Polynesian tattoos are a popular souvenir for tourists to Papeete, writes Sophie Bond.

Women threading flowers into leis line a long verandah, sarongs in every colour strung above their heads, creating both a place of commerce and a work of art.

Stalls offer traditional Tahitian medicine: battered plastic bottles holding muddy-looking liquids with unidentifiable floaties to aid all manner of ailments, from ulcers to arthritis.

There are great slabs of tuna and tubs of crabs, bottles of distilled shrimp water (which smells like a sewer but apparently makes a delicious marinade) and piles of colourful tropical fruits.

Stalls are piled with shell-covered knick-knacks, perfumed oils and bundles of vanilla pods.


This is Papeete's daily market, smack-bang in the centre of the capital of Tahiti, spreading through two storeys of a large, open-plan building.

The market is open from dawn to dusk, except on Sunday when trading starts at 4am and finishes in time for everyone to head to morning church. Locals tell me they like to shop early on Sunday, get their ahima'a (hangi) laid before church and enjoy an afternoon of feasting with family.

A lot of tourists are wandering around sporting gauze bandages and raw-looking tattoos so I pop into Taaroa Tattoo on the waterfront to see if anything catches my eye. Part-owner Louison Denari also works as a graphic artist and illustrator and his colourful designs line the walls of the waiting room.

At 15 he carved a skull into his own left arm with a needle and has since picked up the art by watching others at work. "A big part of our work is with tourists who want to leave here with a souvenir." He flicks through photographs of his popular designs: rays, turtles and dolphins. "For the tourists," he smiles, "we combine them with the Polynesian style but really you don't find these animal forms in traditional tattoos."

I make polite murmurs about the scraggly kiwi being etched into the shoulder of a New Zealand customer, probably a request best left to someone with a clear idea of what a kiwi looks like.

Denari's own tattoos are mainly strong geometric, monochromatic designs and I ask him to explain some of the symbolism.

He says triangles are shark teeth and represent strength. The tiki, either the face or whole body, relates to an ancestor and offers protection. The koru is for health. The hatching, or plait depicts a roof or floor covering and means protection. A stylised pumpkin means abundance.

"Some symbols have been lost through colonisation but each of the islands have kept a little part of their own traditional designs."

He produces a published collection of sketches by a German explorer and ethnologist who visited the Marquesas Islands in 1891. Tattooing was banned 50 years earlier by French officials, and Denari says many designs would have been lost forever if not for the German's drawings.

"Even if we have lost a lot of things, the culture continues to evolve and new symbols appear. The tattoo becomes a slice of history from a certain period."

I'm a total wuss so I decided not to create my own slice of history, and went kiteboarding instead.

Getting there: Air Tahiti Nui flies from Auckland to Papeete.

Further information: See tahiti-tourisme.co.nz.

Sophie Bond travelled to French Polynesia with the help of Air Tahiti Nui and Tahiti Tourisme.