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.