Frances Hubbard Flaherty and her husband were already famous for their film Nanook of the North which debuted in 1922 and was widely shown and praised as the first full-length, anthropological documentary in cinema history.
The photograph below was done by Frances Hubbard Flaherty in Samoa in 1923 during the filming of Moana of the South Seas: A Romance of the Golden Age. It depicts the tufuga or tattoo artist at work. Here he is seen starting to tap the first design, known as the tua stripe, onto the person’s back. His assistants are pulling the skin tight and holding the person down, preventing him from moving.
In fact, it was in Polynesia that the word tattoo originated.
According to Merriam-Webster, 1777 is when the word “tattoo” entered into English usage, with the meaning of inked images in skin, and was put into the dictionary. However, we can reasonably trace a likely derivation of the word which precedes that given date.
We know from the records of the 1769 expedition of Captain James Cook, famed British Naval explorer, to the South Pacific that there was a Tahitian word tatau, which means “to mark”. However, the actual word “tattoo” existed before Cook and his voyages–about 150 years before.
In a happy coincidence, this previous form of the word actually meant “a rapid rhythmic rapping” and was used by military personnel (such as Cook and his crew) when referring to the call sounded before taps. The coincidence is a happy one because the sound of tattooing in Tahiti was, in fact, a rapid tapping where the set of needles, looking like a small rake, was hit with a stick to drive ink under the skin.
Although the Tahitians called it tatau, Cook and his men likely substituted a near sound-alike word from their own background. The west was forever changed when these early sailors absorbed this part of Tahitian culture and brought tattooed natives and their own tattoos back with them.
In an interesting side note, Cook was later killed on the beach in Hawaii some ten years later (on another voyage) at Kealakekua Bay during a quick altercation with locals over a small boat that had been taken.