History of Tattoos and Orientalism

Tattoo’s were not introduced to Europe until naval expedition discovered the Polynesian and Oceanic people in the 1700’s.  The Polynesians would prick themselves with a sharp object and then throw black powder over the bleeding, which would leave behind a design.  The natives called this practice ‘tataow’ but the English explorers changed it to tattoo.  This word became universalized to represent the practice of puncturing the body to leave behind a stained design.  Orientalism clearly had a role in Europeans first encounters with these ‘painted people’.  The Polynesians and Oceanic people were depicted as savages who wore little to no clothes and had these tattoos covering large parts of their bodies, including their faces.  Europeans saw these people as primitive, so they viewed themselves as superior making the  discourse of power uneven, and thus allowing Europeans to produce stereotypes about the Oceanic peoples and the Polynesians.  This can be seen by the enslavement of the ‘Painted Prince from miangis”.  He was captured when his ship was blown of course and was later bought by Dampier (an Englishmen).  Dampier never saw the painted prince in his own culture and certainly never considered him an equal.  Instead Dampier put his captives ‘painted body’ on display for all of England to marvel at until the prince eventually died.  The Polynesians soon began to attack the European explorers which led to an even more disgust for the tattooed people.  Tattoos began to be associated with savager of the Oceanic and Polynesian people.

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