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An ex­tra­or­di­nary book traces a painful rite of pas­sage and art form that has endured for 3000 years.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - By OS­CAR KIGHTLEY

A cul­tural his­tory of Samoan tat­too­ing by Sean Mal­lon and Sébastien Gal­liot, and nov­els by Lynne Truss, Wil­liam Boyd, Nicky Singer and Pat Barker

The play be­gan with a group of Samoan men, bare chested and wear­ing yel­low lavalava, walk­ing to the cen­tre of the stage, lay­ing down some mats and sit­ting down for a rit­ual that’s been prac­tised con­tin­u­ously for thou­sands of years – tra­di­tional Samoan tatau.

The re­cip­i­ent in this case was yout­hand so­cial-work ac­tivist Vic Ta­mati, from Christchurch, who would be get­ting a pe’a: the male ver­sion of the tra­di­tional Samoan tat­too, which cov­ers from the midriff to just be­low the knees. The fe­male ver­sion, which is only on the legs but just as strik­ing, is called a malu. It’s an ag­o­nis­ing process that in an­cient Samoa was a rite of pas­sage from ado­les­cence into adult­hood.

Not every Samoan has seen this, let alone an au­di­ence about to wit­ness this painful process in the first 15 min­utes of the play, Tatau: Rites of Pas­sage, by theatre com­pa­nies Pa­cific Un­der­ground, from Christchurch, and Zeal Theatre, from New­cas­tle, Aus­tralia.

Pa­trons sat trans­fixed as mas­ter artist and tufuga tā tatau, Su’a Sulu’ape Paulo

II, used a heavy wooden stick as a mal­let to strike a va­ri­ety of ser­rated-bone combs at­tached to sticks, or au, placed on Ta­mati’s skin.

The steady tap­ping into the skin left a pud­dle of ink and blood that in a mo­ment was wiped away, leav­ing just the beau­ti­fully de­signed mark­ings that would be there for life. There was real pain and real blood be­ing spilt in this most solemn rit­ual that, when the play was un­veiled in mod­ern-day New Zealand, was nor­mally hid­den away in South Auck­land garages.

Ta­mati’s tatau be­gan on open­ing night and would be com­pleted on the fi­nal night of the sea­son, which ran through­out March 1996 at the Her­ald Theatre in Auck­land. It re­mains the most real and in­tense thing I’ve seen in a theatre in New Zealand.

But it’s only now, thanks to the book Tatau: A Cul­tural His­tory of Samoan Tat­too­ing, that I fully ap­pre­ci­ate what a sig­nif­i­cant and spe­cial mo­ment it was to see this un­fold.

The book is ex­actly what the name sug­gests, a his­tory of Samoan tat­too­ing, but that’s an un­der­state­ment in terms of the story it con­tains.

And in our part of the Pa­cific, Aotearoa, with its sig­nif­i­cant Samoan pop­u­la­tion, it’s an art form we get ex­posed to just by walk­ing around towns and cities.

As this fine work by Sean Mal­lon and Sébastien Gal­liot ex­plains, the Samoan is­lands are vir­tu­ally unique in that tat­too­ing has been con­tin­u­ously prac­tised with in­dige­nous tech­niques.

As a schol­arly work, it’s ex­tra­or­di­nary. It traces Samoan tat­too­ing – from what is known about its be­gin­nings, the ear­liestrecorded ob­ser­va­tions by Euro­peans in the 1700 sand the way it evolved as a rit­ual in

the 20th cen­tury, to its contemporary and global im­pli­ca­tions.

This is the first pub­li­ca­tion to ex­am­ine 3000 years of Samoan tatau. Through a chronol­ogy vivid with peo­ple, en­coun­ters and events, it de­scribes how Samoan tat­too­ing has been shaped by lo­cal and ex­ter­nal forces over many cen­turies. It ar­gues that Samoan tatau has a long his­tory of rel­e­vance, both within and be­yond Samoa, and a more com­pli­cated his­tory than is cur­rently pre­sented in lit­er­a­ture. One of the most fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ries is how it sur­vived in Samoa de­spite the ef­forts of re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions to sup­press it.

It’s no mean feat to ap­pro­pri­ately and re­spect­fully try to cap­ture 3000 years of his­tory, but Mal­lon and Gal­liot have done an ex­tra­or­di­nary job.

One of the two peo­ple this book is ded­i­cated to is Paulo. It was his idea to put tat­too­ing in the play, so peo­ple who had never seen it be­fore could be ex­posed to it.

He was a cul­tural icon who was in­stru­men­tal in the re­nais­sance of tatau among Samoans in New Zealand, and when his life was trag­i­cally taken, in 1999, the com­mu­nity lost much knowl­edge about this im­por­tant tra­di­tion.

This book re­stores some of that, and Paulo him­self would love that it’s been writ­ten.

A pud­dle of ink and blood was wiped away, leav­ing just the beau­ti­fully de­signed mark­ings.

Au­thors Sean Mal­lon and Sébastien Gal­liot.

Artist Fatu Feu’u (left) and mas­ter tatauist Su’a Sulu’ape Paulo II with a com­pleted pe’a in an Otara garage in 1991; stretch­ers, be­low, as­sist in the process; left, tatoo artist Tyla Vaeau Ta’ufo’ou in 2017.

TATAU: A CUL­TURAL HIS­TORY OF SAMOAN TAT­TOO­ING, by Sean Mal­lon and Sébastien Gal­liot(Te Papa Press, $75)

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