This Polynesian Cruise Ship Has a Resident Tattoo Artist | Journey

Born on the 40 square mile island of Ua Pou in the Marquesas, Eddy Tata learned to draw by looking at his tattoo of Uncle Moana Kohumoetini. “He was the first tattoo artist in our family,” says Tata, who began tattooing his own skin at the age of 17 under the guidance of his uncle. Tata’s first ink was a Marquesan cross on his left forearm. At the age of 30, he completed the necessary training to tattoo others.

Tata’s childhood drawing alongside his uncle has resulted in an acclaimed career as a sought-after Polynesian tattoo artist. Currently, Tata is the resident tattoo artist on Aranui 5, a passenger cargo ship that makes 14-day voyages between Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands. The 400 meter long ship is the main lifeline for the transport of supplies and tourists around the six islands of Marquesas and is intended to immerse passengers in the culture of French Polynesia. Ninety-seven percent of the staff and crew are Polynesian and are from all five archipelagos in French Polynesia. The ship offers lectures on the history, culture and archeology of Marquesas, as well as cultural enrichment courses on local dances and songs, the making of shell leis, and the Marquesan and Tahitian languages. As a tattoo artist on board, Tata offers passengers custom Polynesian style tattoos based on their life stories.

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Eddy Tata is the resident tattoo artist on Aranui 5, a passenger freighter that makes 14-day voyages between Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands.

(© Grégoire Le Bacon)

Tattooing has been practiced for at least 2,000 years across French Polynesia, which includes 118 islands stretching 1,200 miles in the South Pacific. There is older evidence that Egyptians, Inuit, and Celts use similar body markings from the Neolithic period. However, the modern word for worn permanent art on the skin is derived from the French Polynesian word tatau, which means “to mark”.

“Polynesian tattoos are a non-writing tradition and an indigenous communication system,” says Tahiarii Pariente, a Polynesian cultural expert from the island of Raiatea, the second largest of the Society’s islands after Tahiti. He is a researcher, practitioner and lecturer in Polynesian art and organizes adventure experiences around the islands.

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Tattooing has been practiced across French Polynesia for at least 2,000 years.

(© Grégoire Le Bacon)

Traditionally, the bold geometric symbols used in Polynesian tattoos told the personal history and social rank of the Tahitian who wore them. In the past, the motifs were different from island to island. “In Polynesia, each archipelago had its own theme, but with the arrival of the missionaries, all symbols in the other archipelagos except the Marquesas were destroyed,” explains Tata. For example, a shark’s tooth represents strength, the sky symbolizes spirituality, and waves represent travel and the ocean. Tata wears a symbol called Ipu. “It represents the universe, the power, the aura, but also the gender of a woman, since everything comes from there,” says Tata.

Repeated abstract symbols combined with nature motifs such as turtles, sharks, ferns, flowers, seashells, sun, and moon are common, and many of the designs feature ancestral stories. “The turtle generally stands for peace and longevity. But in a particular family, they may have a history with an ancestor who was rescued by a turtle, creating a new meaning. A common symbol is transformed into an extraordinary symbol, ”says Pariente. Tata carries a turtle and explains that the scales of the turtle shell particularly symbolize longevity.

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Repeated abstract symbols combined with nature motifs such as turtles, sharks, ferns, flowers, seashells, sun and moon are common.

(© Grégoire Le Bacon)

According to Pariente, it is common for men to wear Polynesian tattoos from their upper knees to their lower back, while women usually tattoo their hands. The placement of the tattoos also depends on a person’s family and occupation. For example, his wife is a masseuse and has her hand tattooed, but a teacher can have her lower lip tattooed. “The tattoo is also an ID,” says Pariente. “It’s a very unique, personal, very individual element of your life and people will recognize you by your tattoo.” He wears several tattoos on his right arms from Tata that represent navigation. “You can see from a distance and realize that it is me.”

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A crew member of the Aranui 5 entertains the guests.

(James D. Morgan / Getty Images)

The Aranui 5, which launched in 2015, turned one of the massage rooms in their spa into a tattoo parlor in 2017. At the time, Kohumoetini, who now runs the ship’s restaurant, was the tattoo artist on board. Tata started working at the restaurant on Aranui 5 in July 2016. He started tattooing the crew and joined his uncle as a resident tattoo artist for passengers in 2017. According to Romina Wong, director of Aranui Cruise Operations, the company is the only cruise ship in the world to have a traditional Polynesian tattoo artist on board. Virgin Voyages is one of the few other cruise lines with a tattoo parlor on board.

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Tata sees its service as a way for travelers to commemorate their time in Polynesia.

(© Grégoire Le Bacon)

In his on-board studio Taheiona Patutiki, Tata colors special designs with ancient symbols and figures on passengers (Taheiona is a combination of the names of his children and Patutiki, which means tattooing or tattooing in the Polynesian mother tongue of the Marquesas). He sees his service as a way for travelers to remember their time in Polynesia – conveniently while waiting on their way to their next destination. His motivation is modest; He wants to use his talents and his art to connect with people from all over the world. Tata does an average of 15 tattoos a week – around 700 a year between his private customers on land and passengers on board the Aranui 5.

During the cruise, Tata meets with passengers to design their tattoos based on their life stories. “I first discuss with the customer to find out what they want to represent,” says Tata. “All of the pieces I make are unique to the person who wears them. The tattoos tell their story, their experiences and their feelings. However, the symbols used are all the same. It’s the symbols and placement together that tell the story. ”

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Tata does an average of 15 tattoos a week – around 700 a year between his private customers on land and passengers on board the Aranui 5.

(© Grégoire Le Bacon)

Tata is passionate about bringing passengers’ personal stories onto their skin through his ancestral tattoos. “They tell their own story, like in a book that they keep on their skin for a lifetime,” says Tata.

One tattoo that Tata turns out to be one of the most memorable he has done is a Marquesan sleeve by Australian traveler Brant Tapley. “We really stayed in the spirit of the traditional Marquesan symbols. It was a good feeling between us, ”says Tata. Tapley spent two weeks on the Aranui 5 in late November 2019 touring the Marquesas Islands. Tapley had longed for a tattoo but was never sure what he wanted to permanently etch into his body until he met Tata. “We talked a long time about what the tattoo was supposed to represent,” says Tapley. Tata provided Tapley with a sketch of his interpretation of the issues discussed. “His ability to perfectly interpret what I was feeling and wanted it to represent was incredible,” says Tapley, who feels that the tattoo gave him inner strength. He’s a bit of a mystery when it comes to his symbolism. “It’s a personal story. Only Eddy, me and my girlfriend know what it really means, ”says Tapley.

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Children sit on a surfboard and watch Aranui 5 in the Farkarav Atoll in French Polynesia.

(James D. Morgan / Getty Images)

The freehand tattoo took about six hours. Tapley is honored to carry ink made by a Marquesan in the Marquesas, where the history of tattooing goes back thousands of years. “Every time I see it, it reminds me of that time and the people I met,” says Tapley. He and Tata keep in touch and plan to return to Aranui 5 one day to expand the tattoo.

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