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To the Western world, tattoos and deviancy intertwined for centuries since Roman times, but the impact of a Polynesian islander, Omai, re-established a positive reception of inking in 18th-century Europe. James Cook’s crew returned to England from their expedition to the South Pacific with Omai, whose tattoos vowed the London society and even allowed him to sit at the table of the King.
Who Was Omai?
Mai, known as Omai in England, was a Tahitian man from the island of Raiatea, and the second Pacific visitor in Europe. He arrived in London in 1774 on HMS Adventure, a ship of Captain Cook’s second voyage of discovery, and resided in England for two years as the guest of the aristocrats.
Omai was the son of a Raiatean landowner, which ranked him as a nobleman among the Tahitians. Although he was brought to England as sort of a souvenir by Captain Furneaux, his position in his society was the reason he was invited to England as a friend.
The Tattoos of Omai
Captain Cook had recorded Polynesian tattooing customs before Omai. In 1769, Cook wrote in his journal that “Both sexes paint their bodys Tattow as it is called in their language, this is done by inlaying the Colour of black under their skins in such a manner as to be indelible”. This was the first appearance of the word ‘tattow’ in the English language, and it later developed into ‘tattoo’. Tattow derives from the Polynesian word ‘tatau’, originally meaning the tapping sound for inking the skin.
Writing was not part of the Polynesian culture, so the islanders used tattoos as signs to communicate and express their personality. Thus, they could read each other’s social status at a glance, such as sexual maturity or tribal information.
Just like their peers’, Omai had a unique body art. His inked back and hands showed extraordinary patterns, predominantly consisting of black lines. This made Omai appear exotic in the eyes of the Londoners and he became an overnight sensation.
Becoming a Celebrity
Omai won the heart of the English aristocracy for himself not only with his tattoos, but his delicate manners. Lord Sandwich (First Lord of the Admiralty) and Sir Joseph Banks (President of the Royal Society) were so fascinated by his company that they took the roles of his patrons. Sir Banks accommodated Omai in his London house and presented him at court, setting him on a journey to a career of the first non-white celebrity.
According to the anecdotes of the time, Omai was a graceful and kind person. He presented the image of an upper-class man by mimicking the Western behavior mixed with his native vibes, which stunned King George III and Queen Charlotte so much that they invited him for dinner. As he adapted to the English culture, he “attended banquets but never drank too excess, and learned to ride, play chess, and cards”.
Omai wore a garment and turban, had a sensual mouth, was young, tall, handsome, dark skinned, and of course… tattooed. According to rumours of the time, the upper-class ladies of London were attracted to his look, and he had affairs with a few of them.
As Omai gained popularity within the court, a natural curiosity arose about him in London. As a result, Omai was featured in newspapers, poems, and even in a pantomime (OMAI: Or, A Trip Round The World by Philip de Loutherbourg and John O’Keefe).
The Wind of Change
Omai managed to establish an image of the exotic instead of the uncivilized (the common concept of ‘the other’), which made him the first noble savage treated as equal.
At the time Omai came to England, Europe was being reshaped by progress – the wave of the Enlightenment. As the so-called ‘old norms’ were about to fade away, the society of London fancied a more liberal thinking. And due to the popularity of Omai’s tattoos, the general perception of inking changed. Therefore, instead of identifying tattoos with criminality, people began to show interest in tattooing, and not long after Omai returned to Tahiti, sailors put their tattoos on display for money in taverns.