Marquesas,  Nuku Hiva

A Spot of Artwork – Child Labour and Multiple Stab Wounds

I am ashamed to admit that since the day I purchased Bob back in 2007 she has never until recently been properly anointed by having her name displayed on her hull. It was always on the cards, but there just always seemed to be something more important to work on and besides, I’m a terrible artist.

Fortunately, child labour is not just legal but parentally encouraged under some circumstances. We ellicited the willing assistance of two wonderful young girls to assist us in rectifying this gross oversight, to the effect that Bob now proudly bears her name on both quarters. Please allow me to properly introduce our master craftswomen, and their handiwork:

Cali’s creation:

And Gaya’s!:

We’re both really, really happy that they were so keen to do this for us. Better than any Picasso, Monet or DaVinci in our opinion. If only the rest of Bob looked so chique.

The second bit of artwork has been a long-time coming – 14 years to be precise.

When I visited Polynesia back in 2003 I was one of a crew of 48 aboard the Barque Picton Castle. My final port on this voyage was Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands, where I left the ship to fly to England to begin my university education. Before I left, however, I had a decision to make – whether to indelibly record this important experience in my life in the form of a traditional Polynesian tattoo. About 30 of my shipmates chose to do just this, in one form or another, but I chose not to based on the rationale that I would one day return to Polynesia on my own boat having embarked on a circumnavigation of the world on my own terms, and that this would be a more appropriate juncture at which to record such an experience. Since then I have seen at least a hundred Polynesian tatoos, I have liked and/or appreciated each one and have come to regard them as things of great beauty and significance. I have looked forward to the day when I would consider the timing and circumstances fitting to have one myself. What more appropriate place to be tattoed than where the tradition began – here in the Marquesas Islands.

Imagine those explorers of yesteryear who turned up in this part of the world to the sight of fierce warriors tattoed from head to foot, brandishing mean-looking weapons and adorned with the body parts of those they had vanquished. The Marquesians must have been sublimely daunting to say the least.

At least 3 of these early explorers understood the value of this ancient art and the necessity for it’s preservation. It has been lost to some extent but, thanks to the catalogues of these two men and one woman (at least), much of the traditional symbology and it’s associated meanings have been conserved. Based to a large extent on their records and observations the practice in it’s traditional form is currently experiencing a revival.

It works a little differently here from how it works in England, the US or any other developed country. In those countries you might come up with a design you want to tattoo on yourself, or even pick something out of a book. Here, the tradition of tattooes serving as a personal record is still very much at the essence of the process. Commonly one might be tattooed by a friend or relative who knows them well. Once I’d found an artist that I liked, and whose work I admired, I had to try to achieve the same intimacy by sitting down and talking with him. I’d done a lot of research surrounding the various styles, and the traditional meanings of patterns and symbols. I have had an idea of where I wanted to be tattooed for many years, but the actual design of the tattoo itself is the creation of the artist. Moano and I sat down together and talked for about two hours. He learned about me, my family and friends, some of the experiences in my life that have made me who I am today, the principles on which I base my ethics and morality, my strengths and weaknesses, the things that are important to me and, just as important, the things that are not.

Traditional Marquisian culture revolved in no small way around conflict – war and raiding on neighbouring tribes. Life was hard. Men were bred as warriors. Traditional male tattoos therefore were concerned mainly with protection against enemies, the garnering of strength and fortitude from ancestral gods, and generally consisted of large, bold, blocky motifs. About 90% of the Marquesian symbology is along these lines. Needless to say I didn’t really want to be covered in a large, dark checkerboard of ink so I opted for a more feminine style, with small intricate motifs and delicate, often cryptic shapes and shades. The symbolism that was chosen between myself and Moana is quintessentially Marquesian, but many of the symbols also have more personal significance – after all, a tattoo is a profoundly personal thing. Here is my story:

And some close-ups:

Every single part of the tattoo has some meaning. A full explanation would take hours to relate verbally, so I’ll give an abridged version!

The section that runs along my collar bone represents aspects of my life so far – the past and the present. The thin black line represents my lifeline. Notice that it is not straight. Life isn’t so. Above the line are several symbols relating to the artist Moana – the hands that created the tattoo, and an introduction to the primary theme of the tattoo, which is the ocean – something that I have shared a close affinity with all my life. Also in this top row are four little identical symbols that look like boxes with triangular symbols above them and a U-shape. These are a bit of a joke on my part. They symbolise masculine beauty, but also the courage to be tattoooed. I enjoy the irony of it – a tattoo that symbolises the act of being tattooed.

Below that is a group of symbols including a manta ray, a thing that looks like waves underneath the ray and a group of symbols above the ray. The symbols above represent a voyage, and also taking flight into independence. If you look closely at the bottom symbol you will see that it is actually waves, and a little figure in a boat. This symbol has several meanings – being human and living with the ocean, the personal symbology of standing fast in the face of seemingly-insurmountable fear, and a traditional Maori tale involving a young girl who, simplistically, overcame prejudice and various tribulations to prove that she was worthy of being a chief. The image is of her riding a whale. It is a famous legend and worth looking up for those that are interested. The legend is pervasive throughout various Polynesian cultures, and it is an ancient one.

The ray itself is symbolic of lots of nice things, including ‘an animal protector of mankind’. How this works exactly I’m not sure. It didn’t work out so well for Steve Irwin with his Sting Rays, but I think it looks pretty good and that’s the main thing. For me, the main symbolism is an aspiration to grace, in all it’s facets. Giant Manta Rays are very common here, and to see them moving through the water so effortlessly in all their splendour is always a treat; perhaps it could also symbolise a desire to remain graceful even when I’m old, fat and slow.

The dominant symbol of the turtle has many connotations including luck, an affinity for the open ocean, a return to one’s place of origin and many other things. The stuff inside relates to my family (mum, dad; you’re two of those little things that look like spiders!). The turtle’s hind left leg represents personal growth and development and the hind right leg represents the education of children.

The overall shape of the symbol that encompasses the whole lot on my arm is that of a fish hook. It is also the lifeline of my future. That’s the wavy white line on a dark background. The repeating symbols outside this represent a long voyage. The figure at the base is a Tiki (look up this concept if you’re interested) whose design is unique to Moana. There’s some stuff on the Tiki’s head that represents a search for wisdom and the desire to be a better leader, plus another bit that I don’t actually know the meaning of myself. Maybe it’s Moana saying that I’m actually not a very nice person after all!

Finally, the other bit inside the fish hook other than the turtle consists of a compass for guidance and direction, a symbol above it (the bit that looks kind of like an ear) to symbolise a desire to be a better listener and a bit below it (looks like the braid of a rope, the muscles that are visible in a fillet of fish or the bark of a native tree) to represent family and in particular ‘to care for a family’. Sarah likes that bit. It’s in my ‘future’ section 🙂

I’ve been very diligent in taking care of it, and as such have been reclusively hiding away down below on Bob periodically applying some white stuff to it for the last few days. I’m also not allowed to drink beer or wine, which has been a huge exercise in self-deprivation for me. Fortunately rum, being a non-fermented (well, post-distilled anyway) drink is OK, so the rum rations have been depleted a bit. It’s been tough, but I will endure this grueling regime for a couple more days. I have the motivation of knowing that a few days of care now may well affect the longevity of the tattoo over decades to come.

Below is an image taken from a poster at the Marquesian museum of tattooage of a Marquesian man, as well as a few examples of variations in symbolic stylism:

Here we have a couple of examples of some of the tools that were used as part of the tattooing process. These are now a part of a wall in a Christian church. The missionaries did a good job of destroying the local culture and heritage by building churches on sacred or otherwise-culturally significant structures and/or sites, or in this case simply by sequestering culturally-important stones for their own purposes. The stone with the deep gauge marks in it would have been used for sharpening the tools used for tattooing. The indentations on the lower one were used as reservoirs for the inks:


  • Mother

    This is absolutely beautiful. I love it, and the stories. This is so exciting. I know you will love it always. And Bob’s name. xoxoxox

  • Christine Brooks

    I’m all in favour of child labour and think they’ve done a brilliant job! I also love the tattoo and the story behind it. Just waiting to see Sarah’s! (Mmmm!)

  • Simon

    Great tattoo, Brother. I tried to picturing it in my mind from your tattoo. I find it very hard to decide what kind of tattoo I want to get. Maybe a lone wolf tattoo suit me very well because I am all alone traveled in Australia and around the world all by myself. It’s what I am all of the time like a lone wolf.
    I love Disney animation, Moana. Great story. I love to see the place where you are in and I wish I could meet you and Sarah in that place and get right tattoo for me as well.

  • Brooksie Snr

    I have been most lax in not responding earlier to this entry, but have made sure that many people have seen it! You “tat” as we say in the RN, is magnificent, and I am so pleased that you like it. I also think that to get a “feminine” one is much better than the heavy, ‘chunky’ tats which the masculine one would have been. This has far much more class, in my view. I agree with your mother that you will always like it – because it tells your story – and that your diligence in looking after it early on will keep it in good nick.


    Love to you both


  • James Cooke

    Awesome.. I hadn’t caught up with your adventures for a while, but was superb to read through! Made sure i get notifcations when you guys post now. 🙂
    Hope you are both well!

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