Oscar Kightley on the cultural history of Samoan tattooing

by Oscar Kightley / 17 October, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Tatau cultural history of samoan tattooing

Tattoo artist Tyla Vaeau Ta’ufo’ou in 2017.

Tatau is an extraordinary book tracing the painful rite of passage and art form that has endured for 3000 years.

The play began with a group of Samoan men, bare chested and wearing yellow lavalava, walking to the centre of the stage, laying down some mats and sitting down for a ritual that’s been practised continuously for thousands of years – traditional Samoan tatau.

The recipient in this case was youth- and social-work activist Vic Tamati, from Christchurch, who would be getting a pe’a: the male version of the traditional Samoan tattoo, which covers from the midriff to just below the knees. The female version, which is only on the legs but just as striking, is called a malu. It’s an agonising process that in ancient Samoa was a rite of passage from adolescence into adulthood.

Not every Samoan has seen this, let alone an audience about to witness this painful process in the first 15 minutes of the play, Tatau: Rites of Passage, by theatre companies Pacific Underground, from Christchurch, and Zeal Theatre, from Newcastle, Australia.

Patrons sat transfixed as master artist and tufuga tā tatau, Su’a Sulu’ape Paulo II, used a heavy wooden stick as a mallet to strike a variety of serrated-bone combs attached to sticks, or au, placed on Tamati’s skin.

The steady tapping into the skin left a puddle of ink and blood that in a moment was wiped away, leaving just the beautifully designed markings that would be there for life. There was real pain and real blood being spilt in this most solemn ritual that, when the play was unveiled in modern-day New Zealand, was normally hidden away in South Auckland garages.

Artist Fatu Feu’u and master tatauist Su’a Sulu’ape Paulo II with a completed pe’a in an Otara garage in 1991.

Artist Fatu Feu’u and master tatauist Su’a Sulu’ape Paulo II with a completed pe’a in an Otara garage in 1991.

Tamati’s tatau began on opening night and would be completed on the final night of the season, which ran throughout March 1996 at the Herald Theatre in Auckland. It remains the most real and intense thing I’ve seen in a theatre in New Zealand.

But it’s only now, thanks to the book Tatau: A History of Samoan Tattooing, that I fully appreciate what a significant and special moment it was to see this unfold.

The book is exactly what the name suggests, a history of Samoan tattooing, but that’s an understatement in terms of the story it contains.

And in our part of the Pacific, Aotearoa, with its significant Samoan population, it’s an art form we get exposed to just by walking around towns and cities.

Authors Sean Mallon and Sébastien Galliot.

Authors Sean Mallon and Sébastien Galliot.

As this fine work by Sean Mallon and Sébastien Galliot explains, the Samoan islands are virtually unique in that tattooing has been continuously practised with indigenous techniques.

As a scholarly work, it’s extraordinary. It traces Samoan tattooing – from what is known about its beginnings, the earliest-recorded observations by Europeans in the 1700s and the way it evolved as a ritual in the 20th century, to its contemporary and global implications.

This is the first publication to examine 3000 years of Samoan tatau. Through a chronology vivid with people, encounters and events, it describes how Samoan tattooing has been shaped by local and external forces over many centuries. It argues that Samoan tatau has a long history of relevance, both within and beyond Samoa, and a more complicated history than is currently presented in literature. One of the most fascinating stories is how it survived in Samoa despite the efforts of religious institutions to suppress it.

It’s no mean feat to appropriately and respectfully try to capture 3000 years of history, but Mallon and Galliot have done an extraordinary job.

One of the two people this book is dedicated to is Paulo. It was his idea to put tattooing in the play, so people who had never seen it before could be exposed to it.

He was a cultural icon who was instrumental in the renaissance of tatau among Samoans in New Zealand, and when his life was tragically taken, in 1999, the community lost much knowledge about this important tradition.

This book restores some of that, and Paulo himself would love that it’s been written.

TATAU: A HISTORY OF SAMOAN TATTOOING, by Sean Mallon and Sébastien Galliot (Te Papa Press, $75)

This article was first published in the October 13, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

Latest

Why you shouldn't force kids to eat everything on their plates
107161 2019-06-18 00:00:00Z Nutrition

Why you shouldn't force kids to eat everything on…

by Jennifer Bowden

Forcing children to finish everything on their plates sets them up for a bad relationship with food.

Read more
Can defending free speech boost David Seymour's fortunes?
107279 2019-06-17 00:00:00Z Politics

Can defending free speech boost David Seymour's fo…

by Graham Adams

The policies announced at Act’s relaunch are mostly standard party fare, but freedom of expression is an issue that could pull in new voters.

Read more
Oranga Tamariki inquiry won't be released to the public in full
107264 2019-06-17 00:00:00Z Social issues

Oranga Tamariki inquiry won't be released to the p…

by RNZ

Oranga Tamariki's inquiry into its attempt to take a newborn baby from its mother at Hawke's Bay Hospital will not be released to the public in full.

Read more
Writer Stephanie Johnson on five pioneering Kiwis who crossed the ditch
106770 2019-06-17 00:00:00Z Profiles

Writer Stephanie Johnson on five pioneering Kiwis…

by Diana Wichtel

Stephanie Johnson likes a good story and she’s found one in a collection of colourful Kiwis who made their mark in Australia.

Read more
The science behind finding the perfect sports bra
107091 2019-06-17 00:00:00Z Health

The science behind finding the perfect sports bra

by Ruth Nichol

Insufficient breast support is a barrier to exercise for many women, but with the right sports bra, there can be less bounce in your step.

Read more
Jessica McCormack: The Kiwi jeweller sparkling in Mayfair
106986 2019-06-16 00:00:00Z Profiles

Jessica McCormack: The Kiwi jeweller sparkling in…

by Clare de Lore

Diamonds and books are New Zealand designer Jessica McCormack’s best friends.

Read more
Sometimes Always Never is a triple-word-score of a film
107199 2019-06-16 00:00:00Z Movies

Sometimes Always Never is a triple-word-score of a…

by James Robins

In a delightful film about a father whose life has come unstuck after a contentious Scrabble game, Bill Nighy is superb.

Read more
Cocaine and cleavage: The iconic TV series Westside returns
107210 2019-06-16 00:00:00Z Television

Cocaine and cleavage: The iconic TV series Westsid…

by Fiona Rae

In the return of the West family saga, it’s 1987 and Ted West and the gang are waiting to rob a safe.

Read more