Tattoos, and body art in general, have enjoyed a significant renaissance in western society over the last 20 years or so and have become both a badge of honor for those seeking to firmly establish their non-conformity and a trendy fashion accessory to others.
So I think it is really quite fascinating to see them as an integral part of village customs rather than a recent phenomenon.
Facial & body tattooing are reported to have been widely practiced in coastal Papua at the time of first European contact. Why it stopped in some areas and continued in others is not clear, but in all probability it is the influence of Christian missionaries.
Many of these earlier early tattoo patterns were said to have been quite simple, but the “women of Tufi” were known for their elaborate and intricate designs.
The tattoos are made when a girl reaches full maturity at around 18 years of age. They are a very visible indication of that “coming of age” and that she is now ready for marriage, but the process of applying them is a long and quite painful one involving a technique that is only practiced by certain women in the village who have been taught by their mothers and grandmothers.
The completed facial tattoo can take up to 2 months because it is applied in sections on a daily basis, which gives previously completed areas time to heal. During that time the girl lives with the tattooists away from the main village, in a special hut to shield her from the young males in the village, and avoid any embarrassment from the inevitable swelling of her face as the painful process is followed.
The actual tattooing is done in each morning for a couple of hours so that the girl can recover for the rest of the day… and the process is repeated until the right amount of ink penetration is achieved and the tattooist is satisfied with the result.
The black ink used for the tattoos is made by mixing ground charcoal with water and then the pattern is painted on the girl’s face using the stalk of a taro plant. Then a lemon plant thorn is used as a needle to pierce the skin so that the ink can penetrate and permanently stain the flesh.
The patterns are quite specific, with an overall pattern that identifies the Korafe tribe (main tribe of the Cape Nelson area) and variations for the numerous clans that make up the main tribe – such as the Kandoro, Fiyogha and Tawairi clans.
The completion of the tattooing is followed by a big celebration when the girl comes back to the village and the tattooist is presented with presents from the girl’s parents in recognition of the service provided.
With the tattooing and celebration over, the girl is ready for marriage and the boy who has courted her now has to prove to her parents that he is of good character and worthy of their daughter.
This typically means that he will make a new vegetable garden for the parents or build them a new canoe or house to demonstrate his skills as a man.
This is a big test for him and if satisfied, the parents delegate the girl’s initiation to her uncle.
Typically this will be the mother’s brother, and he makes all the preparations for the actual wedding, which involves a major celebration and feast in the village.
When the girl has married the boy, it is her turn to be “tested” to prove her worthiness as a wife to his parents so that the “bride price” can be settled – the concept being that evaluating the boy and girl’s overall worthiness allows the parents to properly decide the right price to be paid by the boy to the girl’s parents.
Back To: Papua New Guinea’s Oro Province