Marshallese tattooing was executed in a systematic manner and none of the motifs were of accidental creation; they, as well their arrangement, follow strict patterns. In their entirety, Marshallese men’s tattoos are very striking. As a number of last century observers have pointed out, a completely tattooed man appears to be dressed in a chain suit, resembling a medieval knight.

A men’s tattoo is laid out in a series of ornament zones which bear descriptive names, such as “mast,” “ocean swell,” “boat,” “clouds” and the like, which find their origin in the seafaring nature of Marshallese men. A complete man’s chest tattoo consists of three main tattoo components, which can be added to. These main ones are the upper and the lower chest triangle as well as a central vertical ornament field. Added to these three main components could be other ornament fields, such as a shoulder tattoo, a tattoo on the side of the chest or a stomach band.

Men’s tattoos. Chest tattoo of a young chief from Mile Atoll (left) and a back tattoo from a young chief from Jaluit Atoll (right)

04[1]Apart from the shoulder zone, the tattoos on the men’s back consist of three ornament fields, the back triangle and upper back band and the lower back field. Neck and head tattoos were restricted to males of chiefly rank. The neck tattoo (eoten-boro) consists of horizontal bands running around the neck, leaving only the area of the Adam’s apple free. Above the level of the lower jaw, this tattoo continues at the back of the neck all the way up to the hairline, but ends at the ears, to make space for the face tattoo. This tattoo has the meaning of a magic necklace.

Head tattoo of irooj Laninat (Mile). Note the pierced and extended earlobes.

The face tattoo (eoon-maj) consists of vertical lines running from the eyes to the rim of the lower jaw. In the front these lines can also extend onto part of the neck. Forehead, face and chin are commonly free of any tattooing. Often, the frontal parts are the cheeks are also left unornamented.The tattooing of the arms is very variable. It can consist of a few lines and in its full extent can reach from the armpits to the wrists. A full tattoo is traditionally divided into three main areas: the area of the upper arm, the area of the lower arm and the central part in between. Unlike in other areas the inside of the arms was commonly not tattooed in the Marshallese tattoos. The area of the upper arm covering the deltoid muscle is bordered by a line drawn between the armpit and the shoulder (onset of the caput humerus), while the lower border is less well defined, but often matches the upper margin of the upper back band. Very common is the tattooing of only a couple of bands around the upper arm. These bands, mainly using the zigzag line, go all around the arm in the form of a bracelet (lukwo or rojanpe).

The area of the lower arm extends about halfway between the elbow and the wrist to the wrists itself. Tattoo motifs are arranged vertically and are aligned in small horizontal groups, giving the arm a ringed appearance. Leg tattoos (wünne) are commonly restricted to the front and the middle of the outside of the upper thigh. Most leg tattoos are restricted to a few double lines or bands of the wavy-line or zigzag motif on their thighs and their calves.

In addition to the main tattoos mentioned, men were sometimes tattooed next to the armpits, the buttocks, and the penis. The buttock tattoo consists of a rectangular band which covers the lower os sacrum area and the occasionally the side of the buttocks. The tattoo next to the armpits was executed on the person’s back. It was a small triangle with a base pointing upwards and the tip pointing towards the side. This tattoo, which was very rare even at the end of last century, was primarily a chiefly tattoo, but may have been permitted for other men as well.


The data available on women’s tattoos are, overall, less frequent than data on men’s tattoos. This is mainly due to the fact that the ethnographers were mostly men, who of course had little access to the female world-both by inclination and by cultural opportunity. Few, like Erdland, would expressly state that their knowledge of women’s tattoos is limited. Others such as some German government officials, would simply deny that women were tattooed, which nicely reflects the gender bias in their reports:

“Men in the entire group are tattooed on the back and breast, varying according to rank. Tattooing is not practiced in the case of women.”In fact, those Marshallese who maintained the practice of tattooing after the intervention of outside forces were women, rather than the men. One exception in recording was that done by Elisabeth Krämer, who accompanied her husband Augustin to the Marshalls, and who could break through the gender barrier. According to all descriptions, women’s tattoos are substantially more uniform than men’s. “Women’s tattoos are also laid out in a fixed system of ornament zones, and the tattoos are restricted to the shoulders, arms, legs, and fingers.”

According to Father Erdland, the Marshallese placed great importance on the female shoulder tattoo, “because as it is explained in sorcery rhymes and chants, the popularity of a woman is placed in her shoulders.” The shoulder tattoo is very complex and consists of a number of motifs. The female shoulder tattoo is also the only tattoo where pigment is used in a more surface-covering manner. Tattooing motifs seen in this ornament field include almost exclusively the bwilak motif of which several variations and combinations have been used.

Tattooed Marshallese women (after Kramer);

We can distinguish two major types of women’s shoulder tattoos: Type I consists of the bwilak motif both on the back and the chest, while type II has this motif only on the back.

Type I has on either shoulder four sets of the bwilak motif of the back, ending at the shoulder ridge in a single set of triangles. On the chest side, there are again four sets of bwilak motifs on either shoulder, again with the little triangles added at the shoulder ridge. These sets of motifs, however, have a different lower end, where a double set of lines is added creating a zigzag border, from which small triangles are suspended. Two variants are known, one where the zigzag lines are made up of double lines with a space in between and one where the zigzag line is a broad pigment band. At another variant the back also has the small triangles suspended.

.Female shoulder tattoo Type Ia (top) and Type II (bottom) (the arrows indicate the shoulder line);

The arm tattoo consists of two main parts: the decoration of the deltoid muscle and the decoration of the remaining arm to the wrist. The wrist area itself has another small ornament band. The deltoid muscle is commonly tattooed with a multiple zigzag band, which runs across the arm, then downwards at the side, across the back of the arm and up again on the inside. There can be three or four parallel bands of zigzags. Hasebe, relying on information by the tattooed person herself, identifies the deltoid muscle ornamentation as eo idikdik, or small tattoo. The area between the wrist and the deltoid muscle is tattooed with vertically aligned looj motifs. The E-shaped motifs commonly open towards the front of the person. On occasion the looj motif may be present, but the zigzag lines may be absent. The wrist area was tattooed with ornament bands running at right angles to the arm, providing the appearance of cuffs or armbands. Tattooing motifs seen in this zone are predominantly zigzag and wavy-line bands. Often the complex arm tattoo was replaced by some simpler armband-like tattoos.

On the whole, documented women’s leg tattoos were fairly rare. If recorded they consisted of a tattoo of the thighs and a separate and unconnected tattoo of the calf. The tattoos of the thighs were apparently confined to thin bands or single lines and were restricted to the front of the leg. The calf was decorated with horizontal lines only. Tattooing motifs seen in this ornament field include the zigzag tattoo. The tattoo on the back of a hand (eo in peden-pa) consists of wavy-line (kodo) and zigzag lines, the kein kom motif running across the back of the hand. Hand tattoos were apparently not only restricted to women of chiefly rank, but were also very personalized, so that women could be identified by the tattoo of their hand. A folk tale speaks of an ogress, who had died during childbirth and had come to annoy people. She detached her hand and sent it to steal bananas, but was recognized by the tattoo.

Marshallese Finger Tattoos

The finger tattoo (eoon-addin) is restricted to women of chiefly rank and consists of small ring-like bands around the entire finger, or, more commonly, only on the backside of the middle digit. Tattooing motifs seen in this ornament field include zigzag bands (eodikdik). The most commonly tattooed finger is the middle finger, and only occasionally the ring finger or the little finger are tattooed. The ring-like motifs mentioned for the first digits, appear to be a European-influenced design motif, imitating European finger rings. Traditionally, the Marshallese had no rings on their fingers.

In addition, women could have a “secret” tattoo (bõd en Lõbõllõñ;) which is “commonly invisible to the eyes”. It appears that this tattoo covered the mons veneris, similar to the tattoos in other parts of Micronesia.


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