Symbolic tattooing

Tattooing is an art with more visible modern roots than other practices on Guam. Although tattooing is well-documented in other Micronesian cultures including Yap, Palau and the Marshall Islands there is little to no evidence that Chamorros of the Marianas adorned themselves with this type of permanent body art. There has been some research done regarding the possibility of Chamorros having tattoos, but no conclusive evidence.

Local “traditional” tattoo artist Maria Yatar McDonald conducted research on the question of tattoo in the Mariana Islands by traveling throughout Micronesia to study indigenous tattoo designs. McDonald made connections that she believes link the Marianas with tattoo designs found in Micronesia.

Although written accounts of first contact do not describe any body tattoos on Chamorros of that period, the existence of tattoo in other parts of Micronesia, she believes, indicates that Chamorros may have had tattoos at some time in the past. McDonald has created Chamorro tattoo designs which have specific meaning for the wearer, based on his or her family history.

Tattooing is now a modern art that has been influenced by Guam’s physical geography and the diversity of island’s population. Before the mid-1990s, most local residents typically received “home-made” tattoos. The few tattooing shops on island before that time were frequented primarily by visitors and military personnel.

Since the late 1990s, the demand for professional tattoos has grown significantly on Guam. The demand began when a few small shops started completing larger pieces of individualized artwork instead of small, pre-fabricated tattoos. These large pieces have become common on the island and are typically full of icons, symbolism and a personal story relating to their bearer.

Influence of Pacific traditions

McDonald is one of the most influential tattoo artists on Guam. She stayed in the outer islands of Yap and Palau for months at a time in the 1980s to study tattooing as Micronesia art form. She drew sketches of the elders of the islands and their tattoos in order to help create a book, Micronesian Traditional Iconography, after her stay with a chief on an outer island who taught her how to use traditional, large-needle tattooing techniques.

McDonald found that the common thread connecting the art of tattooing in Micronesia is that tattoos have symbolic meanings for the person wearing the art. Tattoos were always used as a symbolic gesture, a display of love or even a reminder of a respected story or elder who passed away.

Typical Pacific images include repetitive graphics, or very basic line drawings, of birds, fish, waves, dolphins, shark teeth and other items commonly found in the Pacific. These natural objects are traditionally depicted in very linear formats because of the tools that were used.

Many traditional tattoo artists used a basic tool with a simple handle equipped with a set of needles. Some methods of tattoo involve scraping away areas of skin while others simply rely on traditional needle piercing methods. Traditional tattooing tools are made of bone, wood or other natural materials.

Diversity in art

Traditional Micronesian tattoos are often seen on Guam. Chamorros, non-Chamorros and other Micronesians who have moved to Guam from other islands, have tattoos featuring the traditional icons.

But more commonly, people who live on Guam are not using traditional Micronesian designs. Many Chamorros have homemade tattoos of black dots (typically on the hand or knuckles), thick lines, basic figures or names. These tattoos can be executed with several different methods including a modified guitar string connected to a small motor that moves the needle of the string up and down.

Homemade tattoos were popular during the mid-20th century on Guam when tattoo shops used mostly pre-fabricated drawings for military personnel and visitors. One of the first tattoo shops on Guam was Low Tide Tattoo opened in April 1981 and owned by U.S. Air Force Seargent Jim Bazter. JD’s Tattoos was second, opening in 1996. Both of these shops employed local artists who had been trained in professional tattooing methods.

During the late 1990s tattoo shops began to specialize in large, personalized pieces that were similar to storyboards on skin. Storyboards, which originated in Palau, are boards carved with legends on them. These large “story” pieces became popular among various groups on Guam including the Mixed Martial Arts groups and are typically on the upper part of the body.

The large drawings typically include traditional icons such as dolphins, sharks, tigers, dragons, latte (a stone pillar with a capstone from pre-historic times found only in the Marianas) representing family and structure and other animals that symbolize people or times in a person’s life. Many Mixed Martial Arts groups or fighters also incorporate their logos or flames into their pieces.

As tattooing has grown in popularity, it is also increasingly seen in women on Guam in recent years. Typically, female tattoos are smaller pieces of body art in comparison to the full, body-encompassing tattoos often seen in men.

In 2008 Guam had ten professional tattoo shops that feature a variety of artwork. The island sustains these shops because tattooing continues to increase in popularity. It is estimated that seven out of every ten adults on Guam has at least one tattoo.

By Tammy Jo Anderson-Taft

For further reading

Feldman, Jerome, and Donald H. Rubinstein. The Art of Micronesia: The University of Hawaii Art Gallery. Honolulu: University of Hawai`i Department of Art and Partners, 1986.

Flores, Judy. “Art and Identity in the Mariana Islands: Issues of Reconstructing an Ancient Past.” PhD thesis, University of East Anglia, 1999.

Fujikawa, Shauna. “HOPE 4 PAIN TATTOOS GUAM.” Last modified 14 April 2022.

Kihleng, Kimberlee S., and Nancy P. Pacheco, eds. Art and Culture of Micronesian Women. Mangilao: Isla Center for the Arts and Women & Gender Studies Program, University of Guam, 2000.

Low Tide Tattoo. “Low Tide Tattoo – Guam’s Only Fully Certified Tattoo Shop.” 11 February 2023.

Thomas, Nicholas, Anna Cole, and Bronwen Douglas, eds. Tattoo: Bodies, Art and Exchange in the Pacific and the West. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.