Captain Cook's Travels

Tattooing Needle from Tahiti

This is a Yorkshire World Collections object, one of 100 chosen by young people aged 16-24, as part of the London Cultural Olympiad programme Stories of the World.

This tattooing needle comes from Tahiti, and is made of wood tipped with bone. Tattooing was widely practiced throughout the South Pacific. Women regarded it as an ornamentation, whilst for men it demonstrated status and virility. Each region of the Pacific had different styles, which had different meanings, like regional dialects.

The tattooists used black pigment such as soot or charcoal, suspended in water or vegetable gum. The needle end was projected under the skin with a wooden mallet made especially for the purpose. The sailors who visited this region were fascinated by the practice of tattooing, and many took the opportunity to have their own carried out. This marked the start of the fashion for sailors having tattoos.

Young person's response to this object:

I find it very interesting how tattooing took place even with the most basic of tools and how in the Pacific the designs and meanings of tattoos were unique to gender and region. Jordan Keighley

Discussion Ideas:

  • The art of tattooing has become more widely practiced over the last 20 years. Why do you think that is?
  • Do you know the names of tattooing styles or even famous tattooists today?


  • Design your own tattoo that is no larger than six centimetres square, using only three colours

Document icon Learning article provided by: Captain Cook Memorial Museum | 
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