A Symbol of Protection

Lesson Plan


Students will compare and contrast the role of body art among people of different cultures and time periods, then create a tattoo design that symbolizes protection.

Intended Age Group

Secondary (grades 6-12)

Length of Lesson

One 45 minute lesson

Standards Area

Visual Arts


Students will be able to:

  • describe the role of tattoos for people of the Marquesas Islands;
  • draw comparisons about the purpose of body art to people of th eMarquesas Islands and to our contemporary society; and
  • create a tattoo design symbolizing protection.


  1. Warm-up: Hand out a piece of drawing paper to each student. Have students draw a continuous, squiggly line using their non-dominant hand (opposite of the hand that they usually use for writing). Then invite students to create a picture from this squiggly line.
  2. Display Leg and ask students to look at it closely. Start by having them describe what they see. When the students think they have described everything about the Leg, encourage them to come up with three more details and/or elements they haven’t mentioned.
  3. Invite the students to make connections across different areas (historical periods, cultures, symbols, patterns) by asking them: What do the designs on the Leg remind you of? Do you see animals? Letters? Numbers? Have you seen any of these shapes/designs before? Where? Why do you think these designs were important to the artist?
  4. Ask students to think about tattoos in today’s society. You might want to find appropriate pictures of tattoos before class to share with students. Ask students: How are tattoos used today? Why might people get them? Why might people get tattoos if it hurts? What other kinds of body art do people have? What roles does body art play in our culture?
  5. Discuss the significance of tattoos and other body art in Marquesan culture. (Refer to the About the Art section for more information.) Tattoo images were marks of beauty as well as a reflection of knowledge and cultural beliefs. They also signaled a person’s social status—a higher ranking individual would have more tattoos than an individual of a lesser rank. Tattoos were also believed to literally shield and protect a body from harm.
  6. Ask students to share ways that people try to protect themselves and prevent dangerous situations from happening in our society today (e.g. wearing helmets when riding a bike, religion, sunscreen, etc.). What sort of practices do people perform? Do you think these practices work? Does it matter if they really work or is it more important that people believe they work?
  7. Have students design a tattoo symbolizing protection using colored pencils or other artistic supplies on drawing paper. Remind students that the images they draw don’t have to be real objects, they can simply be symbols, shapes, or designs—as long as the symbols mean something to them.
  8. When students are finished, display students’ work around the classroom and have a gallery show. Encourage students to identify similarities and differences among the different tattoos. Do the tattoos show protection in a natural, spiritual, or other kind of way? Why did individual students choose the symbols, shapes, and designs they did?


  • Drawing paper
  • Colored pencils, colored markers, or other artistic supplies
  • About the Art section on the Polynesian Leg
  • One color copy of the Leg for every four students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen


CO Standards

  • Visual Arts
    • Invent and Discover to Create
    • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
    • Relate and Connect to Transfer
    • Envision and Critique to Reflect
  • Language Arts
    • Oral Expression and Listening
    • Research and Reasoning
    • Reading for All Purposes

21st Century Skills

  • Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
  • Invention
  • Self-Direction

About the Art



Late 1800s

Artist not known, Marquesas Islands, Polynesia

Who Made It?

This wooden leg was carved by an artist from the Marquesas [mar-KAY-zas] Islands, a group of volcanic islands in French Polynesia, located in the Pacific Ocean. The Marquesas are the farthest group of islands from any continent. In terms of the arts, they are well-known for their tattoo art, as well as for their carvings in wood, bone, and shell. The process of tattooing in the Marquesas was treated as a ritual and the tattoo artist was a highly skilled artisan. Even today, many Marquesans beautify their bodies, proclaim their identities, and preserve their memories and experiences with tattoos.

What Inspired It?

We’re not sure why this particular object was created. It’s possible that it served as the leg for a specially constructed raised bed, made only for certain priests to lie on following the performance of important sacrifices. Tattoos were believed to protect a person’s body from harm and this belief applied to objects as well. Tattooing the bed’s leg may have served to protect these priests’ tapu, or sacred, state by preventing contact with the earth. This leg may also have been a model placed outside of a tattoo shop, advertising the services of the artist inside.

In the past, tattooing was a major art form in the Marquesas Islands and it inevitably influenced other art forms. The tattooing style of the Marquesas was the most elaborate in all of Polynesia. Tattoo images were marks of beauty as well as a reflection of knowledge and cultural beliefs. They also signaled a person’s social status—a higher ranking individual would have more tattoos than an individual of a lesser rank. All-over tattooing was a development unique to this area. Both males and females were tattooed, although only men covered their bodies from head to toe. Designs were also different for women and men.


Tattoo Imagery
Tattoo Imagery

Tattoo images have been carved all around the circumference of the wooden leg. The carving is particularly detailed on the foot.


The large crack down the front of the leg happened before the leg came into the Denver Art Museum’s possession. It is evidence of curing of the wood as it aged.

Wooden Peg
Wooden Peg

The peg, or wooden block at the top of the leg tells us that it may have been attached to something else.

Funding for lesson plans provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.