The new edition of Tatau, by Sean Mallon, Peter Brunt and Nicholas Thomas, tells the story of Sāmoan tatau and the work of the controversial master Sāmoan tattooist Su’a Sulu’ape Paulo II. It’s a feast for the eyes of tatau connoisseurs and the tattooing fraternity, writes Pakilau Manase Lua, and a reminder of his own encounter with tatau.
Getting a full pe’a or malu is a graphically violent and painful process to endure, with known fatalities if it’s done wrong.
That’s one of the messages from Tatau, a visually stunning homage to the genius and enterprise of Sāmoan tufuga tātatau who’ve shared their craft with the world. This handsome coffee-table book is a feast for the eyes of tatau connoisseurs and the tattooing fraternity — but possibly confronting for the uninitiated. And so it should be, given the violence inherent in tatau.
Less than a quarter of the book is text, and the remainder are plates of vivid colour and mostly artistically framed black and white photographs by Mark Adams. The book includes two essays and two interviews that delve into the rich history of tatau outside of Sāmoa, particularly in Aotearoa.
Tatau reveals what is often a private and exclusive affair for those receiving the cut of the ‘au. The “cosmopolitan” and pragmatic nature of master Sāmoan tattooist, the late Su’a Sulu‘ape Paulo II, is well described by Sean Mallon in his essay. Paulo was a controversial figure, often criticised by some Sāmoans for marking foreigners, especially Pālagi, with the pe’a or malu.
He claimed a right to give the sacred markings of the tatau to anyone around the world who paid and could take the pain. There were those in the community who were incensed when he did a full pe’a on a woman, something that was seen as exclusively for men, traditionally, in Sāmoa. So it’s a pity that most of the subjects in the book are men, given the resurgence of tatau for women and the Marks of Mana documentary by Lisa Taouma.
The photographs in the book take us on a wild tour of places all over New Zealand and abroad to the Netherlands and Sweden. The subjects include a Dutch couple with traditional tatau designs for the woman and a full pe’a for the man.
One amusing anecdote related by Sean Mallon is of the Dutch woman getting a tatau strip that she wanted to run all the way from her hip to her foot. When it was finished, she asked Paulo what the design motifs were called. “Adidasi,” he replied (a reference to the stripes on Adidas tracksuit pants). Paulo is reminiscent of the old Polynesian trickster Māui, who was an innovator and fearless pusher of boundaries that eventually led to his demise.
It was noted in one of the essays in the book that he and his brother Petelo must have stamps from countries all over the world in their passports from all the tattooing conventions and commissioned work they did over many years. Even their passports were intricately lined and inked.
Mark Adams’ camera often frames and juxtaposes his half-naked subjects against the backdrop of their immediate surroundings. These give a context to the images and add to the depth and scope for talanoa.
The photographs are often taken right where the subjects are being tattooed. The Auckland images span the late 1970s, in halls, garages, or lounge rooms bedecked with the typical floral decorations around hanging photo frames and gaudy colours of the Pacific. From homes in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, in Grey Lynn, Ōtara, Māngere, Glen Innes and Onehunga, and the more recently salubrious Herne Bay in 2014.
Paulo has marked artists, ex-convicts, conmen (and women), activists, harlots, saints, politicians, doctors, lawyers, academics, factory workers, unionists, businessmen, nurses, young and old of all ethnicities. His ‘au showed no fear or favour and boldly went where no other ‘au dared go previously.
The highly provocative images in the book took me back to a cold South Auckland winter in September of 2016, lying prone in my basement, getting smashed with the ‘au tāpulu of a Sāmoan tufuga tātatau.
It was an experience I’ll never forget. I endured over 60 combined hours of physical and mental torture that threatened to tear my soul apart, let alone my skin. However, I wasn’t alone. I had the support of my fraternity (the “bat club”, as we call ourselves) who were with me and my fellow journeymen every day.
Then, on October 1, 2016, I completed my lagi mālofie or pe’a. I became an official member of the exclusive bat club and one of only a small group of Tongans.
I started my journey at a McDonald’s in Manukau — as you do. My uso, Mati Filemoni Timoteo, told me that he and Pesetā Lama Tone were catching up with Malesala, the handler for a visiting tufuga tātatau from Manono. He was Su’a Sulu’ape Fa’alili, a nephew of Paulo. Mati and Pesetā were part of a larger cohort of Sāmoan matai and others embarking on the tatau journey. I was invited to join them. So, in between eating my big Mac and fries, I said: “Yeah, what the hell? Why not?”
The boys wanted to see the tufuga in action and introduce us to him. So we visited part of the group already underway with their tatau in a classroom at Pacific Advance Academy School in Ōtāhuhu.
The principal, Ala’imalo Falefatu Enari, my other uso, was receiving his pe’a with other friends and acquaintances. When the tufuga saw me, I swear I heard him mutter under his breath: “Lapo’a le tama Tonga.” (That Tongan boy is big.) I’m sure I saw an evil twinkle in his eye at the notion that he’d be torturing — sorry, tattooing — a fat Tongan.
Sean Mallon’s essay in this book highlights the often-controversial practices of Paulo who had no problem with non-Sāmoans getting the pe’a. His view was that it was his to give. I’m Tongan, albeit with Sāmoan ancestry on both my mother’s and father’s lines.
The tattooing of foreigners or non-Sāmoans with the traditional pe’a or malu is still a hot topic today. Although my decision to have the pe’a done was opportunistic, those who know me well will attest that I’ve always been a student of Polynesian history and genealogy, especially of Sāmoa and Tonga.
There’s often an uneasy tension between Tongans and Sāmoans, usually among the younger, misinformed “moe pi” (bedwetters), full of misdirected pride and bravado, on both sides. However, there’s no denying that our histories are inextricably connected. That’s a whole other story but suffice to say that the book mentions that, for centuries, Sāmoans would come to Tonga to tattoo Tongans — or we travelled to Sāmoa to have it done. I’ll go further to say that the oldest Polynesian tattooing tools ever found were discovered in Tonga.
Pain is an obvious word that comes to mind when one thinks about tatau. Few things, save childbirth, apparently compare with the pain of having the full traditional pe’a or malu. This is probably why Su’a Suluape says that women bear the pain of the tatau better than men.
The book touches on this theme in a more nuanced and complex way. In Tonga, we have a concept called “mamahi’i me’a”, or, literally, in pain over something you love. We go way overboard, as Tongans do, to even say: “’Oku ou mate he ‘ofa ‘ia koe.” Literally, “I’m expiring (basically, dead) for love with you.”
The book covers this notion of pain from loss or betrayal, through the stark reality of some of the images of “foreigners” wearing these traditional markings on their skin, and, dare I say it, especially on paler skin. I also think there is another kind of pain being felt by Sāmoan men (and maybe women) who don’t have the markings themselves, but wish they did.
Looking through the images at the back of the book of Pālagi from all over Europe adorned with pe’a and malu, I can see why some Sāmoan people will be resentful.
Three images stood out for me. Artist Tony Fomison’s pale and shaved knee being tattooed. This is one of the most painful parts of the process. In my head, I can still hear the ‘au whacking my kneecap.
Another memorable image is that of Father Anthony Brown, a Catholic priest, showing off his full pe’a inside a chapel. The juxtaposition is fascinating. Then there’s the image of Fuimaono Norman Tuiasau and his family, with Tony Fomison patting the head of the little girl.
All seemed out of place, weird and, in a way, a bit sacrilegious. However, as someone who went through the process myself and completed it, I also accept the fact that these people were marked by a master of the tatau from Sāmoa, and it wasn’t cheap. I know that first-hand. They also literally spilled blood and went through unbearable pain to wear it. I can respect that, having gone through it myself. Self-righteous indignation over.
I’m often asked why I have a Sāmoan pe’a. The arrogant and proud Vaini in me would probably say: “Because I can. And I have. How about you?” However, a senior matai, who was also part Tongan and a relative of mine, once told me that I don’t have to justify myself: “Don’t ever forget, Nase, you’re also a Sāmoan.” I have heeded her advice ever since, and that has been my response whenever I get asked.
In closing, I leave you with this quote from Sean Mallon in the book:
The tufuga may mark, but it is the tattooed people in this book and those who come after them who will ensure the lines of tatau remain strong.
Manase Lua was born in Tonga but migrated to Aotearoa during the Dawn Raids. He hails from the village of Vaini in Tongatapu and Ha’afeva. He is a matāpule or talking chief with the title Pakilau o Aotearoa, installed by his chief Lord Ma’afu, the head of the Ha’a Havea clan. He is a community leader and activist working as a disability and diversity manager for Te Pou.
Tatau: Samoan tattoo, New Zealand Art, Global Culture, by Mark Adams, Sean Mallon, Peter Brunt and Nicholas Thomas, was published by Te Papa Press. The first edition, published in 2010, has long been out of print.
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