Saturday, January 21, 2012


© 2005 by Lars Krutak

As far back as the old men and women can remember, tattooing has been a tribal custom of the coastal peoples of Papua New Guinea. Among the Motu, Waima, Aroma, Hula, Mekeo, Mailu and other related southwestern groups, women were heavily tattooed from head to toe, while men displayed chest markings related to their exploits in the headhunt. By World War II, however, tattooing traditions largely disappeared in these areas and today only the Maisin and a few neighboring peoples of Collingwood Bay in southeastern Papua remain as the last coastal people to continue tattooing itself.

Tattoos were generally inked upon women in a fixed order among all coastal Papuans. First, girls between five and seven years of age were tattooed on the backs of hands to the elbows and from the elbows to the shoulders. Girls between seven and eight were tattooed on the face and lower abdomen, the vulva and up to the navel, then the waist down to the knees and the outside of the thighs. At ten, the armpits and areas extending to the nipples were tattooed with the throat done shortly thereafter. When puberty approached, the back from the shoulders down, then the buttocks, back of the thighs and legs were marked. When ready for marriage, V-shaped designs from the neck down to the navel were tattooed. Sometimes, special tattoos could be added if the father, brother, or close relative of the girl killed another man, or if they showed prowess in fishing or trading expeditions. All of these markings were ritualistic, and in some cases erotic. If a girl did not have them, she was not acceptable for marriage.

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