Archives for posts with tag: tattoo

Henna Hands

I captured this image at the foot of the Taj Mahal in March, 2002. Helen and I were at the tail end of nearly a year of traveling around the world on $30/day between the two of us (airfare, scuba diving and our one safari in Kenya were outside of that budget). In all, we spent two full days inside the Taj Mahal compound, watching the light change, Helen sketching in her diary, me taking the occasional photograph (see: limitations of shooting with film).

At one point during the first day, with the crowds picking up and the light directly above and probably at it’s least interesting, Helen and I ventured forward, removed our shoes and walked inside the mausoleum itself. Seeing the chamber built for the tombs of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal is a required visit, but the comparatively small space is less impressive than the building itself.

I was happy to get back outside, into the sunshine and where I could soak in the building’s famous exterior. That’s when I noticed this well-appointed woman and her tattooed hands.

As is my way, I approached her with my camera hanging from my neck. I smiled, pointed to her hands, and told her they were beautiful. She smiled and let me know it’s part of the wedding custom – she was getting married there, at the Taj Mahal. I asked if I could photograph her hands and that’s when she held out her hands as you see here.

I’ve since learned that this form of henna tattoo is called “mehndi” and is part of a larger Hindu wedding tradition. Among other folklore, one theory has it that the darker the henna, the more the bride will be loved by her husband and respected by her new in-laws. Perhaps one beloved tradition is that the bride isn’t allowed to do any work until the mehndi has faded away. In effect, across all fronts, darker is better.

Of course, the dark henna, meant to impress her husband and ward off the start of any work, was perfect for my camera and black and white film. What’s remarkable for me in the image is how all the elements come together – the intricate, dense and dark patterns painted on her hands offset by the also intricate but light and airy patterns on her sari, all separated by her symmetrical arms and series of bright bangles.

This is one of those images where everything came together in an instant to create, what for me, is the perfect moment. Shooting film – a resource I doled out carefully during a year of backpacking around the world – combined with the woman’s graciousness and clearly limited time, I took exactly one frame of her hands.

Clearly, I’m happy with how it worked out.

In 1766, Captain George Wallis left London with the goal of circumnavigating the globe. Along the way, he discovered Tahiti. When he returned to England and before his death, he passed on information about Tahiti to Captain James Cook. Captain Cook then hired many of Wallis’ crew and returned to Tahiti in 1768 aboard his ship The Resolution. As fate would have it, the Master on that sailing was none other than William Bligh who would go on to his own fame for the mutiny on The Bounty 19 years later.

From Wallis to Bligh, there were several trips to Polynesia. Among other reasons was the British need for breadfruit. Breadfruit was plentiful in Polynesia, did not spoil once plucked from a tree, and was found to be a cheap and energy rich food for slaves. The United Kingdom ended slavery in 1833, but until then – and especially as it related to the slave trade – there was a demand for Polynesian breadfruit.

This demand likely helped drive Captain Cook’s second voyage to Polynesia and was the entire reason for Captain Bligh’s voyage to Tahiti in 1787. In addition to breadfruit, great weather, beaches, food and local women, the sailors on Captain Cook and Captain Bligh’s voyages to Polynesia also discovered something new to the West. Tattoos.

Polynesians had developed a rich history and culture around tattoos that dates back 2000 years. The tattoos are distinctive black and white geometric patterns, often depicting sea creatures or, occasionally, birds (the one above looks like a Manta Ray). The British sailors who sometimes spent months in various parts of Polynesia went local in many ways… including, of course, getting tattooed.

That’s how it came to be that tattooed British sailors returned to England. Which, in turn, led to a sub-culture of tattoos among sailors in general. In the early and mid-20th century as two world wars broke out, these same sailors joined the Navy and brought with them their culture of tattoos. Which is why, when I grew up in the 1960s and 70s, seeing a tattoo on a man of nearly any age indicated military service in the Navy or Marines.

Over the last forty years, the culture of tattoos has migrated from the naval culture to mainstream society. I’m fascinated that so many people, of all ages and social strata, have tattoos these days. And I wonder how many of these people know how that tattoo came to be on their body, that it all started 2000 years ago in Polynesia and then with a bold sailing by Captain Wallis in 1766, followed by sailings by Captain Cook and Captain Bligh, with a nod to need to feed people caught up in the slave trade.

With this as a backdrop, thanks to Paul Gauguin Cruises, I was fortunate enough to lead six weeks of photo expeditions in Polynesia over two recent summers. There’s plenty of stunning landscape to photograph and I saw and photographed plenty. It was in the Marquesas Islands, listed as the most remote islands in the world, 3,000 miles from a continental land mass – on the Island of Nuku Hiva, known for, among other things, its history of cannibalism – that I was inspired to start photographing these tattoos.

I suppose here in Nuku Hiva, with little connection to the outside world and a population of 2,660, that the tattoos felt especially genuine and how it was that my pent-up interest in Polynesian tattoos finally found it’s way into my viewfinder and into my images.

This particular image came from just outside the gathering hall on the island. Some of the locals banged drums while others danced in a performance that’s true purpose was to get us rare tourists up where they could sell us souvenirs. The drumming and the dancing were wonderful. I took pictures of the drummers and even pulled out my iPhone to capture video of my 5-year-old daughter joining in with the local dancers. But the real intrigue for me was not in the hall with the staged performance, but outside the hall, where otherwise idle men gathered to pass the time. These men were not there to sell anything nor to participate. This was their island and we were all as much a curiosity to them as they were to us.

I noticed this one man immediately. He was large and hard to miss. I knew I wanted to take a picture of his tattoo – and I also knew I wasn’t interested in shooting a portrait. I wanted the open shirt, the gold chain and the tattoo. I wanted to fill the frame with that which interested me, nothing more. I don’t shoot pictures like this from afar, preferring instead to be up close and personal with my subject. This means getting permission which, in this case, I got by raising my camera and asking permission with my eyes and a slight head nod. He, in turn, signalled his approval ever so slightly.  He didn’t look like a man with much patience for the likes of me, so I took one shot, thanked him and moved on.

There’s symmetry and asymmetry in this shot that both work well for me and, in an intriguing way, offset one another. And then there’s the history. All in all, I quite like this shot.

And as a post script: there was a new case of suspected cannibalism on the island a week after we were there.

So it goes.

I’m fascinated by the fact that tattoos originated in the tiny islands of Polynesia and are now nearly ubiquitous around the much of the world. If you have a tattoo, the chances are it wouldn’t be there but for the fact that natives in Polynesia pioneered the art. In 1768, Captain James Cook sailed on his first of three voyages and stopped in Tahiti. There, his crew was first exposed to the art of tattoos. A young lieutenant on his ship would later become a captain of his own ship and return to the same set of Polynesian islands – his name, William Bligh who later famously captained the Bounty.

It was during these and subsequent visits to Polynesia that sailors began to adorn themselves with and learn about the art of tattoos. From there, it’s an easy and quick step to see how tattoos infiltrated western navies. Indeed, back in the 1960s and 1970s when I was a kid, only men had tattoos and it was usually taken and a sign that he had served in the Navy.

In the intervening 40 years, tattoos have jumped the chasm from the military and naval service and become mainstream art. In the process, I feel confident in saying that few folks wearing tattoos know where the art originated, know nothing of the chain of events that lead to the tattoo that’s on their bodies and have no connection to the distinctive styles of the original tattoo culture.

Tattoos in Polynesia have a sacredness to them. They provide connections to the earth, to the ocean, to their culture, family and history. The tattoos all have a similarity to them – a sense of shared geometry. They are all black ink, no color. They don’t contain names or representational images. They are not entirely abstract either… the shapes have meanings and often take the form of a recognizable animal such as a manta ray.

I spent three weeks in Polynesia this past summer… it was magical for a number of reasons, one of which was the opportunity to see a range of tattoos from the place in the world where tattoos originated. And, of course, it was magical because I had an opportunity to photograph a range of the these tattoos as well.