The Polynesian tattoo renaissance brought with it much cultural appropriation and commodification from the Western world, but within Polynesia it was a truly transformative time. After being silenced by Christianity and colonialism for years, the revival of ta-tatau was a call to action for native islanders to reclaim the heritage and culture that had been lost after years of oppression. In a sense, it was a way for Polynesians to stand up to their colonizers. It wasn’t until the late 1980’s that a select few pioneers laid the groundwork for the resurgence of the traditional practice of ta-tatau. Here are some of their stories.
Rightfully called the father of modern Cook Island ta-tatau (Utanga, Mangos 323), Tavioni has always been a man of many crafts. By the time of the 1992 South Pacific Festival of the Arts, Tavioni was already a well established artist and began to focus on the art of tatau. Tattooing was already being practiced in the Polynesian islands at that time, mostly by the youth, but the patterns and motifs being used were, in his words, “meaningless” (Utanga, Mangos 323). However, Tavioni recognized the immense amount of heritage that could be uncovered to aid the rebirth of traditional tatau. Having to combat the negative connotations of tattooing, such as the idea that only criminals got tattoos, Tavioni sought assistance from Ben Nichols, ironically a former probation officer. Together they tattooed any willing body that could withstand their experimentation. Although Tavioni has since retired from tattooing, choosing to pursue rock sculpture and writing, his work still lives on, inscribed into the skin of some 2,600 people, both locals and visitors. What Tavioni did was make Polynesians think of the importance of traditional tatau and rethinking “tradition” and how it has been diluted throughout the years. His retirement to other forms of art has left the world of tatau all but empty of successors. Not only did he leave the work to his trained apprentice, James Mani, but other pioneers still promote the traditional practice and urge islanders to bring back their traditional and culture.
When he returned to his heritage in the Cook Islands in 1987, Pekepo was anything but immediately accepted by the community. With his whole upper body covered in tattoos and a bad reputation after spending time with gangs in New Zealand, Pekepo had to struggle with acceptance before being able to practice tatau as a profession. In an area that was still so controlled by religion, Pekepo was faced with failure and desperation when his first attempt at opening a tattoo shop was pulled out from under him. Pekepo was raised in Waipoua, New Zealand, a poor Maori settlement that perfectly represented the marginalization of indigenous peoples. Like many Maori youth, Pekepo turned to gangs to feel included in his community. It was here that he was first introduced to tatau, originally using crude methods of application. As for many Polynesian people, tatau represents life and how it changes. So when his father and son died, Pekepo knew that it was time for him to return to his roots and pick up the art of tatau. Keeping his head down in the early years, Pekepo learned and practiced the art until Tavioni sparked the revival of the practice. After the festival that changed everything, he practiced the art full time, as well as picking up the ancient seafaring practice of vaka, canoeing in a sense (Utanga, Mangos 327).
“I’ve done a lot of seafaring, a lot of travelling and know that our ancestors did a lot of roaming around the Pacific… I understand that they had lots of contact with various islands… and that contact through royal blood was the thing in those days. All those royal people had a separate language, a distinctive one that was used when they met. But not only was there a distinctive language, but there was a distinctive style of clothing. They wore art- body art, weapons. So you see ta-tatau is a language, a language that was worn by people.” (Utanga, Mangos 327)
For Pekepo, it is important to maintain this traditional sense of tattooing, but that the act of tattooing is, like any form of art, subject to change throughout time. He says, “I believe a lot of our ta-tatau was to remind a person of something at that time… something important to them” (Utanga, Mangos 327). In his eyes, tribal tattooing in modern society should simultaneously take on the traditional aspects of Polynesian ancestors, while also adapting to the narrative that applies to people today.
Just as with Pekepo, Nicholas places a large importance on voyage in tattooing. After joining the Cook Islands Ocean Voyaging Society, he took on the ancient practice of vaka, accumulating a deeper understanding and appreciation for Polynesian heritage with every tattoo he got along the way. After travelling to Tahiti, the Marquesas, Hawaii, Samoa, Tonga and Aotearoa, Nicholas discovered a profound appreciation for his native seafaring culture.
“I believe we became Polynesians when we entered the Pacific from South-east Asia. Voyaging is the key. When I was on the vaka, I found out a lot about our connections” (Utanga, Mangos 330).
In 1996, Nicholas returned to Aotearoa to learn the art of ta-tatau (Utanga, Mangos 330), before returning to Auckland for a few years. When he eventually returned to Rarotonga, Nicholas decided to make tatau his life’s work. On a trip to Hawaii to visit family and acquire new tattooing tools, Nicholas gained access to traditional Polynesian designs in the Bishop Museum of Hawaii, giving him immense insight to the art and the patterns and motifs he would later adapt as an artist. “Polynesian tribal is a mixture and so are we all today,” says Nicholas, “I am a mixture and so I believe I can use that today” (Utanga, Mangos 331).
Utanga, John and Therese Mangos. “The Lost Connections: Tattoo Revival in the Cook Islands.” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture, vol. 10, no. 3, Sept. 2006, p. 315.