forgotten- ink-motalava-islands-fading-tattoo-culture-linked-to-christianity-and-foreign-influence


Before Christianity was introduced, Motalava Island in TORBA Province had a traditional ritual in which women who married chiefs would have facial tattoos. However, this custom was eventually forgotten.

Traditional tattoos are said to be a significant cultural part of Motalava Island’s history. Without regard to social standing, anyone might be inked. However, apart from tattoos that were purely for decorative purpose, there were special designs that were tattooed on women based on their father’s and husband’s ranks.

Only women who worked secretly and charged according to the designs created the tattoos. Individuals with greater status paid more for their tattoos. Often a needle is made from two orange thorns bound to a stick, and a pigment paste is made from soot of Nangai resin, made from the Nangai tree, which has been cultivated in Melanesia for thousands of years.

It is also reported that spiders, human faces and figures, and pig teeth were the most often seen designs. An individual with a greater social status would have more pig jaw tattoos. Among the popular tattoos on the faces of the women were little Zs, double lines, and sun symbols.

Some women from Motalava believe the tradition was stopped because the women who used to make those tattoos have died and this skill wasn’t pass on to the next generation.

One of the respected chiefs in Motalava, Steven Telegsem, said the decline of traditional customs is attributed to the influence of Christianity and the adoption of Western lifestyles.

“Christianity came and changed this. While attempting to revive the tradition, another influence emerged: foreign lifestyle, which washed away all these traditions,” said chief Telegsem.

“Long ago, the high chiefs of Motalava were wealthy, owning lots of property and belongings, and having servants like kings.

“Some of them were considered as gods. However, when Christianity was introduced, it changed their mindset; the chiefs were no longer considered the highest rank, as there was now someone in charge of this world, people tended to move away from these customs.”

He added many customs disappeared due to the introduction of Christianity and foreign life, such as black magic and witchcraft. In the past, people in Motalava were scared of their traditional cultures, such as Natmalte. This is a special a stone that chiefs took from a secret place to use as a weapon, killing their enemies by placing the stones where they walked.

“With the issue of tattoos, the island has lost much of the tradition associated with it, such as ‘gengen naqyungni’, the process for a chief to acquire his chiefly title. Only a few managed to follow the right process,” the chief explained.

“The custom tradition should still be practised; we can still practise them even after the introduction of Christianity. However, during the fight for independence, we did not reclaim our traditions and customs that we should have fought for. Instead, we gained freedom with foreign cultures, which led to the loss of all those unique cultures we once had.”

According to Chief Roy Kepe of Vanualava Island, Motalava’s tattoo customs are comparable to those of other islands in the TORBA region. He said the residents of the province of TORBA are now returning to these customs. The locals must pay for those specific levels, though, because some of the tribes have lost them.

“It would be unfortunate if one day these traditions are lost, and we could only talk about them without being able to practise them. Starting from now, let our journey this year be dedicated to reclaiming our traditional practices, which are the blessings of our islands,” said chief Kepe.

“I think we should revive our traditional custom since it is our identity, one day we will try to revive it but there is no one alive that has the knowledge, now that some of them are still alive we must revive them.

“We should not be overly dependent on Christianity, as custom already existed before its arrival; it was custom that welcomed religion to our islands.”