The art of tattooing is more Polynesianthan most people would like to believe. The word tattoo is from the Samoan word tatau and similarly in Tongan its “ta tatau.” Ta tatau was as much of an intrinsic part of Tongan culture as it is for our Samoan brothers and sisters and throughout the Pacific today.
I grew up with the view many Tongans and other people share in regards to tattooing – it is reserved only for thugs or people with a bad reputation. After tattooing was banned and labeled as a heathen act by the missionaries, Tongans abandoned ceremonial/cultural tattooing and picked up a negative perception of it, which has survived to present day society. Sadly what knowledge of tattooing Tongans have left today, are simply bits and pieces of its true worth to the culture. Our people have either lost, forgotten or suppressed the value that ta tatau had in our culture and the honor it carried.
I learned the history and legends behind Polynesian tattoos and my attitude towards ta tatau has changed forever.
Legend has it that King Tupou I, the first Christian King of Tonga, had a tattoo from his lower chest to upper thighs, as a mark of bravery suitable for the warrior that he was. The Tu’i Tonga would travel to Samoa to receive their version of the “malu” (Chiefly tattoo) by a Samoan tatau artist. It is taboo for a Tongan because their bodies were too sacred for any Tongan to touch, let alone cut. And so only a Samoan chiefly appointed tatau artist, could give his tattoo. In ancient times, it was not uncommon for a Tongan man to be covered in tattoos ending above the knees and or his chest as a sign of transition from a boy to a man mostly done by sons of Chiefs. Tongan women were also tattooed on their inner forearms if they were of chiefly status.
Ta tatau for Polynesians represented title, heritage, warriorism, responsibility and could heal as it was believed to have medicinal properties. Tongan men and women would tattoo their bodies to heal painful areas, such as, to treat pain from arthritis. Because the art of ta tatau has been denied, many believe that Tongan men and women with a ta tatau is either rebellious or promiscuous in today’s society.
Traditionally, a tattoo marked one’s transition into adulthood.
In 2010, my older sister, Hon. Lupepau’u Tuita, and I had the opportunity to meet the renowned tattoo artist ‘Aisea Toetu’u. He was in the Kingdom for a convention on Tongan culture educating people on Tonga’s history of Ta Tatau and the importance of keeping everything sterile and clean during and after the process of giving and receiving a tattoo. During the exhibition, ‘Aisea gave a demonstration on the tattooing process in ancient pre-Christian times in Tonga. I remember watching in awe and excitement. I knew immediately that I wanted my first a ta tatau by ‘Aisea.
Fully aware of the attitude that the majority of Tongans including my family have about ta tatau, it did not phase me in the slightest as I was very determined. The opportunity to get one done by a professional was at hand!
Neither my parents have a tattoo. It is the same for many members of my family. So, I was quite relieved when my eldest sister wanted a tattoo by ‘Aisea as well because no one would question her decision. We were well aware we wouldn’t be spared ridicule but regardless, we would wear our ta tatau’s proud. We wanted to be a part of renewing the relavance of the art of ta tatau in its authentic and sacred form.
We arranged to have our ta tatau done at our sister, Fanetupouvava’u, and her husband, Lieutenant Kiu Tu’ivakano Kaho’s, home in Kolomotu’a. The tattoo I received is tribal in pattern represents my family. My sister’s, Lupepau’u, tattoo symbolizes our father’s clan from Vava’u, Ha’a Fokololo ‘o e Hau, and her priority to her daughter as a mother.
After I received my first ta tatau, I knew it wouldn’t be my last. I would have when I reached a milestone in my life. I didn’t realize that would come as soon as a year. In 2011, I had grown into an independent person with my own mind, who had the heart to tackle any challenges. I finally grown up and saw things through the perspective of an adult. I felt accomplished and driven. This was an opportunity for me to celebrate by getting another ta tatau.
When I met another renowned professional Tongan tattoo artist, ‘Afa Cocker, I explained what I wanted and he began to give my a ta tatau on my back. He customized a traditional Tongan design and pattern for me. It covers most of my back and is in sync, but not entirely the same as the first ta tatau I had received. This one took several hours to complete. It was a representation of growth, independence and strength.
I felt no pain while I was getting the ta tatau because this was vital to me and the path I had chosen to take. Like my ancestors, I had transitioned from childhood to adulthood and marked that moment on my skin. It was also quite like my ancestors that I had happened to travel away from Tonga to receive my ta tatau.
Some Polynesians have come to forget what made us distinct from any other culture in the world. And ta tatau is one of them. It is as much a foundation of Polynesian culture as cultural goods and beliefs. I have a great sense of pride in the gift I have received from both ‘Afa Cocker and ‘Aisea Toetu’u.
I believe that my ancestors were with me in spirit before and during the whole tattooing process. My sister and I have done this for personal and a national purpose which is to diminish the negative stigma that goes with this art and cultural element. I am wearing my heritage in the form of a ta tatau on the most tapu (sacred) part of me. I am proud to say that I now live and will die with my heritage, literally.
Article Written By: Hon. Frederica Tuita