Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas

by Herman Melville

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FOR a while leaving Little Jule to sail away by herself, I will here put down some curious information obtained from Hardy.

The renegado had lived so long on the island that its customs were quite familiar; and I much lamented that, from the shortness of our stay, he could not tell us more than he did.

From the little intelligence gathered, however, I learned to my surprise that, in some things, the people of Hivarhoo, though of the same group of islands, differed considerably from my tropical friends in the valley of Typee.

As his tattooing attracted so much remark, Hardy had a good deal to say concerning the manner in which that art was practised upon the island.

Throughout the entire cluster the tattooers of Hivarhoo enjoyed no small reputation. They had carried their art to the highest perfection, and the profession was esteemed most honourable. No wonder, then, that like genteel tailors, they rated their services very high; so much so that none but those belonging to the higher classes could afford to employ them. So true was this, that the elegance of one's tattooing was in most cases a sure indication of birth and riches.

Professors in large practice lived in spacious houses, divided by screens of tappa into numerous little apartments, where subjects were waited upon in private. The arrangement chiefly grew out of a singular ordinance of the Taboo, which enjoined the strictest privacy upon all men, high and low, while under the hands of a tattooer. For the time, the slightest intercourse with others is prohibited, and the small portion of food allowed is pushed under the curtain by an unseen hand. The restriction with regard to food, is intended to reduce the blood, so as to diminish the inflammation consequent upon puncturing the skin. As it is, this comes on very soon, and takes some time to heal; so that the period of seclusion generally embraces many days, sometimes several weeks.

All traces of soreness vanished, the subject goes abroad; but only again to return; for, on account of the pain, only a small surface can be operated upon at once; and as the whole body is to be more or less embellished by a process so slow, the studios alluded to are constantly filled. Indeed, with a vanity elsewhere unheard of, many spend no small portion of their days thus sitting to an artist.

To begin the work, the period of adolescence is esteemed the most suitable. After casting about for some eminent tattooer, the friends of the youth take him to his house to have the outlines of the general plan laid out. It behoves the professor to have a nice eye, for a suit to be worn for life should be well cut.

Some tattooers, yearning after perfection, employ, at large wages, one or two men of the commonest order—vile fellows, utterly regardless of appearances, upon whom they first try their patterns and practise generally. Their backs remorselessly scrawled over, and no more canvas remaining, they are dismissed and ever after go about, the scorn of their countrymen.

Hapless wights! thus martyred in the cause of the Fine Arts.

Beside the regular practitioners, there are a parcel of shabby, itinerant tattooers, who, by virtue of their calling, stroll unmolested from one hostile bay to another, doing their work dog-cheap for the multitude. They always repair to the various religious festivals, which gather great crowds. When these are concluded, and the places where they are held vacated even by the tattooers, scores of little tents of coarse tappa are left standing, each with a solitary inmate, who, forbidden to talk to his unseen neighbours, is obliged to stay there till completely healed. The itinerants are a reproach to their profession, mere cobblers, dealing in nothing but jagged lines and clumsy patches, and utterly incapable of soaring to those heights of fancy attained by the gentlemen of the faculty.

All professors of the arts love to fraternize; and so, in Hannamanoo, the tattooers came together in the chapters of their worshipful order. In this society, duly organized, and conferring degrees, Hardy, from his influence as a white, was a sort of honorary Grand Master. The blue shark, and a sort of Urim and Thummim engraven upon his chest, were the seal of his initiation. All over Hivarhoo are established these orders of tattooers. The way in which the renegado's came to be founded is this. A year or two after his landing there happened to be a season of scarcity, owing to the partial failure of the breadfruit harvest for several consecutive seasons. This brought about such a falling off in the number of subjects for tattooing that the profession became quite needy. The royal ally of Hardy, however, hit upon a benevolent expedient to provide for their wants, at the same time conferring a boon upon many of his subjects.

By sound of conch-shell it was proclaimed before the palace, on the beach, and at the head of the valley, that Noomai, King of Hannamanoo, and friend of Hardee-Hardee, the white, kept open heart and table for all tattooers whatsoever; but to entitle themselves to this hospitality, they were commanded to practise without fee upon the meanest native soliciting their services.

Numbers at once flocked to the royal abode, both artists and sitters. It was a famous time; and the buildings of the palace being "taboo" to all but the tattooers and chiefs, the sitters bivouacked on the common, and formed an extensive encampment.

The "Lora Tattoo," or the Time of Tattooing, will be long remembered. An enthusiastic sitter celebrated the event in verse. Several lines were repeated to us by Hardy, some of which, in a sort of colloquial chant he translated nearly thus:

"Where is that sound?
In Hannamanoo.
And wherefore that sound?
The sound of a hundred hammers,
Tapping, tapping, tapping
The shark teeth."
"Where is that light?
Round about the king's house,
And the small laughter?
The small, merry laughter it is
Of the sons and daughters of the tattooed."

It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.