From ritual efficacy to iconic efficiency: ritual encoding and the transformation of Samoan religiosity

Sebastien Galliot


Over the past thirty years or so, the iconographic corpus of ethnic tattoo designs has increasingly been used as an efficient, non-discursive way of expressing indigeneity, commitment, belonging, strength, etc. While they are detached from their original destination (the human skin) and due to their primal connection with the body, tattoo designs have an iconic power which rests on a process of naturalization. Their evocative strength together with their high portability tends to an exploitation of their power through a multitude of media. In this paper I will rely on the Samoan tattooed images to address the process of iconicity by downplaying their discursive meaning. To the extent that Samoan tattooing combines a high standardization of patterns’ assemblage, and a socially separated body of techniques with relatively low symbolic emphasis on individual designs, I will try to re-evaluate its visual saliency by looking at its changing semiotic status.

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