When visitors enter the UMFA’s newest exhibition, Tatau: Marks of Polynesia, what appears to be a survey of Samoan tattoos quickly reveals itself to be an exploration of Fa’asāmoa — the Samoan way of life. This is because the two are inextricably linked. As recently as a generation ago, a museum exhibition on tattooing would be unheard of. As perspectives shift, major institutions have the opportunity to put a spotlight on this ancient artistry. As arbiters of not only art, but of culture, art museums have both the responsibility and honor of showcasing areas at the intersection of the two. The rich cultural identity embedded in the practice of tatau (traditional Samoan tattooing) makes it the ideal artform to embody the mission statement of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.
This exhibition was not developed by the curatorial staff at the UMFA, but because Utah is a rich beneficiary of the diaspora of Pacific Islander communities, the museum makes for an apposite venue as the show travels. Tatau: Marks of Polynesia was created by the staff at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, following a successful exhibition on the history of the Japanese tattooing tradition headed by curator and tattoo artist Takahiro (Taki) Kitamura. Due to his connections in the tattoo community, Takahiro was aware that the Samoan tradition has much the same endurance as the Japanese art form and was equally deserving of recognition.
As Kitamura embarked on this project with photographer John Agcaoili, they were guided to the Su’a Sulu’ape family, widely recognized as a preeminent authority on tatau. In his curator’s note, Kitamura says, “I am a firm believer in cultural self-representation and only agreed to curate the exhibition with guidance from the inside.” With this in mind, an advisory committee was formed, comprising members within the trusted Su’a Sulu’ape circle. This same committee, along with local Utahns of Polynesian heritage, joined Kitamura and the curatorial team at the UMFA in realizing the show in Utah. Associate curator Luke Kelly likened the exhibition to two shows in one. “You get to see more than 20 artists’ traditional and modern interpretations of the Samoan tattoo tradition, but then John’s photography is just absolutely gorgeous.”
The tufuga tā tatau (Samoan tattoo masters) are far more than tattooers or artists. For the archipelago and diaspora of Polynesia, they are the keepers of the culture. For nearly 3,000 years Samoan history has been passed from one generation to the next orally, and via ink inscription to the skin. During years of European colonization and missionary occupation keeping tatau alive meant keeping an unrelenting grip on cultural identity. That is because the tatau (traditional Samoan male tattoo) and malu (traditional Samoan female tattoo) are far more than a design on the flesh. Samoan women’s rights activist, Vaimasenu’u Zita Martel refers to the tatau and malu as Samoan clothing. In fact, the first Europeans to encounter Samoans mistook their intricate markings as ornate silks wrapped around the waist. While there were many attempts by outsiders to eradicate the practice of tatau, the art form has proven as resilient as the people who wear it. Following the independence of Western Samoa (now Samoa) in 1962 there was a notable resurgence of the practice. That resurgence continues to today as both traditional and more contemporary Polynesian tattoo styles receive global adoration.
Patriarch of the Su’a Sulu’ape family, Su’a Sulu’ape Alaiva’a Petelo practices the centuries-old traditional method of hand tapping the tattoos. While the handmade tools of implantation have had small adjustments over the years, to allow for proper sanitation, the method remains the same. Two to three tosos (attendants) stretch the skin taut as the tufuga tā tatau carefully dips his ‘au (tattoo comb) into black pigment and with a hit from the sausau (mallet) penetrates the skin. Tufugas must be precise with their movements as they etch intricate lines into their human canvases. While the malu on women is sparse in design, a male tatau inks the body from knee to navel. This complex pattern tests the endurance of both the tufuga as well as those receiving the tattoo. While some extend their sessions over many weeks, others complete their tatau in as few as 3 days of 12 hour-long sessions.
Enduring such profound physical suffering is as much a part of the tatau as is the final product. The completed tatau symbolizes one’s readiness to enter a new phase of life. The tatau and malu are signifiers of a readiness to serve one’s family, chief and community. Service to others and a strong sense of community are two of Samoa’s pillar cultural principles. These principles are evident among the ceremonial rituals that accompany the tatau. Many family and community members are present to celebrate as the tufuga completes the tatau. The tufuga then begins a ceremony of blessing called Samaga tatau in which he cracks an egg over the head of the newly tattooed person to acknowledge their rebirth. Mallet tapping transitions into hand clapping as everyone begins to dance and celebrate the finished tatau. To end the ceremony, payment is given to the tufuga tā tatau and his attendants. This payment of appreciation once came in the form of pigs, fine mats and other goods. It is now more common to see money and personal gifts given as payment.
Su’a Sulu’ape Alaiva’a Petelo has not only passed the title of tufuga tā tatau to his own sons, Su’a Sulu’ape Peter and Su’a Sulu’ape Paul Jr., but he has anointed several other former apprentices with the family name. This marks them as ambassadors of the Sulu’ape family, and the Samoan tatau and allows them to utilize the traditional tools. This passage of knowledge ensures a future for the artform. While many practice the traditional tapping method, some also utilize the modern tattoo machine. The use of the machine has allowed traditional tatau to expand into a contemporary Polynesian style of tattooing.
Tatau: Marks of Polynesia presents works from both styles to honor the past and promote its future. Thoughtful educational resources are also provided to empower visitors with context to better understand the design symbols in the tatau and malu. Viewers can see ceremonial tools and artifacts on display as they meander through Agcaolili’s exquisite photographs. Protruding from gallery walls and mounted on aluminum, the images range from posed studio shots to moments captured mid-ceremony. Most of the photographs mirror the traditional tatau in their lack of pigment. Others add a splash of color to the exhibition, reminding visitors of the style’s modern endurance. The accompanying wall labels acknowledge each tattoo artist, giving them the institutional recognition that has long been absent in this art practice. It is with a deep appreciation for Polynesian culture that viewers are sure to leave the exhibition. The sense of pride and community is nearly palpable within the walls of the UMFA. Ink is not the only mark that the people of Polynesia leave on those they encounter.
Tatau: Marks of Polynesia, Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Salt Lake City, through Dec. 30
Heather Hopkins recently received her BA in Art History from the University of Utah. She is also an arts writer for Southwest Contemporary. When she isn’t lost in a museum or art gallery, she can be found hiking and camping with her wife and their cat.