Sean Mallon’s work, as a senior curator at Te Papa, hasn’t been confined within the walls of our national museum. For instance, with his latest book Tatau: A History of Sāmoan Tattooing, which won an Ockham New Zealand Book Award this month, he and his co-author Sebastien Galliot have, according to the judges, expanded and enriched “the knowledge of readers throughout Aotearoa, the Moana Pacific and beyond.” Here he is talking to Dale about his work and his Sāmoan-Irish roots.


Kia ora, Sean. I know that you have a Sāmoan-Irish whakapapa, and that your dad was born in Ireland and your mum in Sāmoa. Can you start by telling us a bit about them, and how they met?

My mum, Iutita, is from Mulivai, Safata. That’s on Upolu, in Sāmoa. My dad’s Gerard Mallon. He’s from Belfast in Northern Ireland. They both immigrated to New Zealand in the late ‘60s. And they met each other through the Catholic community here in Wellington.

Mum came here for work. She was originally in a kind of convent in Sāmoa. My recollection of the story is that she got ill as she was approaching the final vows. And so she had to leave the convent.

The order that she was with, the Carmelites, are a contemplative order that seclude themselves away in prayer for their community. They don’t get out and about. When Mum and I visited the convent in the 1990s, all communication and transactions were done through a grill — they pass sandwiches and drinks to you through a turnstile in the wall.

My mother was there for four years, and after she left to recover from illness, she never went back. She wanted to care for her father, who would walk every weekend to the convent to visit her. She was concerned for his health.

Eventually, she ended up in New Zealand. She was 21 when she arrived in Wellington. And her first job was looking after the priests at St Patrick’s College, which was based in the city back then.

Similarly, my dad had been in a seminary in Wexford, in Ireland, training to be a Catholic priest. And he got to a point in that training where he decided the priesthood wasn’t for him. So, at age 22, he followed a couple of his older brothers who’d already immigrated to New Zealand. And he ended up in Wellington.

Was there an expectation that you would follow the faith — or are you someone who has the foundation but doesn’t practise it?

I was raised as Catholic, so I went to Catholic schools in Porirua. But I think it’s fair to say that I’m now not as committed to Catholicism as my parents. I no longer regularly go to church. I think that’s something my parents would be disappointed about, but they’ve raised us really well within the faith. And a lot of the values of that Christian upbringing, my brothers, sisters and I, still live by.

Ka pai. Where did you guys grow up?

We were raised in Porirua, just north of Wellington. My father worked at Todd Motors, which had a car assembly factory in Porirua back in the day. We moved here from the Hutt Valley when the factory set up in Porirua. I was about five at the time.

Porirua gets kicked around, doesn’t it? It’s seen as a tough town and an impoverished town. But I’ve detected a resurgent sense of pride in the community in more recent times. What impression did you have of Porirua during the time you grew up there?

I knew there was poverty and crime in Porirua when I was growing up there in the ‘70s and ‘80s. I saw some of it first-hand, but it didn’t really hit me what Porirua’s reputation was outside the community until later. When I went to university in Auckland, I met a guy there from the Far North, and when I said I was from Porirua, the first thing he said was: “Oh, Porirua Dogs!” I think Porirua Dogs were part of the Mongrel Mob. There was a very visible gang culture in Porirua back then, and there are still elements of it today.

But Porirua has had changing fortunes. Like a lot of towns or small cities, it’s had its struggles. But it’s a city that’s done really well for itself the last couple of decades. And many Porirua people have made contributions to local and national politics, sports, business, and the arts.

I’ve never really seen it in a negative light. I’ve always been really proud coming from Porirua and being part of the community, which, over time has got more diverse. It’s a really positive place to be.

Good on you. You mentioned varsity. Was there an expectation you’d go into tertiary study, or was that a little bit out of the norm for your whānau — as it is, often, with many whānau?

Being the oldest in my family, I don’t think there was any major expectation that I go to university. But education was very important in our family.

After leaving Viard College in Porirua in the late 1980s, I worked for a year in the public service and was fortunate to get a scholarship. So I left home and went to Auckland University.

That experience opened my world. Big time. It took me away from my home base and put me in a different community of people. It was a major turning point for me, and a tremendous period of learning and developing — socially, culturally and intellectually. I went through with some wonderful people. And I’m really grateful I had that opportunity.

I graduated with a double-degree in anthropology and history, with a focus on New Zealand and the Pacific. Initially, I took papers on Māori topics, because I thought I might be an archaeologist in New Zealand, but I ended up moving into social anthropology, and pursuing that at post-grad level down here in Wellington.

Sean at the launch of ‘Tatau’ in Te Papa, Wellington.

I’ve got Irish bloodlines, too, on my dad’s side — and my mum’s Māori. How did the two sides of your family get along? Did you have a strong connection with your mum’s side?

I’ve grown up with both sides very prominent in my life — we grew up with our Sāmoan and Irish cousins, and there are strong bonds and relationships there.

I used to travel to Sāmoa every year when I first started working. Partly for personal research reasons, but also to connect with family and just get away from everyday life and have a holiday. My understanding of the culture and our family connections there really strengthened over these years.

I’ve only been to Ireland once. But when I was there, I was very struck by how similar the Irish are to the Sāmoans. So I used to joke — and I’m not sure if I’m the only person who’s ever said this — that the Irish are the Sāmoans of the North Atlantic, and the Sāmoans are the Irish of the South Pacific.

There’s so much similarity in the cultures. Their commitment to family, their love of music and dance and conversation, and their shared passion for religion and history — and all the politics that go with that! So there’s great synergy between the two sides of my family.

The Irish story resonates with Māori, too. It’s one of being stereotyped, put down, and taken over and dominated by outside forces. We all have that in common, I think.

I think you’re spot on there. That’s something that’s really followed me around in my life. The challenge of dealing with stereotypes associated with Irish people and Sāmoans, and the racism towards Polynesians in general. It really gets to me sometimes.

Growing up in a place like Porirua and being a little bit brown and a little bit white, you get to see both sides of that fence. There was racism directed toward Mum and Dad, both as individuals and as a couple — by Pacific people and other Pākehā. You know, the ever present Irish jokes, the bunga and coconut jokes.

It’s hard to talk about, actually. As a young kid, when people disrespect or are racist about your parents to your face or within earshot, it’s diffcult to deal with. I still regret not having the ability or the knowledge of how to handle some of those situations back then, when I was confronted with them.

In one of your pukapuka, Tangata O Le Moana: New Zealand and the People of the Pacific, you look at the history of Pacific people here in New Zealand. That’s a rich story, isn’t it? Often I’m reminded of the sacrifices of those who travelled from the islands, and the menial jobs they were involved in to put food on the table, in the hope that their kids would get some good schooling opportunities. What prompted you to put that book together?

It was really driven through my museum work. I had worked on an exhibition called Mana Pasifika for the opening of Te Papa, in 1997-1998, which celebrated the persistence and survival of Pacific cultures.

It had all the things you’d normally see in an exhibition about Pacific peoples. There was the ceremonies case, the sports case, the religion case. All these different ethnographic categories where you can look at, and compare, different Pacific cultures.

Then, in the mid-2000s, when we curated the exhibition Tangata O Le Moana: The Story of Pacific Peoples in New Zealand, which the book is based on, we felt we needed to do something different and justify why Pacific people are in the national museum of New Zealand.

For a long time, the rationale for our presence in the museum was our exoticness, and that we were New Zealand’s nearest island neigbours. We were the exotic “other”.

In Tangata O Le Moana, we chose a different rationale: Maybe the reason we’re in the Museum of New Zealand is because New Zealand is a Pacific place? It’s an archipelago of volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean — and its geographical position and its natural and human history connects it, through that ocean, to all these others atolls and islands throughout the region.

We decided to talk about it as a New Zealand History exhibition, told from Pacific peoples’ perspectives. We wanted to remind people that tangata whenua, the first settlers of Aotearoa, actually came from other Pacific Islands. That the ancestors of Māori were Pacific people.

Pacific peoples fought for New Zealand in the world wars, and provided the cheap labour in the post-war recovery and growth of industry. We endured the Dawn Raids, and contribute now across all areas of New Zealand society. We told the story of a thousand years of New Zealand history from Pacific peoples’ point of view.

‘Tatau: A History of Sāmoan Tattooing’ won the 2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards Illustrated Non-Fiction category.

Tēnā koe, cuz. We’re all Pasifika peoples, there’s no doubt about that!

Now let’s talk about your success with the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, and this pukapuka, Tatau: A History of Sāmoan Tattooing. Of course, we have many similarities, Māori and Sāmoan, as far as body adornment, body markings, is concerned. But quite distinctly different styles. How challenging was it to put the book together?

The book was a collaboration between myself and Sebastien Galliot, who’s a French anthropologist. We’d both done academic work on tatau over a long time. Sebastien had researched extensively in the European archives and lived with Sāmoan tattooing families in Sāmoa. I’d focused on the contemporary situation in New Zealand, Sāmoa, and elsewhere. When our paths crossed, we decided to combine our work and produce this book.

Our goal was to emphasise the complexity of tatau and its history to a broad readership. We wanted to analyse the ways in which historical processes and changes in Sāmoan society had affected the art form — and especially how the movements of people changed tatau and the way it’s practised today.

So we looked not only at the comings and goings of different people to Sāmoa, but also the movement of people out of Sāmoa, to places like LA, Auckland, Sydney, Honolulu.

We see a resurgence in Aotearoa of tā moko — it’s brought back a cultural pride to our people and it’s a very visible way of showing that culture. What would you say of the importance of tatau to Sāmoan people, as a modern day illustration of Sāmoan culture? What’s its role now?

Its meaning has changed over time. Today, it’s the most visible symbol of Sāmoan identity. A really popular one. And it operates at different levels.

It can be a rite of passage for men and women in the cultural life of their families and communities. A set of markings that allows people to participate in certain Sāmoan ceremonial situations — serving kava, for example, or performing the duties of untitled young men in ceremonial meetings, or fono. It can be a marker of special life events, honouring people who’ve been tattooed before.

Or it can be decoration, solely an adornment of the body.

One of the things the book tries to capture is all the different reasons why people get tattooed. It really varies from person to person, place to place, situation to situation. There are some core shared values but also complexity and contested areas.

In the present day, first and foremost, it’s a marker of identity. A way of asserting your Sāmoan identity in different cultural situations.

Walking the Wall (2014), Angela Tiatia, wearing a malu. (Digital video: still. © Angela Tiatia, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Reproduced with permission.)

It’s a wonderful book, congratulations on it, and on your award. Who do you want to read it?

I want all Sāmoans to read the book and understand the history of the art form and some of the people involved in it. And just to think about our own Sāmoan culture and society in more sophisticated ways — in ways that show us as a changing, creative and responsive people whose culture isn’t fixed or static.

My hope is that it will help us move beyond the stereotypes of Pacific cultures as being bound by something called tradition, and being continually practised the same unchanging way over time.

We’re an ever-evolving people, all of us. Certainly, as Māori, we recognise things are changing. And that’s a good thing — can’t stay locked in a time vault. As we’re influenced by others who arrive on our shores, obviously their stories are going to be woven into the narrative as well. And that’s what you’re witnessing in modern Sāmoan tatau, nē?

Definitely. And it’s a very contested practice and set of processes. For example, the appropriation of Sāmoan tatau by non-Sāmoans is a ongoing debate, as it is with Māori.

But there are debates as well about how people in our own communities wear tatau. Is wearing markings meant for the legs on other parts of the body acceptable? Where and when should a woman reveal her malu? Is it okay to reveal it under shorts? In a nightclub? These are the kinds of questions that are hotly contested, especially on social media.

Tatau does a lot of work, culturally, but not everybody agrees on the way people put it to work and make it work for them in their lives. Nothing gets a Facebook comments section going faster than a debate about tatau.

Male (pe’a) and female (malu) tatau. (Photographed by Li‘aifaiva Imo Levi @liaifaiva. Reproduced with permission.)

Ka pai, Sean. We’re nearing the end of our kōrero now, but one thing I quite like to ask is — are there any books, films, or people you’ve been inspired by? Is there anything you’ve read or seen that really moved you or helped to shape your personality?

In terms of my academic work here in the museum, the thinking and writing of Albert Wendt has been the most influential. He wrote an essay in 1976 called Towards a New Oceania. It’s a piece of writing that’s been really important to me, in thinking about how we talk about Pacific people in a place like the museum.

Albert’s article focused on the use of “tradition” by our political and cultural elites. One passage in particular led me to think more critically about the use of the word “traditional”, and to avoid it in my writing and exhibitions. It’s a term that masks so much of the dynamic nature of our cultures over time. It obscures our history. His writing was the impetus behind my work on books like Tangata O Le Moana, and telling the story of art forms like tatau as a history.

The current generation of Māori and Pacific filmmakers, theatre-makers and storytellers have been very inspiring to me as well. I saw Vai, a month or so ago, and it was wonderful. The use of indigenous languages, the fact that they’d brought women filmmakers together to create the work. Ever since I saw it, I keep thinking about it. The range of approaches involved, and the small moments of life that have made it to the screen. They are vignettes I can relate to but have never seen in a cinema before.

I’ve also been really inspired, over many decades, by theatre. The work of Pacific Underground and groups such as The Conch, The Naked Sāmoans, and The Laughing Sāmoans. All of them have worked really hard to bring our peoples’ experiences and histories to a mass audience. That’s a job I can relate to.

All of these storytellers, across all those genres, inspire me all the time to do better work.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

(Images reproduced with permission from Tatau: A History of Sāmoan Tattooing by Sean Mallon and Sébastien Galliot, published by Te Papa Press.)

© E-Tangata, 2019

Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.

If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.