to work. I asked for a Marquesan Manta on the top of my shoulder to mark our experience with the Manta’s at Isla San Benedicto combined with a wave on my chest to symbolize our crossing of the Pacific to the Marquesas.
Tiava went to work framing the outlines with the same passion he put into Brady’s. What he drew was exactly what I wanted, and I couldn’t have asked for a better representation of what was in my head. The buzzing started, stopped, and started again. He pointed to a few blank spots and said “Inspiration”. We all knew what this meant. Two hours later the buzzing stopped.
Erin was still on the fence at this point, but after seeing mine and Brady’s decided to go for it. Tiava said to return tomorrow, in the morning this time. Erin also wanted a Manta, smaller in size, and located just above her ankle bone. Tiava drew a Manta, then continued with the tail wrapping elegantly down below her ankle, and finally across the top of her foot. He arranged the tattoo to parallel a sandal strap and remain uncovered. A rather thoughtful touch we felt.
We paid Tiava with some cash, but mostly traded for his artistic services. We got three original, unique Marquesan tattoos and a very cool experience. He got one of our spare dive masks, some lead dive weights, a bottle of wine, a dinghy fender, and a collapsible Hawaiian sling for free diving.
It was an awesome experience to have this done and mark this adventure we’re on. Tiava was an amazing artist and getting a tattoo in his backyard surrounded by the fruit trees, animals, and distant drumming was incredible to share with Erin and Brady.