When Captain Cook returned from his first voyage he brought with him the term ‘tattoo’ if not the practice itself.

While inking designs onto the skin was no new thing in 18th Century Europe, the excitement that greeted accounts of Captain Cook’s expeditions ensured much attention to this ancient art and introduced a new word, ‘tattoo’.

In 1768 Captain James Cook's first Pacific voyage began on board HMS Endeavour. Sydney Parkinson, the artist on the voyage, made many drawings of tattoos in New Zealand and the Society Islands.

Sir Joseph Banks, the flamboyant naturalist on the Endeavour, wrote the first European account of tattooing in which he described at length a young girl being tattooed in Tahiti. Many of the sailors on the Endeavour decided to get local tattoos.

The word 'tattoo' is derived from the Tahitian word 'tatau', meaning to mark. The word 'tattaw' was first used in the published account of Captain Cook's first voyage, which appeared in 1769.

It has been suggested that 'tatau' is an onomatopoeic word. 'Tat' refers to tapping the tattooing instrument into the skin; 'au' to the cry of pain from the person being tattooed.

Omai, the tattooed man

A portrait of a tattooed man by Sir Joshua Reynolds sold at auction for over £10 million in 2001.The painting depicts Omai (Mae), a tattooed Tahitian man who came to England with Cook in 1774.

Omai was taken around the country by Sir Joseph Banks. While he was in England, Omai was fêted by society. He was introduced to King George III and taken to the state opening of Parliament. Omai returned to Tahiti with Captain Cook's third voyage in 1776


In 1789 the famous mutiny took place on the Bounty off Tofoa in Tonga. Later at the trial of the captured Bounty mutineers, Lieutenant William Bligh (who had sailed with Cook and Banks) identified the mutineers by the tattoos they had acquired in Tahiti.


Missionaries arrived in the Pacific in 1797. They saw tattooing as a sinful practice and suppressed it on many islands.