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Oscar Kightley on the 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.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

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.

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.

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.