As a young girl, Tyla Vaeau was the envy of her mates for various reasons. But especially because she could draw so well. Then she added years of art studies to her natural talents. And, for some time now, she’s been applying that combination of skills and understanding to tatau, Sāmoan tattooing. The path that she’s taken is what she and Dale are chatting about here.
Talofa, Tyla. I’m fascinated with names and what they can tell us about where people have come from. So, what stories can your name tell us?
O lo’u igoa o Tyla Amy Vaeau. Vaeau is my father’s surname, and it was my great-grandfather’s name before him. He came from Safune in Savai’i, while my great-grandmother is from Salea’aumua a in Aleipata.
My paternal grandfather came over to New Zealand in the early 1950s. He was young, keen to succeed. And he met my grandmother, who’s Pākehā, in Wellington. Dad was born in Wellington. Me, too, though I grew up in central Auckland.
My mum is Pākehā. She grew up in Wellsford. Her ancestors came over from England about six generations ago. Tyler was a name both my parents liked, but there’s no “er” sound in the Sāmoan language so they changed the spelling to Tyla.
And Amy? I share that name with my paternal grandmother. I was always a bit upset I never got a Sāmoan middle name like my siblings, but Tyla Amy has a nice ring to it. My aunties in Sāmoa sometimes call me Niutao which is my great-grandmother’s name.
That’s the mix, in a nutshell.
Did you grow up understanding and speaking Sāmoan?
No, I knew the odd phrase and I learned pese (Sāmoan hymns) but I wasn’t raised in the fa’a-Sāmoa. Dad is from that generation who believed if you wanted to get ahead, you had to operate in English. That’s a story I often hear among the people I meet through tatau — so many of them are trying to connect with their heritage.
Language aside, from an early age I was taught: “This is who you are. You’re Sāmoan as well as well as Pālagi.” I was always quite proud of that. I learned about being Sāmoan from my peers, and from my ‘āiga. They’re where I got my language from.
I’m not fluent, but I do have some understanding. It’s a journey that I’m still on — and one that I’m taking with my children who are fortunate to be at a Sāmoan bilingual school.
Did you mix with Sāmoan and Tongan and Māori kids at school?
For sure. Twenty years ago, central Auckland was more of a Pasifika place than it is now. I actually did one year at a school up north, at Punaruku primary school, and kapa haka was part of the curriculum for the whole school. So, I do have some reo.
But yeah, I was in Sāmoan groups at Westmere Primary, at Ponsonby Intermediate, and then at Western Springs College. They were diverse, multicultural schools that encouraged engagement not only with your own culture, but also with other cultures.
Were you always interested in art and design? And did you revel in the opportunities to get pastel on paper?
Definitely. That was me. As long as I can remember, I was drawing. And I knew from an early age that I wanted to be an artist. I was never the sporty one. And I can’t sing. But I was that kid in class whose friends would be like: “Oh, can you draw this for me?’’
I also had a real affinity with Pacific patterns, and in high school, I’d be asked to design tattoos for friends and family. Then, I started looking at the history of tatau, and the meanings behind the patterns. That’s how it began for me.
It’s interesting that you had always wanted a life in art. But I also note that there was a teacher at Western Springs who identified your talent early on, and who built your confidence.
I was so fortunate to have Lily Laita as one of my art teachers. She helped me see my possibilities. She’d been through Elam School of Fine Arts, and so I applied to Elam while I was in my final year of high school.
Lily was the first Sāmoan woman to graduate from Elam. She was teaching art, doing what she loved, but she was also an exhibiting artist. She was a positive, strong Pasifika wahine role model.
At the same time, she challenged my thinking. In her art history classes, for example, we talked about representation, and who has been telling our stories in art. That’s when I started to get into topics like cultural appropriation.
And then, with my own painting, she’d be like: “Why don’t you try it this way?” She was so influential for me.
What was it about Lily’s style or skills that appealed to you? And what can you tell us about her transferring her love of Pasifika art and art history to you?
Lily has Sāmoan, Māori, and Pālagi whakapapa, and is an amazing painter whose works often refer to her Sāmoan gafa, her whakapapa, and to oral histories.
She’s also created her own set of symbols and her style of storytelling. I admired that. Her work is distinctive and works on a number of levels. She was also challenging the way we think about fine art. Like, she’d paint on building paper. Use easily accessible materials.
But also, with Lily, there was a bit of fun, a bit of teasing, a bit of mocking. She kept it real and relatable, and I responded that.
When I think of art history, I think of the European models — the Rembrandts, Cubism, and so on. But here we are revelling in Pasifikatanga. When you chose to do art history, what were you seeking to understand?
You’re right. When we started out in high school, art history was about those European artists, Greek sculpture, and the Renaissance. That didn’t capture my interest. But it did make me question: ‘’They have this legacy. So, what is our legacy?’’
I was hungry for our own art histories. And later at uni, when I got to choose my courses, I did Māori art papers with Dr Ngarino Ellis, and Pacific art with Dr Caroline Vercoe.
Those two lecturers opened my eyes to our Pasifika legacy. I wanted to be able to contribute to that continuum — and not only to Pasifika scholarship but also to the practice of tatau. To say: “Hey. Tatau is our art form, and it stands alongside all these other art forms. One is not more important than the other.”
Has there been a particular piece of ancient Pasifika art that made you think: ‘’I’m so proud of this history that I connect with?’’
I’ve spent time in the Auckland and Melbourne museum collections. To see up close the intricate carving, the inlays, the lashing of the Sāmoan meatau and clubs there — that really inspires me. These were handmade — no power tools back then. I love to see the old patterning and the beauty and level of craftsmanship. So much time and alofa has gone into those pieces.
Elam has a reputation of producing fine artists, sure. But do you think they were as encouraging of people on Pasifika pathways as they might have been?
Elam is a western institution — you can’t specialise in tatau there. There’s an expectation already of the type of art you will produce. You meet certain tutors and they encourage and celebrate you, but they do work within a western framework. So, you have to push the boundaries to create your own pathway and make the framework work for you.
I’m thinking now about settings. I’m picturing working in studios at Auckland University, as against working on a mat in the fale. Can your setting influence what comes through you?
Without a doubt. Elam was great for experimenting with different mediums, for critical thinking, and helping me understand what drives me as an artist, and who my work is for.
As I went on, I found more and more of my work related back to tatau. I took photographs of malu. I would draw tatau on myself. And some of my work included my father, who is quite heavily tattooed.
So, some of the research side of my tatau work came at Elam and through art history. But putting that into practice? I needed my community to do that. They were the ones asking me for these designs. It was only when I went out into my world, that the tatau began to flow.
Another milestone too, perhaps, was you going to Sāmoa, when you were still at varsity and in your teens. How influential was getting back to the real hood, for you to connect the dots?
That was a really influential trip for me. Someone once said: You may lose your language. You may even lose connection with family. But the land always remembers you.
So, even though I’d never been there before, going to Sāmoa was a homecoming for me. Things made sense. I met so many of my ‘āiga, and they were like: “Oh, you do this just like so and so.” And I saw where all these traits had come from.
In terms of solidifying my identity, that trip gave me confidence. I also had the chance to spend time with my grandfather before he passed. My great-grandfather had been a Methodist faife’au, a minister, so tattooing wasn’t done in my family for a couple of generations.
You’ve opened the door into what’s traditionally male territory, and some would’ve been surprised by your interest in tatau. And, indeed, by your abilities in it. Was it because you were studying Pasifika art so seriously that they recognised you’re not just tutu-ing around here?
On reflection, I think they saw my commitment. I’d met with a tufuga tā tatau (master tattooist) at the Fale Pasifika at the University of Auckland, where I was working on the Pacific Heritage Artists’ residency.
And I was about to start my master’s on Sāmoan tattooing, and its history and development within the diaspora. I’d also been tattooing with machine for a couple of years by then, and they knew that about me. So, yes, they could tell that I knew the significance of what I was stepping into. And they responded to that.
You’ll be familiar with the tā moko resurgence. I know tā moko and tatau are different, but they seem to be a reminder of our whakapapa connections. What have you learned from tā moko artists?
I’ve been fortunate to work closely with Pip Hartley and Tyler-Jade Whatarangi, who are both talented wāhine tā moko artists.
I’ve learned a lot around the significance of moko from them. I see some shared patterns, things that resurface throughout Moana-Nui-a-Kiwa — and it’s beautiful to see those connections.
But I also see that different islands — Aotearoa being one — have their own style, their own whakapapa of the craft. The origin stories of tā moko are different from those of tatau.
Each has its own place. And working with wāhine ta moko artists made me more conscious about my work. I don’t believe that I should ever do tā moko, because that’s for Māori.
There’s still a wonderful appreciation between our cultures. And these aren’t random designs that you work with. They’re age-old concepts. What about the reactions of those you work on when their piece is completed?
It can be an emotional process. It’s a celebration of pride in our history, an acknowledgement of our heritage, and often there’s healing in that. So, it’s not uncommon for people to cry — and not from the physical pain.
It’s a marking of things coming full circle. It’s having this visual reminder on your body of the long line of your ancestors, who you walk with every day. It can be really empowering.
We now have a Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nanaia Mahuta, who wears the moko kauae. Some have said that tattoos have no place in diplomacy. Others say that this shows that society is changing for the better. What do you think that says about us as a nation?
It says that we’re heading in the right direction. We still have a way to go — in terms of decolonisation and addressing our nation’s history. But I think that Nanaia wearing her moko kauae with pride in that role, is positive. It’s beautiful to see.
You’ve received plenty of acknowledgments as the first Sāmoan wahine tattooist. And I understand you were gifted an ‘au (a traditional tattooing tool) by a master tatau artist from Sāmoa’s leading tattooing ‘āiga — that’s Su’a Alaiva’a Petelo Sulu’ape. How did this come to be?
Maybe I’m the first Sāmoan woman of this generation, but I’m convinced that there were female practitioners before me whose stories didn’t get recorded. So, when it’s put that way, I get a bit overwhelmed.
I do also realise that people are acknowledging the work I’m doing — and that I’m here opening the space. And it’s an honour to be recognised in that way.
It was an empowering and significant moment when Su’a Alaiva’a Petelo Sulu’ape gifted me the ‘au. He’d come to the end of his residency at the Fale Pasifika, and he was doing a malu for a friend, Angela Tiatia, who’s also a Sāmoan artist.
I was watching intently during that session, and we were talking about how I might get started. Then Su’a stopped. And without speaking, he gave me one of his tools. That’s a moment I will never forget.
While you’re renowned for your tatau work, the other skills that you learned at Elam — painting, sculpting and so on — might they resurface later? Do you see yourself as a broad media artist? Or have you now become a specialist in tatau?
I see my work as driven by the needs of the community. I’m here to tautua, to serve, to give back, and I do the work for my people.
So, in terms of the demand and what’s being asked of me, it’s tatau. That’s definitely my focus. I still very much enjoy painting and drawing, and I do a little bit of that for balance. But my main mahi is tatau.
And of course, it’s a very competitive area as well. What were some of the challenges setting up shop, mixing it with the dozens of tattoo artists?
I work with my younger brother Hiram Fa’alia Vaeau. Before we went out on our own, I worked for a number of years at Karanga Ink with Pip Hartley. And before that, I worked with her at Mana Moko.
Pip’s been really supportive of my development and she’s a good friend. She took on my brother as an apprentice, so he began tattooing at Karanga Ink. It’s been pretty special having him in the same field. He tattoos me, and I tattoo him, so that’s a bonus too. He also supports me with the tā tatau as a koso.
At the end of the last year, we decided it was time to do our own thing. Then coronavirus happened. As a result, we’ve set up a studio at our home in Grey Lynn, which we’ve named Vaeau Family Studio. Should we decide to open a shop after the world settles, it will continue to be Vaeau Family Studio. It’s a family thing.
Challenges? Like you say, there are a lot of tattooists in Auckland — the market is saturated, but that just means you can really specialise in what you do. The key is to build your own practice and people will seek you out.
Obviously, you’re Tyla Vaeau the artist, but what else do you do? Do you ride electric scooters, for instance?
I’m a mum. With two kids. I do mum things. Oh, and on occasional nights out, I like to pretend I’m the DJ at my friend’s gigs.
When will it be all right, Mum, to get a tattoo?
That’s a very good question. My father made me wait till I was 18 — even though he got his first around 15. We’ll just wait and see when that discussion arises. At the moment, my children are content drawing on themselves with pen. I think the more important discussion will be: Mum when can I tattoo you? Which is something my eight-year-old daughter has already hinted at.
Is there one piece of work that you’re particularly proud of? When you just knew: “This is why I do it.”
I’m proud and grateful every day to be able to offer this mahi. It’s not really about me or individual pieces. Every time I work with the ‘au, with our customary tools, and I’m in that space, giving these marks to our people — that’s when everything aligns. I can feel my ancestors with me, and I know for sure, this is why I do it.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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.