Vanuatu: Mota Lava: Tattoos

Mota Lava, located in the South Pacific, is a part of the island nation of Vanuatu. Mota Lava has a total area of 9.3 square miles (24 sq. km), making it the fourth largest island. Around 1,600 people inhabit the island. Locals refer to their home as “Mwotlap.” The history of Mota Lava dates back to the 19th century, starting with the discovery of the island by Pedro Fernández de Quirós in 1606.


Traditional tattoos are a vital component of the history and tradition of Mwotlap. Everyone was eligible to receive a tattoo, regardless of social status. Often a needle is made from two orange thorns bound to a stick. A pigment paste is made from soot of Nangai resin, made from the Nangai tree, which has been cultivated in Melanesia for thousands of years. Each mark holds a different meaning; with designs ranging from sun-like symbols to sideways W’s. Tattoo designs are unique and distinct from each island, serving as an emblem for locals. Apart from tattoos that were purely for decorative purpose, there were special designs that were tattooed on men based on their ranks and on women based on their father’s ranks. The tattoos were made only by women who worked in secret and charged fees based on the designs. Higher ranked individuals paid higher fees for their tattoos. The needles were made of small three-pointed bones of the fruit bats. The most common designs were pig jaws, human faces and figures and spiders. A person higher in social rank would have a higher number of pig jaws in his/her tattoos. Some of the commonly found tattoos on the faces of the women were small Z or double lines or a depiction of sun.