Tatau - Polynesian body art revival

The future of this ancient Polynesian art form is quite simple, as one Cook Islands tattoo artist put it – “as long as people keep coming here on the planes, we will never run out of canvas.”

Considering that planeloads of visitors will continue to keep coming to Rarotonga there will always be a never ending supply of human canvasses for local tattoo artists. The future of Polynesian body art is safe in the Cook Islands.

In the last decade, the art of Polynesian tattooing has gone through extraordinary growth and, consequently, acceptance as a form of permanent body art. From being outlawed by zealous missionaries in the early days, to a resurgence in the early 1990’s, today sees tens of thousands of Polynesians wear their tattoos with pride all over the world. “There’s been a big change and its all body art, it’s now a new tradition, it’s an art form on any individual and it’s a personal thing for people. Its not like the old days when only certain people could get a tattoo; today everyone can get one.”

He says there’s “old traditional Polynesian art and new Polynesian traditional art” and he infuses both, drawing from the whole “Polynesian incorporation and creating something original and personal for anybody.”

“I find the incorporation of the Polynesian art form is more popular than designs from a specific Polynesian country, it makes it more exciting, more unique and more effective, but then again it depends on the artist putting it together.” He believes an artist is only limited by experience.

While Polynesian style tattoos remain predominantly striking black designs, using new and traditional motifs, our tattoo artist says an emerging trend is the addition of colour to the body art – giving rise to “unlimited scope for creativity.” No two tattoos are ever the same – each is a work of art is designed specifically for a person and can reflect personal experiences, family, friends “anything they want,” he says. “That’s where we come in as artists and help them with their design and put it together – every individual has their own idea of what they want, we help create and enhance their vision.”

“It’s a very personal thing for people; the majority want something original for themselves and an art form on their body.” Getting a tattoo is no small thing.” Polynesian body art has a “long, long way to go and it’ll never stop, it’s the new thing and it’ll never stop being the new thing.”

That church ministers are today getting Polynesians designs tattooed on their bodies is a clear sign that acceptance and recognition of the art is reaching everyone, says Stormy Kara, the only female tattooist in the Cook Islands. Over the six years she has been tattooing from her own Pacific Inc Polynesian Tattoos studio, the biggest trend Stormy has noticed is “people are getting tattoos in more obvious places; they aren’t getting them above the t-shirt line or on their backs to hide them. More people are finding it’s OK to wear them out now, which is good.” She says more and more people are asking for tattoos on visible places “which goes to show that they want people to see it, they don’t want to hide it.”

While Polynesian tattooing is becoming an accepted art form, Stormy admits there are still local people who scorn it as unattractive and alien to the Cook Islands culture. “I’ve got an aunty who still believes they are for sailors and prisoners! Now that we are even getting people in the churches having them done, like reverends and pastors, because they are able to reflect their religion through their tattoos and it’s not something that’s bothering them anymore.” Stormy is tattooing an elaborate design on a church pastor who is close to having a “full sleeve”(entire arm) completed.

Established artists in the Cook Islands all agree that special family designs belong specifically to those families and are never shared with others without connections. Says Stormy: “A lot of families have specific designs which they hand down to the young ones when they are ready, some people like to take pieces from the families of their Mums and Dads and put their own spin on the design. For our family, getting a tattoo is more of a rite of passage.”

Mentored by her uncle, leading Cook Islands tattoo artist and carver Tetini Pekepo, Stormy has come into her own in the art. “I’ve been trying to develop my own new designs instead of just what we used to do, because I think a lot of our old designs were made for the old days but there are new things now.”

She explains that religion and tattooing “used to be completely separate things, now we are merging them together, for people such as church ministers, so I like to see the designs starting to take other things onboard.” Because there are many Cook Islanders with Irish and English backgrounds, Stormy says there is the merging of Polynesian designs with designs specific to those cultures – the art then “reflects both cultures.”

Although Tahiti has long been the focal point of Polynesian tattooing, Cook Islands tattoo artists believe that this country is fast gaining an international reputation as an important place to get a Polynesian tattoo and “having a holiday in a really nice place is a bonus,” says Stormy. “As long as people understand what the design means and why they are wearing it, it doesn’t matter who gets it. We tell some people that they can’t have certain designs such as the Mangaian band, because it’s something we keep specifically for Mangaian people and specific family designs.”

Stormy likes the idea of Polynesian body art being worn by all. “For me as a Cook Islander, for someone to come here and embrace our culture and for them to stick something on their bodies permanently is a big compliment, because they are wearing it with pride, it’s nothing like what they’ve been brought up with.”

“Some people do come in and see something on the wall they like, and I tell them we will change it, we won’t do exactly the same because that is specifically for that person and they like that. People need to understand you can have your own family, your own story in your design.”

Born and raised in New Zealand, Tetini Pekepo is of Aotearoa Maori and Mangaian heritage. Ti, a natural artist, has been tattooing since returning in 1987. “I couldn’t read or write properly until I was 17, so I took in what I heard and saw, and there was a lot of art around me in Aotearoa.”

Ti’s interest in Cook Islands designs was sparked when renovating Oneroa church in Mangaia and seeing traditional designs on the walls. It was ironic that recorded on church walls were the very designs that Christianity tried to prohibit, says Ti. “Some of our designs were being kept, recorded in the decorating of our churches, even though Christianity tried to ban anything to do with our so called heathen past, when our people adorned the churches, some our people remembered our ancient designs and transferred these on to our churches.” He cautions one has to be able to differentiate between European filigree work and traditional Cook Islands designs.

With a homemade tattooing machine, Ti began transferring designs on to cousins and friends – “my aunty didn’t like me tattooing, saying it wasn’t in our culture; I did a few people at the time but couldn’t be bothered arguing with her, so I stopped for a while.” It’s fortunate those naysayers weren’t able to influence Ti to give up the art, as he is widely recognised in the Pacific region for his work, bringing mana to the Cook Islands and passing his knowledge on to a new generation of tattooists.

From years of research and “wandering around the Pacific I confirmed what I believe,” says Ti. “We Polynesians are one people, some of our designs have stayed with us for hundreds of years. Certain designs would change slightly from their original base…like nio nio, nio mango, taratara, rau’ara, raranga, various types of manu tai, various types of tikitikitangata, they are very similar throughout Polynesia, even going back to Asia… the manu lua is commonly seen in western Polynesia and as far away as the islands of Micronesia. So it goes with the belief that we travelled from the west to the east, and along with us we took certain patterns.” He says as artists were considered important members of a chiefs’ inner circle, each time a high chief sailed to another land, he would always be accompanied by his artist. This helped preserve and disseminate the art throughout Polynesia.

Ti experienced this first hand sailing with traditional seafarer the late Sir Thomas Davis. “We were bringing back our vaka Te Au o Tonga to Rarotonga and we were sailing through the northern islands of the Tongan group. Papa Tom said to me it would be rude of us to come into Tongan waters without paying our respects to their King and presenting him with a gift. I pulled out my adze and made a gift for the Tongan king and when we had an audience we presented him with this gift. That’s an example of how important somebody with artistic ability could increase the mana of a high chief traveling on a vaka. Traditionally, certain individuals, depending on their skills, were prized and valuable assets to a high chief as he wandered the ocean.”

“While the art of tatau itself brings in the bread and butter, it is the whole art of Polynesia that draws me.” And like the other artists here, Ti has an unending stream of human canvasses – “I seem to get an endless supply of people willing to give their bodies as canvasses.” This allows him to be “forever expanding my understanding and hunger for creativity and using the designs I know of to help tell a story.”

The path of Polynesian tattooing is going to continue to be an exciting one, says Ti. He sees various leading artists coming together, “throwing everything in and copying from each other and we are going to see some really brilliant work out there.”

In time, Ti believes the art form will return to the bold, simple lines of the forefathers of Polynesian tattoo. “We are going to go back to simplicity and that simplicity will be the added boldness and beauty of tatau. There are a lot of artists out there doing some really brilliant work, but I believe that simplicity at the end of the day will be the winner.” The art of Polynesian tattooing is in safe and creative hands.

Brown Apera (model)
Shannon Haworth (model)
Patterns that embrace our heritage
Stormy Kara at work
Tattoo back & shoulder
Harry Goodwin (model)
Tetini Pekepo master tattooist