Now tatts what I call tough

A tough Polynesian reclaims his cultural heritage with body art, writes Mal Chenu.

The foyer of the Intercontinental Hotel in Papeete is no place to take a wavering girlfriend. Facing the ocean is a tiki boasting a reasonably impressive appendage. He stares smugly at me. I feel as though I'm in one of those RTA anti-speeding advertisements.

Tahitian mythology names Ti'i as the "first man" and it's hard to argue, despite the self-aggrandising way he has of demonstrating it. Legends of Ti'i are common throughout the Pacific in various forms and in each one he is a progenitor of something or other.

No bloke (well, not many) wants to stand next to something that imposing for long, so I wander over to chat with the second most impressive-looking fellow in the foyer. Wearing his ceremonial pareo hitched up like a loin cloth to show off his neck-to-ankle tattoos, Teve the porter is very impressive. But the story of his Papeete ink makes him one of the toughest men I have met. A native of the Teeii tribe of Nuku Hiva island in the Marquesas Islands, Teve Tuhipua, 49, is credited with re-introducing the ancient traditional art of tattooing to French Polynesia.

Missionaries arrived in 1797 and halted the practice as they considered it sinful to glorify the body with tattoos.

In 1982 Teve, then a dancer of note (aficionados of the genre and pervs who check him out at will not be disappointed), was researching his culture when he saw a photo taken in 1804 of a Polynesian native with a full body of markings. Teve resolved to copy the art. Through a translator, Teve tells me he had to go to Samoa to get the job done, there being no artists in French Polynesia. He says without malice it was, in part at least, a political statement - the reclaiming of a cultural heritage.

There would be no sharp needles and hygienic procedures for Teve, however. He wanted the whole traditional ritual and endured incredible pain for his art. Over six excruciating weeks Teve was transformed into a painted Polynesian warrior.

During the process he observed all the taboos associated with the process, eschewing - among other things - women, discos and shaving. He hardly slept.

Teve describes the tattooist's tool as a comb with needles carved from bone and tortoiseshell. He sketched the implement and it looked more like a tomahawk.

The comb-tomahawk was dipped in pigment and tapped into the skin with a small hammer. The Tahitian word "tatau" comes from the sound made by the tapping.

Teve tells his story without fanfare even though his revival of the full-body Marquesan-style tattoo caused a sensation. He is a modest man who completed a traditional rite just as his forefathers - now permanently honoured on his body - had done.

The day I met Teve I had been canyoning in the hills around Papeete and thought myself a tough, adventurous dude. Now, thanks to Teve and the tiki, not so much.