Thursday, October 15, 2009

Tatatau - Tongan Tattooing... What One Must Know

Prior to receiving my tatatau by Su'a Suluape Petelo, I was fortunate to sit and talk with him about his practice, and also participate in an exchange of knowledge. The following were things that he conveyed during conversations in 2002 and 2003 about the traditional Samoan Malofie.

Malofie is the true Samoan terminology for a traditional Samoan tatau. It was never called a pe'a until recent times; around the 1800s anthropologists and other researchers began to ask questions about it and according to Suluape, it was then that men wearing the pe'a started referring to it as a pe'a. In actuality, the pe'a is a very small pattern that is tattooed on the lower part of the back, right about the tailbone area. Pe'a patterns symbolize the fruit bat of Samoa. He wasn't sure how this word became the predominant word for Malofie. There was also the notion that a man with a completed Malofie resembled a pe'a with it's wings closed - the head being the male genitals. To this day, pe'a remains the common term associated with a traditional Samoan tattoo.

Peka does not translate as easy into Tongan as pe'a does in Samoan. Because Samoans have been using the word pe'a to refer to their tattoo(s), it is generally accepted and non-offensive. However, to refer to something or someone as peka in Tongan can be misconstrued as derogatory, and hence, may cause much offense to Tongans. The indigenous Tongan word for tattoos and tattooing is Tatatau.

Tattooing tools are truly sacred and are passed on to an apprentice by the tufuga when the tufuga deems it appropriate. The apprentice must serve the tufuga at every moment and absorb everything that is spoken by the tufuga before he is deemed worthy to receive his own tools. This includes understanding the stories that accompany the tattooing, the specific construction of the tattoo, and how to each session is devised according to longstanding traditions. This also includes understanding the techniques of using the Au and Sausau (the traditional tattoo comb tool and tapping stick - called Hau and Hahau/Sausau in Tongan) and the science of stretching the skin when tattooing - toho kili or fusi kili.

Once given the tools, the apprentice is bestowed the Suluape title, and is required to perform a certain number of tattoos and remain in the service of the tufuga as an au koso (stretcher). He is also to understand how to conduct preparations for the ceremonial blessing or sama. Once the apprentice has completed a set number of tattoos and is able to construct and care for his own tools, he will then be bestowed the title of Su'a. Once a Su'a, he is then able to carry on tattooing and will begin carrying out the sacred sama ritual with each individuals he completes. This is overseen by the tufuga for a time until the apprentice is found able to fully carry out the tufuga tatau traditions solely.
With the advent of Westernized individualism and a culture of instant gratification, there have been some Samoan and other Pacific Island individuals who have attempted to bypass the above tradition and construct their own tools and tattoo without a cultural license to practice. Many of these tattooists are untrained, untitled, and unaware of the damage they may be causing to individuals who are attempting to reconnect with their culture.

There are individuals out there walking around with traditional tattoos that are crooked, poorly constructed, and strange looking with incorrect design placement. Furthermore, many of these tattooed individuals did not undergo proper preparations before the tattoo, nor did a receive a proper blessing after.

If you come across a traditional tattoo artist, it is important to find out who their teacher was, how long they apprenticed for and where did they get the tools from. This might offend the tattooist so sometimes relying on gut instincts is probably the best defense against these self-proclaimed tufuga.

Each person tattooed by a student of the Su'a Suluape clan also recieves the traditional family signature which occurs as the final marks on the body. These markings are very distinct to the this clan and anyone tattooed by the Su'a Suluape clan will recognize this mark when seen on another person. This is another way to ensure the tattooist autheticity.
From my last conversation wtih Su'a Suluape Petelo, he had only bestowed the Suluape title on 5 individuals, and the Su'a Suluape title on 3 individuals. This is important considering the amount of "traditional" tattoo artists that are growing in numbers in America, New Zealand, Samoa, and Australia.

What's the Big Deal?
Many have asked this as well. I hear comments like "we don't live in Samoa so why do we need to go through all that tradition crap?" In order to preserve the true integrity of wearing a traditional tattoo, you must respect the traditions that have held it together for hundreds of years. Naturally, the malofie has evolved from pre-western days as a result of each tattoo family; however, many modern day tattooists (both Islanders and non-Islanders) have taken it upon themselves to 'revolutionize' this sacred practice, turning it into a fad and popularity contest for the artist's own selfish recognition. This was never the intent of wearing a traditional tattoo. As Suluape tattooed individuals, he would remind them of their duty to take care of their family, being responsible to cultural tradtions, and knowing that you represent more than just yourself by wearing the malofie.

Tatatau - Tongan Tattooing... So Where's the Proof?

Many people have written me criticisms and accusations that I'm making up everything on the site. Please read the "Historical Observations" page which cites pretty much anything that was written about Tongan tattoos within the last 500 years. And if you still don't believe it, go look up those sources yourself and make your own conclusions. It's a little hard to dispute accounts written hundreds of years ago by observers who had no reason to make up stories about what they saw.

Here are some facts about the tatatau:

Tatatau is made up of two Tongan words, Ta (to strike) and Tatau (similar, repeated); literally 'to strike repeatedly' such as a tufunga tatatau would do with the hau as he 'tapped' the tattoo onto a person. The word tatau has different meanings in other Pacific Island languages, and may differ greatly from the Tongan meaning. However, tatau is a word that used in everyday Tongan speech to refer to something that is the same or similar, e.g., 'Ai pe ke sipinga tatau - Just make the patterns the same. In its poetic or aesthetic form, ta also refers to time or a status of time, and tatau can invoke a sense of complete symmetry or both sides being equal inside and out. In this thought, tatatau could also be interpreted as the state of complete balance in all things.

Tufunga was a person skilled in a particular Tongan craft or material profession. Tufunga also referred to material arts manufactured mostly by men as opposed to nimamea'a which were fine arts mostly made by women. These professions could be hereditary or non hereditary. In Tongan, the word Tufunga does not take on the same intensity as it does in other islands like Samoa (Tufuga), Aotearoa (Tohunga), Marquesas (Tohu'a) or Hawai'i (Kahuna). The word tufunga simply designates a professional, societal role. For instance, there were:

  • Tufunga Toutai ika - skilled Tongan fishermen;
  • Tufunga Ta Maka - makers of stone vaults for the burial of chiefs;
  • Tufunga Fo'u Vaka - canoe builders;
  • Tufunga Ta Tatau - traditional tattooists, and so on.
Tufunga were the fabric of Tongan society, artisans that created the material Tongan identity through their skills.

1839 was the year that King Siaosi Tupou I began devising laws that would eventually outlaw and eradicate traditional Tongan tattooing. After his conversion to Christianity, many traditional practices that were not favored by Christian values were deemed unnecessary, heathenistic, or pagan; even though he himself had been tattooed in the traditional manner. Though the practice of tatatau quickly vanished in Tonga, Tongan chiefs, especially those of the Kanokupolu line, continued to travel to Upolu and Savai'i to get tattooed. Samoa had not abandoned the practice, and Tongan chiefs, because of their status, still felt somewhat exempt by the new laws/codes that now governed regular Tongan society.

Besides traditional tattooing, other cultural practices soon disappeared such as:

  • Po me'e - celebrations that culminated in open sexual encounters;
  • Tutu'u nima - the act of cutting off a finger after a ranking individual had passed away;
  • Tumomosi - burning beauty marks on the body with pieces of rolled ngatu;
  • Fangatua - social boxing and wrestling tournaments performed by men and women.
The knowledge of these traditions barely exist today as they have either been outlawed for over a hundred years, or the practice simply stopped all together because they had no more signficance to Tongan people.

So how come Samoa was able to keep traditional tattooing alive and Tonga wasn't?

First let’s make it clear that both Tongan and Samoan cultures have lost many of their old traditions, but other traditions remain intact much is as it was in pre-Christian times. It's not so much a matter of which island is more traditional, but rather, what we can learn from each other to rekindle our lost traditions.

After a long period of civil war and infighting amongst ruling chiefs of Tongatapu, Eua, Ha'apai, Vava'u, and Niua were united under one national Monarchy in the 1800's, it became easy to control the infrastructure of Tongan society with laws that were enforced by district high chiefs and lower ranking village chiefs. These chiefs had hereditary ties to the ruling Monarch and were obligated both by rule and by deeply embedded Tongan values of service to the king (mateaki). These island groups were nationalized and established as a country under the name "Tonga". The work of missionaries to convert chiefs continued, subsequently converting the people of the new kingdom to Christianity. With the new reformed central government, Tongans adapted to suit the desires of the new Christian Monarchy and Christian values.

Samoa, on the other hand was never a unified country under one ruling dynasty since the Tui Manu’a reign prior to 900AD. Each village had a high chief that governed the people who lived within the village. Each village adapted to the introduction of Christianity and westernized ideas according to the desires of their chief(s). This made it hard for Christian missionaries to enforce widespread laws across all of Samoa. Each village ultimately shaped the new changes for themselves rather than it be governed by a singular lawmaker.

Ultimately, foreign imperialist powers intervened, and Britain and the US divided Samoa into two separate nations (Western Samoa [now independent Samoa], and American Samoa). Work ensued with various village chiefs to create a westernized, central government for each nation. By this time, Christianity had been adopted as the common religion of each village, but because high chiefs still maintained control, various cultural practices (such as tattooing) remained strong in certain villages, while in other villages they were no longer practiced or had evolved with the new Christian religion. By the 1900's, traditional tattooing was only practiced by several tufuga tatau families in Western Samoa, and became restricted to the sons of village chiefs rather than a rite of passage for every Samoan boy entering into manhood.

As cultures adapted to westernization and modernization, stories, values, and knowledge soon disappears from the framework of that society. This inevitably continues to the present day in the Pacific. It is a gradual process that fades with each generation. If it reaches the point of extinction, it then becomes easy for us to question if it really existed at all?

In 1999 I was fortunate to spend 2 weeks on Rapa Nui. I was amazed at the enormous Moai statues that were carved and spread out across the island's landscape. However, the Rapa Nui people had no recollection of how these were made, why some of them were made, and how they moved these huge megaliths across the island. One of these alter of statues (ahu) was called Tongariki, which an elder explained to me was built by a chief from Tonga. The Rapa Nui also had a written hieroglyphic language called Rongorongo which is no longer understood by its people. Even though the statues and the tablets of rongorongo still physically exist, all knowledge of these two distinct traditions has completely disappeared.

This is where Tonga is at with the tatatau. Many Tongans and non-Tongans now question whether it really existed despite documented proof and plain old common sense. As we now enter an era of globalization, what traditions will no longer exist in a hundred years? It becomes ever more important to utilize modern mediums such as the internet to promote and perpetuate anything and everything that is Tongan for future generations.

Ahu Tongariki

The Impetus

My reasons for creating this blog page is to expand on my website and to answer questions that have come up over the years. I started the Tongan Tatatau website in 2000 and have tried to continually update it. But with the new advances in social networking sites, it's easier now to do daily updates with Blogger than it is to make changes to the website. So please check back frequently for updates.

I've also decided to expand beyond Tongan tattooing to other areas of Tongan cultural history and practices not commonly understood in today's modern society. As always, I welcome your feedback, however, I will not respond to hateful responses and condescending, ethnocentric views from close minded people.