Saturday, August 18, 2012

2012 Tonga Tattoo Workshop - Manulua Association


Manulua Tattoo Association - Ni, Suʻa, Manu, & Lopeti
In the spring of 2012, Manulua Tattoo Association took a trip to Tonga to provide education and awareness on safer tattooing.  The trip was not without some rough spots, but the occasion truly marks a first-ever endeavor of itʻs kind in Tonga.

The association members gathered before the trip to make traditional tools and put together tattooing supplies.  Our main goal was to educate Tongan tattooist on the dangers of using unclean and non-sterile equipment, and to also continue instilling the knowledge of traditional Tongan tattoo practice within the kingdom.

Traditional Tattoo Needles on Display at the
Tonga National Museum

The first couple of days in Tonga were spent tracking down members of the health ministry and making radio announcements on the free workshop that was going to be offered.  The group also worked furiously to secure a place to conduct the workshop.  We saw an unbelievable amount of young people with tattoos all over their body.  Many were deported Tongans from abroad, but still many more were Tongans from within the country.  As we asked people where they got their tattoos, the answer was most often from someone local.  We even learned that there were several tattoo shops that had opened, one in Houma, and the others in town.  We went by the shops but they were all unmarked and usually disguised within a barber shop or some other type of venue.  There were a lot of home grown tattooists practicing out of their own residence or traveling from home to home.

Ni talking about sterilizing using a pressure cooker
In Tonga, there is a divide between the older and younger generational thinking.  Many of the government officials that we ran into were trying to stamp out tattooing, and most didnʻt want to acknowledge that tattooing was as prevalent in Tonga as we had seen.  Securing a place to conduct our training proved to be a challenge as many of the gate keepers to these facilities would not return our phone calls after they heard it was for a "tattoo" workshop.  Otherʻs also gave us the run-around saying that we needed health clearances, documents, etc.  It became very frustrating to convince these officials that we were just there to perform a free community service.

Tatatau display at the training
After finally securing a venue, we managed to talk with the Director of Health and we were offered 15-20 minutes to explain our endeavor at an HIV health conference in Nukuʻalofa.  We jumped at the chance to do so as this was a great opportunity to spread our mission and vision.  Initially the conference group was apprehensive to what we were doing, saying, "We are trying to stop tattooing, but you guys are here to promote it?"  With some careful and insightful explanations of facts and our public health goals, the group opened up and began praising our efforts.  Their buy-in was an important first step in changing the old generational stereotypes of tattooing and changing their attitudes about tattooists.  They understood and endorsed our purpose and wished us success while in Tonga.
The tradtional ceiling structure at the Tonga National Centre

Ni, Suʻa and Peti checking out the equipment
On the morning of the workshop, Manulua Association and their supporters set up two tables with traditional and modern tattoo equipment.  We also had a work station for clean tattoo demonstration as well as sections for break out groups. The workshop was a full day and we were surprised to have about 45-50 attendees throughout the day.

Suʻa talked about the dangers of improper tattooing techniques and the harm it can cause when the artist doesnʻt use clean equipment.  Equally important, Suʻa also talked about poor aftercare and what happens to a tattoo if the wearer does not take good care of it.  There were many pictures that we used to visualize what an infection looked like and what a tattoo with poor aftercare looked like.  The group showed much interest in this and everyone seemed to know of someone who had an infected tattoo.  Some even said that they thought it was a natural part of the healing process!  It was definitely an ʻA-Haʻ moment for all of us!

After we broke for lunch, the group resumed for the second half of the training.  This section was geared more for the tattooists and doing some hands on work.  We had asked the tattooists in the group to bring their equipment to the afternoon portion so that we can go over safe handling and universal precautions.  Each tattooists had durable tattoo machines and equipment that was brought from outside the country.  However, they were reusing needles and tubes, and it was apparent that gloves werenʻt being used regularly.  Many indicated that ordering supplies on a regular basis was costly and difficult.  The tattooist are mostly young and have a genuine love for art and their clients.  But they just didnʻt grasp how diseases can spread through reused needles, tubes and ink.  One group member said that he wishes he could get gloves, but that they are very expensive and most of his clients donʻt pay him enough to afford everything that goes into safe tattooing.  We realized how our Western thinking of easy access and disposing of dirty equipment was not a reality for many Tongan artists.  The closest suppliers of these goods were in Australia and New Zealand.  Most have to rely on overseas family to bring equipment for them because computer access and having a credit card is not commonplace.

Lopeti working with some of the artists on cleaning their equipment
AFter bringing out all their equipment, Lopeti sat down with some of the artists and had them clean their machines, wires, and other accessories.  Using gloves, the artists began cleaning and Peti explained the importance of taking care of their machines.  It was a profound moment to watch the artists view tattooing as a profession as opposed to the garage experience they were used to.  One of the artists pointed out that he felt looked down upon by some of the professional artists that have visited Tonga because they did not have a shop or a business setting to operate.  Suʻa explained to each individual his background and starting up much like them, and where he is now with his own shop and having to learn through trial and error.  The group felt more at ease and a common bond was felt between us and the participants.

Lopetiʻs Tattoo Demonstration
Much of the afternoon was spent cleaning and talking.  Towards the end of the day, Lopeti demonstrated on one of the participants who volunteered.  The group watched earnestly as Peti set up his work station and used all the universal precautions much as they do in the shop.  Group members had questions about setting the needle length, using gloves and napkins, tattooing depth, and other techniques to strengthen their own learning.  There was a sense of amazement with the group as most had never seen a tattoo being applied in this way. Onlookers soon joined the group as the buzzing noise could be heard from the road.  It was a culminating moment as all the learning of the day was put together to with this tattoo demonstration

Suʻa explaining tattooing depth and motifs
The end of the day was closed with complementary gift bags for each of the artists.  The bags contained gloves, towels, shavers, needles and tubes, and various other items.  Members were also treated to a section in which Suʻa explained machine set up and the main parts of a tattoo machine.  Our efforts to do a traditional tattoo demonstration didnʻt happen during this full day session, but it turned out to be a rewarding and fulfilling day for us as well as the group participants.  We each felt that we had influenced the group to think of modern tattooing as an art form that can be both professional and innovative.  Group members thoroughly enjoyed the day and would soon track Suʻa down and come by to hangout and talk more about tattooing.

Our many thanks to the individuals who attended and contributed to putting this event together for us.  We could not have done it without you.  We are truly indebted to your love and support.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Traditional Maak of Fais

Traditional Yap Tattooing from the Island of Fais

"My eyes delight in him every day,
Jermy Uowolo adorning the traditional Maak
Tattoo from his island of Fais, Yap.
Whenever I see him
Finely tattooed all over,
Dark and clear as black paint.
Over it he puts a loincloth
Painted flame-color with turmeric."
~ Composed in the early 1900s by a mother on Ifalik for her newly tattooed son

I was privileged to tattoo a young man from Fais, Yap.  He is first to revive this tradition for his island since the last elder who wore one passed in the 1970s.  Tattooing on Fais, and Yap at large fell into disuse during the 1940s - 1950s as traditional tattooist aged and passed away.

Yap is comprised of 4 main islands and 14 outlying atolls - Fais being one of the atolls.  At one time, all young men and women across the islands of Yap were tattooed by their teen years.  The tattooing followed strict protocols on most of the islands, and was performed by tattoo artists (known as Taupotu on Ifaluk).  Women were often tattooed by their husbands as their tattooing also extended through their genitals.
Uwethog, born c. 1902, lighting up his local-grown
tobacco rolled in banana leaf
(photo courtesy of Don Rubinstein)

Different islands had various names for the traditional tattoo such as Yol and Maak.  Different areas of the body also had separate names. There were different classes of tattoos that signified rank and birthright.  The tattooing of the men most often covered the torso and back, extending down the shoulder to the elbow, and the waist to the upper thighs.  The womenʻs tattooing balanced the mens tattoos in that the lower extremities were inked as well as the pubic area.  The completion of a Maak on Fais was a community event with week long celebrations that culminated with the individual walking from one side of the island to the other.  Their was dancing and feasting as well as ritual cleansing.  The tattooed body was considered the epitome of beauty and adulthood in Yap culture.

I met Jermy and the Yap community here in Hilo through good friend, Tricia Allen.  She had referred Jermy and a tattooist from Ifalik, Ike Mangi so that I can help them with reviving their tradition.  Upon meeting with Jermy and Ike, I immediately saw the same drive and passion that I had for Tongan tattooing.  I asked if they would agree to doing some of the work with traditional tools and allow Ike to continue some of the tattooing with machine, to which they both agreed.

Jermy, myself, and Suʻa Suluʻape ʻAisea
Our journey began in October 2011 and ended with a traditional blessing on April 21, 2012.  To perform the ritual cleansing, I asked my mentor Suʻa Suluʻape ʻAisea if he would perform the ritual blessing.  The blessing was a blend of Micronesian and Polynesian customs.  There was lots of good food, dancing, tears, and excitement.  The festivities continued through the night with kava drinking and betel nut chewing.

Theirs a common thread that binds all of us in the Pacific.  This thread unravels to produce the multiplicity of Oceanic cultures, but is still attached to the common root which holds our kinship.  Having known nothing about the Yap culture or where Fais was, I was surprised to learn the unquestionable distant link between Tonga and Fais.  Tonga was brought out of the depths of the ocean by Maui Kisikisi (also known as Maui Tikitiki).  Fais was also brought out of the depths of the ocean by Motiktik.  The use of Tumeric and oils as a medicinal aid in healing, cleansing, and protection.  Yap traditional stick dance mirrors a traditional Tongan stick dance called the Soke (click on the links below).

     Yap Stick Dance      Tongan Soke

Many other similarities with foods, forms of respect, social hierarchy, and customs were undoubtedly related.  In learning our own revived traditions, Iʻve gained a deeper respect for all traditional cultures striving to maintain their identity in the evolving global culture of the modernization.  Thank you to the Uowolo family for allowing me to be part of your rich heritage and for welcoming me into your community.  Thank you also to Suʻa and my Tongan brothers and sisters who supported this historical moment.
Jermy from Fais and Ike from Ifalik

Sa gachigchig mo Fakaʻapaʻapa atu.

Check out the Soul Signature site for more pictures.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Matador Nights / Network Article on Tongan tatatau.

Hereʻs a link to an article I just wrote recently on Tātatau / Tā Vaka for the internet magazine, "Matador Nights"

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

2011 Tool Making Workshop

2011 was a year filled with many new and exciting changes. Aisea was invited to Tonga to present tatatau in the kingdom for the first time in over a 150 years. We also held tool making workshops in Hilo, Hawaiʻi, and crafted some traditional implements for myself and Lopeti.

We started the weekend by getting straight to work. We made 6 sets of tools with needles and fiberglass backing, and 3 sets with turtle shell and boars tusk. After picking up some tools from the local hardware store, we started by crafting the hau. Peti and I slowly cut each hau to size and shaped each notch for piecing together each tool. The tool is made up of 4 basic elements: the handle (Hau tā), the plate (Tuʻa), the teeth (Nifo), and the lashing medium (Kafa).

In the modern set, fiberglass and sautered metal needles are used. This is the chosen method of modern times since it is easily sterilized and maintained. However, in keeping with tradition and the process of learning, a traditional set was also made using
turtle shell and boars tusk. I found these harder to make as the materials were much more delicate, and required more work using natural tools like sea urchin quills.

As the tools were being made, stories were also being shared about tattooing history. Several Micronesian individuals who also came to help shared some stories from their islands. We found many similarities and shared connections
not only through tattooing, but migrational voyages, deities, and cultural practices. We also talked a lot about how the introduction of borders and artificial classifications (i.e., Polynesian, Micronesia, etc.) have prevented islanders from continuing long standing relationship with each other. These classifications as well as territorial affiliations with Western countries have created a disconnect in sea voyaging traditions of the past. Maui, the great demigod of much of Polynesia is also found throughout Micronesia, as well as the use of turmeric and oil for sanctifying and protecting the body.

The close of the first night was around the kava bowl. Vinette made a brew using fau, a native hibiscus, to strain the kava. The similarities with Tongan traditions of mixing kava were welcoming. During a kava circle, Tongans will use strands of the fau to strain the kava and pour it. In Micronesia, the fau is used to strain but to also flavor the kava with itʻs natural liquid and coat it for easier drinking. We can all attest that the grog did make us feel very relaxed after a full day of work!

The second day continued with fine-tuning the boned teeth and preparing the fiberglass plates. Each bone had to be cut to a certain size. The piece of bone was then filed down into a fine plate no thicker than a
credit card. The bone was very delicate and any incongruities or deformities may render the plate unusable. The fiberglass backing was also a challenge as the backing had to also be filed down into a tapered end which would make it easier to attach the bone plate onto a smooth surface. I realized that the art of making tools was just as impressive as the art the tool will eventually deliver. Each tool had to be finely scrutinized by Suʻa Suluʻape ʻAisea so that we could learn what the imperfections were. ʻAiseaʻs attention to detail is unquestionable. The tool has to be able to be used without the artist worrying about things falling apart or coming undone.

Day two continued to be a day of learning for me. We talked a lot about the construction of the traditional Tongan tattoo. Sitting with Lopeti, ʻAisea mapped out the construction of the lomipeau, tanoʻa, kafa and ngafingafi and tuku. We also discussed navigation and how traditional toutai used to navigate the oceans without the aid of GPS. These are all included in the construction of the tattoo. The amonga, a symbol of balance and also a guiding star to Tonga is affixed into the center of the back.

We also discussed the ancient Tongan religion and the designation of Pulotu, Lolofonua, and Langi to the Tongan trinity: Havea Hikuleʻo, Kau Maui, and Kau Tangaloa. Elements comprising these three and their societal roles make up the tulī, maʻala, and ʻilaheva patterns. We all gained a deeper appreciation for the art and traditions through understanding itʻs historical and modern place in Tonga.

Day three was the final day in which we bound all our tools together and prepared them for use. Lopeti and I spend most of the day making our needled teeth. This was much harder than I
thought because of the precision needed to make each needle line up. We began by making our larger teeth set, the Haupulu, down to our smallest set, Haumono. We finished up the night by doing some work/practice time on Francis. His tattoo was partially completed by me earlier this year, and he volunteered to have us practice our new tools on him. Heʻs a true sport!

Suʻa instructed on the depth and strength to applying the tattoo, as well as how to hold the tool properly to ensure repetitive lines. Lopeti and I set up and took turns tattooing. Sherwin also helped stretch as we slowly applied new patterns and touched up on older lines. The night was very productive and educational, and the weekend was was definitely a growing experience!

Another weekend workshop will be planned, but timing is probably the most difficult thing to coordinate. Suʻa has his business and travels, which limits his travel time for teaching. His goal however is to spread the knowledge of traditional tattooing to those willing to learn. Respect for the cultures that carry on these traditions is vital to learning; and understanding the histories which have held island people close to their past is fundamental to beginning the journey.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Toki Tau 'a e Vaka e - Kava Kuo Heka Festival

In 2010, Su'a Sulu'ape Aisea Toetu'u was invited to display and practice tatatau in Tonga for the first time in over 150 years. The Kava Kuo Heka festival on cultural diversity is held every year as a means of informing and keeping Tongan traditions in the forefront of global changes. Aisea was able to tatatau on several individuals and stirred the interest of Tongans. The following is the preface I wrote for Aisea's part of the workshop. Thank you to Katalina Lobendahn for the Tongan translation and to Latai Taumoepeau for the pictures.

Traditional Tongan tattooing practice was once a common part of Tongan culture. Every young male would be tattooed by the time he reached adulthood. Tattooing among Tongan women was just as common and decorative. Tongan tufunga tatatau were widespread throughout the islands of Tongatapu, Eua, Ha’apai, Vava’u and the Niua’s. George Tupou I outlawed traditional tattooing in 1839 in effort to Christianize the country and bring all the islands under one kingdom. Despite being a devout Christian convert, George Tupou I was also tattooed traditionally by a Samoan tufuga.

Abandoned for over 150 years, traditional tatatau is now undergoing a resurgence with help from Samoan master tattooist, Su’a Suluape Petelo. Traditionally, the Su’a family were responsible for tattooing Tongan ‘eiki like the Tu’i Kanokupolu. Since 2003, a handful of Tongan individuals have been traditionally tattooed and are the first to wear a tongan tatatau in over 100 years. In 2007, the title of Su’a Suluape was bestowed on a Tongan, Aisea Toetu’u. Aisea is the first Tongan tufunga tatatau to have completed traditional work on another Tongan and under this honored title.

The Tongan word ‘Vaka’ has become symbolic in representing this revived tradition. It has also been adopted as the name for the traditional tatatau. As the saying goes, “Toki tau ‘a e vaka e”—so too has this vaka arrived on Tongan shores where it can now seek refuge and reawaken our Tongan tradition.


Mei ono’aho, ne hange ha me’a noa, pe koe me’a anga fa’a fai ‘a e tatatau ‘i Tongani. Pea koe meimei talavou kotoa pe ‘i he kuohili ne tatatau’i kinautolu te’eki ke nau hoko ‘o tangata lahi. Ne kau ai mo hono tatatau’i ‘a e kau finemui moe kau fefine honau sino koe fakateuteu. ‘I he ngaahi taimi koia ne tokolahi ‘a e ha’a Tufunga Tatatau ‘i Tongatapu, ‘Eua, Ha’apai, Vava’u pehe foki ki he ‘otu Niua.

‘I hono feinga’i ke fakatahataha’i ‘a e ‘otu Tonga ke hoko koe pule’anga pe ‘e taha mo hono liliu’i pe fakalotu’i ‘a e kainanga e fonua ke tafoki ki he lotu faka Kalisitiane, ne hanga ‘e he ‘Uluaki Fa ‘o fakatapu’i ‘i he 1839 ‘a e anga fakafonua koeni koe tatatau. Pea neongo hono fakatapu’i ‘e Tupou I ‘a e tatatau ‘i he ‘otu motu Tonga ko ‘ene mateaki’i ‘a e lotu faka Kalisitiane; ka ‘i he ‘ene kei talavou, ne tatatau’i ‘e he Tufunga Tatatau mei Ha’amoa ‘a e La’a koia kuo unga fonua.

Talu e li’ekina ‘a e tatatau mei Tongani ‘i he ta’u eni ‘e teau nimangofulu tupu, kuo ake ‘i onopooni ‘a e tatatau ‘i he kainga Tonga; pea ‘oku fakamalo ki he tokoni moe ngaue ola ‘a e ‘Eiki Tufunga Tatatau mei Ha’amoa ko Su’a Suluap e Petelo hono fakaake ‘a e konga mahu’inga koeni ‘o ‘etau hisitolia. Koe tukufakaholo ‘o e famili Su’a, ko ‘enau ngafa pe fatongia ke tatatau ‘a e Ha’a Tu’i Kanokupolu. ‘I he 2003 ‘i Vaihi (Hawai’i) ne tu’u mai e to’utangata ‘e toko nima ke tatatau’i kinautolu ‘o hange koe anga fai mei ono’aho, pea ko kinautolu eni ‘a e fuofua tangata Tonga kuo ‘aofi honau sino ‘aki ‘a e tatatau Tonga talu eni e ta’u ‘e teau tupu. ‘I he 2007, ne hanga ‘e Su’a Suluape Petelo ‘o fakanofo ‘a e tangata Tonga ko ‘Aisea Toetu’u ki he hingoa Suluape, pea ‘oku ‘iloa e ‘uluaki Tufunga Tatatau Tonga koeni ko Suluape ‘Aisea Toetu’u, pea kuo fakakakato ‘e he tangatani ‘a e fatongia tatatau angamu’a ke tatatau’i ha Tonga ‘aki ‘a e hingoa fakalangilangi koeni.

Koe lea Tonga koee koe “Vaka” ‘oku fakatatau pe fakafofonga’i ke

fakamo’ui ‘a e anga fakafonua koeni koe tatatau. Pea kuo ngaue’aki ‘a ehingoa koeni ki he ngaue mahu’inga fakafonua koeni. Hange koe lea ‘oku pehe, “Toki tau ‘a e vaka e” – pea koeni kuo foki ki ‘api ‘o taulanga e vakani ‘i Tongani ke hufanga pea fakaake ai ‘etau anga Faka‐Tonga koeni.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Tatatau Ma 'ae Kakai Fefine - Women's Tattooing

Women's Tattoo
I've had a number of requests about women's tattooing tradition in Tonga. I've been researching and looking through old books trying to gather as much info on the subject.

So let's start with the basics. Women were tattooed in Tonga before the entire practice of tattooing was outlawed. The extent of tattooing women in Tonga is not known entirely because not much was ever written. But here's what is known:

  • Women often received ornamental tattoos around their fingers, hands, and wrists. These were often done for aesthetics and for helping to cure ailments such as types of arthritis and other joint pains.
  • Women were also known to receive markings along their shoulder area and across the lower back. These were also decorative and some sketches resembled strands of maile and other kakala fakatonga or Tongan plants that represented the ultimate forms of beauty.
  • Anecdotally, my mother told me a story of a woman in Tonga named Mele Tatafu who had an extensive tattoo across her back. As told by my mom, she was hanging laundry with Mele one day when her tupenu slipped revealing a large and intricate tattoo that covered her back and extending further down towards her butt. My mom being young couldn't recall the designs but also sensed that Mele was not wanting to talk about it. From my mom's vague recollection, she said that it was very intricate with many block like prints and makohikohi or scratch like patterns.
I will be writing more on this subject soon as I look through and compile more info. If you have your own stories and want to share, please feel free to share them and I will post it.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Tribes and Tribal Tattoos

The word "Tribal" has been used to describe island tattoos that are now in fashion. When referring to a Tongan or Samoan or most other Pacific Island tattoos, the word "Tribal" is incorrect. Referring to Islanders as living in 'tribes' is a racist notion used to separate people according to how civilized they are.

Tongans never lived in tribes and their tattooing practices weren't practiced within a tribal context, so do not refer to them as "tribal tattoos".