Tahiti is one of the world’s top tattoo destinations and for a good reason: the Tahitians kinda sorta invented the whole tattoo thing, even giving us the word which derives from the Tahitian tatau, “to strike”.
Once upon a time in Tahiti, tattoos were made by taking a comb with teeth of sharpened wood or bone, dipping the tips into natural black ink and tapping it into the epidermis: tap, tap, tap. Then along came the tattoo gun, followed by Spring Break, bad Chinese charcter tats, and tramp stamps.
But Tahiti ain’t Cancun–tattoos have a long history and mean something here, which is why enthusiasts travel all this way for the real thing. If you are among such travelers, here are ten common-sensical things to think about before getting drawn upon:
Please, please, do not do the following: come to Tahiti, notice a few cool tribal designs and think to yourself, “You know, I gotta get me one of them before my plane leaves in two days!” A tattoo is forever and ever, amen. Take time to learn and make an informed decision. A lot of enthusiasts take a ‘”recce” trip to Tahiti just to plan out their second trip in which they actually get the tat.
Do your homework
Read all about the history of Tahitian tattoos, the meaning of each design, and the range of artists out there. There are plenty of online sites and picture-laden books that can give you a better understanding of the particulars while a preliminary visit can give you a much clearer understanding of what you’re getting into.Ask
If you see a Tahitian on the beach with really cool ink, ask them where they got it. The really good, traditional work is often done by a family friend, and you might just get an introduction. These are small islands so the more you observe and ask, the more chance you have of learning who the most talented artists are.
Show & Tell
Visit prospective artists and ask that they show you photos of their previous work. It seems obvious, but not everyone is as smart as you. If in doubt about any of the work you see, move on. Despite all the talented artists in Tahiti, there are still a few impostors out there.
Go to the market
Papeete’s market is a wild visual destination in and of itself. While wandering among the piles of mangoes and goggle-eyed fish, visit the tattoo artists who hang around on the upper levels on Sundays. They cater to a local, Tahitian clientele and tend to do magnificent work.
If in doubt, get a custom-designed tattoo, made just for you. Most Tahitian tattoo shops will have books that are loaded with traditional designs, however most Tahitian artists are actual artists who can draw up a beautiful tat just the way you want it. That’s part of what makes the experience so cool.
If you travel to Tahiti to get a tattoo of turquoise dolphins doing somersaults across your back, well then, you’re a moron. Likewise, there are tattoo artists who will gladly take your money to attempt a scrawling of Bart Simpson skateboarding across your thigh, but none of them know who Bart Simpson is. When in Tahiti, stick to to Tahitian designs and stick to black.
For the full-on Tahitian experience, skip the comforts of the tattoo gun and get your design tapped into you skin the traditional way–with a boar’s tusk comb. This takes longer and costs a lot more (one or two helpers need to hold your skin taught while the artists punctures you about four thousand times), but it’s as close as you’re gonna get to the experience of the early explorers who first visited. Moorea Tattoo still offers this method, as do a few other artists.
Start saving now
A decent, singular tattoo in Tahiti costs upwards of 30,000 Polynesian Francs (about US$450). Start multiplying that number if you want to cover more than a shoulder or calf. In that same vein, make sure you’re not getting overcharged because you’re a white man. Even on a good day, Tahiti is super expensive.
Grin and bear it
But does it hurt? Yes it does–and in Tahiti, that’s kind of the point.