Discover the incredible tools of tātau, featured in our exhibition 'Voyage to Aotearoa: Tupaia and the Endeavour'


The exhibition Voyage to Aotearoa: Tupaia and the Endeavour is grounded in the worldviews of Tupaia, Captain Cook, the HMB Endeavour crew and tangata whenua at the time of the Endeavour’s first voyage. The exhibition was spatially designed to express these multiple perspectives and to follow the journey from Tahiti to Aotearoa on board the HMB Endeavour.


Fig 1. Uhi (chisel) Auckland Museum Collection: 31504

Taonga and specimens from across Auckland Museum's collections feature in the exhibition and include Tahitian tātau (tattoo) tools: the uhi (chisel) and tā (beater). These were chosen for display because Tupaia’s high priest status was shown through his tātau. Tātau was an essential part of the Tahitian culture and almost disappeared because it was condemned by the European missionaries in the early 1800s. Since the 1980s there has been a resurgence of lost tātau practices and a merging of old practices with the new. The uhi [Fig 1.] and tā [Fig 2.] represent the significance of Tahitian tātau before missionaries arrived in Tahiti. The method of tattooing was described in historical documents[1] preceding the HMB Endeavour’s time in Tahiti[2], but it was the botanist Joseph Banks who documented the word “tattaow”[3] which then became a reference for the word tattoo. Banks, who was extensively tattooed himself also described the tātau patterns in his journal. Some of the HMB Endeavour’s crew had their arms marked and may have been the first Europeans to get tātau.


[1] Clements Markham, ed. and trans., The Voyages of Pedro Fernandez de Quiros, 1595-1606

(London, 1904), vol. I, pp. xi-xii, 16, 20.

[2] For more research on markings that pre-date the Endeavour’s voyage look at the article by Philippe Della Casa & Constanze Witt (eds) Tattoos and Body Modifications in Antiquity. Proceedings of the sessions at the EAA annual meetings in The Hague and Oslo, 2010/11. Zurich Studies in Archaeology vol. 9, 2013, 15-25.

[3] Recorded in Journal entry - 5th July 1769 – Botanist Joseph Banks witnesses a young girl being tattooed and in August 1769 titled under “Manners and Customs of South Sea Islanders. 1769”, Banks goes on to describe the process and patterns of Tahitian tātau.

Fig 2. Tā (beater) Auckland Museum Collection: 31505​


Marks of a Leader


Tupaia was a high priest, orator, artist and an expert navigator and he belonged to a special group of high-ranking people called ‘arioi. Ancient Tahiti functioned as a hierarchal society and consisted of social and political systems regarding the Ari'i (royal chiefs), manahuni (commoners), teuteu (servants) and the titi (slaves). The ‘arioi society sat alongside Ancient Tahiti’s hierarchical structure and were intertwined with all the social, political and cultural constructs of the society. The ‘arioi worshipped Oro, the god of war and fertility. Oro ruled the gateways between Te Po, the sacred dark space where the gods and spirits dwelled, and Te Ao, the bright luminous space of human life.


Tupaia was an ‘āvae parai, a black-leg ‘arioi. His tātau was a symbol of his status and rank in the ‘arioi society - the ‘āvae parai[1] was the highest ranked within the ‘arioi society. Tupaia had been marked from birth and as he grew older and his knowledge expanded, the layers marked on his body were an indication of his ascensions within the ‘arioi society. His whole leg from foot to groin was tattooed black, marking him out as a leader. The grades of the ‘arioi society were distinguished, as follows:


“i. Avae Parai (“blotted legs” or “black legs”). […] each local division of the ario’i was led by a pair of ario’i leaders or “chiefs”, one male and one female […].

ii. Harotea (light-coloured haro tattoo mark). Bars running crosswise on both sides of the body from the armpits downwards towards the front.

iii. Taputu or ha’aputu. This design consisted of a series of curved lines and curves radiating upwards towards the sides of the torso from the lower end of the spinal column to the middle of the back.

iv. Oti’ore (“unfinished”). Light marks on the knuckles and wrists, and heavier ones on the arms and shoulders.

v. Hu’a (“small”). Two or three light marks on the shoulders.

vi. Atoro. One stripe down the left side.

vii. Ohe mara (“seasoned bamboo”). A circle tattooed around the ankle.

viii. Tara tutu (“pointed thorn”). Small marks in the hollow behind the knees.” [2]


The descriptions of the ‘arioi grade-markings allow an understanding of the designs used, however it must be noted that tātau designs encompass a multiplicity of layered imagery, stories and meanings. The HMB Endeavour’s artist Sydney Parkinson illustrated tātau on a Tahitian male [Fig3.] to document some of the patterns marked onto the body.


[1] Oliver, Douglas, 1974, Ancient Tahitian Society, Vols.I, II and III (Canberra, Australian National University Press), - V2 – p.933

[2] See Lars Krutak’s “Embodied Symbols of the South Seas: Tattoo in Polynesia" and refer to ‘Tahiti’ section for references to ‘arioi tātau grades.


Fig 3.  Tahitian tātau 1768–80, Sydney Parkinson. ©The British Library Board. Add. 23921 f.51v

Marking the Body: Tools of Tātau

When a tahu‘a tātau or master tattooist marks the body, he dips the serrated uhi in a vessel filled with ink made from a mixture of natural sources. The burned candlenut-soot pigment was most commonly used. The ink is collected into the finely cut blade edge of the uhi [Fig 4.]. The tahu‘a tātau then taps the back of the uhi with the tā [Fig 5.] , piercing the surface of the skin and placing the pigment within the marks. The tahu‘a tātau performs sacred rituals, chants and communicates stories of whakapapa and legends which become layers that are added to the depth and meaning of tātau patterns marked onto the body.

Fig 4. Detail, Uhi (chisel) Auckland Museum Collection: 31504

The uhi blade is made from bone with sharp comb-like teeth for piercing into skin and the handle is made from a light wood. The cord that is used to lash and bind the blade to the handle is made from natural fibre. The tā is made from a light wood and is longer than the uhi in length, with a narrow shaft and a spoon-like blade.

This uhi and tā are part of the W. O Oldman collection. The Oldman collection is an important collection of Māori and Pacific taonga that was purchased in 1948 by the New Zealand Government. Following its purchase, the collection was distributed between the four main metropolitan museums (Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Otago), with some material also going to regional museums.

The Auckland War Memorial Museum celebrates the diversity and richness of Tupaia’s story through the exhibition Voyage to Aotearoa: Tupaia and the Endeavour. The uhi and tā represent parts of the cultural values and practices that underpin Tahitian tātau and Tupaia’s worldviews. Tupaia was a leader and his tātau marked his status within the highly influential ‘arioi society. Through Tupaia we are reminded of the many layers of history, especially the importance of uncovering hidden histories.  

Fig 5. Detail, Tā (beater) Auckland Museum Collection: 31505

Tools of Tātau and the Marks of a Leader by Juliana Satchell-Deo - Associate Curator, Pacific, Human History, Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. Published March 2020.