Book Review: Tatau: A History of Sāmoan Tattooing, by Sean Mallon and Sebastien Galliot

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_tatau‘The history of tatau has…been one of both continuity and disruption, with social, cultural and technological change coming from within Sāmoan society as much from the outside world.’ (p.298)

If you know nothing at all about tattoos or fa‘asamoa (Sāmoan culture, values and traditions) this excellent book will lead you into a whole new world. It focuses on Sāmoan tatau – the lines and motifs that form Sāmoan tattoo designs – and the ceremonies and rituals that accompany the process of receiving a tatau, often considered as a rite of passage for young people. Authors Sean Mallon and Sebastien Galliot are joined by other contributors, including poets, academics and historians, to describe the complex history and symbolism of tatau over the past 3000 years. Collectively they explore and explain the multiple influences on tatau practices, which include politics, geography, sexuality, genealogy, gender roles, art, literature, health and safety, religion, science and (latterly) social media.

Mallon, a writer and Te Papa curator, is of Sāmoan and Irish descent. His deep interest in the topic was sparked by an ‘early and vague’ memory of his grandfather’s tatau. Galliot is a French anthropologist who has carried out extensive research on traditional tatau and lived in Sāmoa while completing his PhD. Both authors have developed complementary and in-depth knowledge of tatau history and contemporary practices.

‘What [surprised] me, and continues to intrigue me, is … that a set of symbols from a seemingly remote group of islands in the South Pacific could circulate in many forms across a range of contexts and on the bodies of people from all walks of life and across the world.’  (p. 11)

Mallon and Galliot describe how symbols (including logos) from other cultures have been incorporated into tatau designs alongside indigenous symbols over time. The designs and the location of tatau on the body continue to change and evolve, although there is still a strong demand for traditional methods and patterns. Tatau designs are no longer limited to the body and are now evident in art (such as Michel Tuffery’s woodcuts and Fatu Feu’u’s paintings), and other objects as diverse as postage stamps, stationery and tee-shirts. The knowledge I’ve gained from this book has helped me to recognise – and encouraged me to search out – tatau patterns and references in unexpected places. The book includes Flanagan’s remarkable graphic depiction of Avia’s Wild Dogs Under My Skirt poem, centred on the poem’s intense and evocative descriptions of tatau.

The distinctive characteristics of tatau are the ‘location of the markings on the body, their extent and density, and the tools used in the tattooing process (p.14)’.  Although many tufuga (tatau artists) now use masini (machines) with steel needles and black ink, others continue to use traditional tools to make marks on the body by vigorously tapping the skin with sharp ‘teeth’ to perforate it so that pigment can be introduced. I found the chapter focusing on the iconography of tatau particularly informative, as it includes a selection of common patterns and explains what each represents. This chapter also has photos identifying the many different tatau zones (each with a group of motifs) on both male and female bodies. (These zones, and the names used to refer to the tattoo, differ for men, who wear tatau or pe’a, and for women, who wear malu.) Each zone has its own term. Fusi, for example, is the name given to a belt, strap or band of motifs located at the top of the thigh.

The book draws on many different sources, including journals, poetry, photographs, exhibition catalogues and oral histories.

I found the rich descriptions of the rituals, protocol and ceremonies associated with tatau practices of great interest. These customarily included preparing and sharing food, providing sports and other entertainment, and bestowing gifts such as fine mats, canoes, weapons and instruments. The photos and illustrations throughout the book are stunning, in particular the highly detailed drawings of tatau – many of these are hand-drawn and date back to the 1800s. Photos of the tools are stark – the sharp teeth of the combs clearly visible and reinforcing a theme echoed throughout the book: that pain is inevitable, and indeed ‘you cannot find yourself without pain and suffering’ (p.26).

The photos of people with tatau allowed me to look at length at the designs and appreciate the intricacy of the patterns, as well as to consider the time and skills needed to create the tatau. In real life such prolonged gazing would be disrespectful. I’m grateful to the men and women who gave permission for their images to be included in the book. Mallon and Galliot report that a full tatau is rarely seen, instead we may see only a glimpse with the rest concealed beneath clothing. They note that it is not uncommon for social media users to criticise how and where others reveal their tatau.

I see some parallels between Tatau and the earlier Mau Moko: The World of Māori Tattoo (Te Awekotuku and Nikora, 2007) such as the descriptions of the shared influence of the Lapita people who are believed to have practiced both face and body tattooing. The Lapita are considered to be the ancestors of multiple Pacific Island peoples; as seafarers they migrated far and wide across Oceania. Tatau briefly discusses the positive relationships established between certain tufuga and Māori tā moko practitioners, which has included gifting traditional tools to strengthen cultural connections. Both Tatau and Mau Moko refer to the extensive contributions of Sulu’ape Paulo II, a renowned and active tufuga who also supported and mentored Māori artists.

A glossary explains terms used throughout the book and there is a comprehensive bibliography, as well as brief biographies of all contributors.

The hard cover and spine are striking and embossed with symbols that spell ‘tatau’. The cover is partially enclosed by an eye-catching dust-jacket featuring the lower abdomen and thighs of a male body with tatau. The print varies in size throughout the book and some readers may find the smallest print a challenge. In several chapters the orange text on dark pages is also hard to read, especially in low light.

Although Mallon and Galliot have written a meticulous and comprehensive history, in the closing chapter they comment that ‘…this book is far from the last word on Sāmoan tatau. There are other histories to be written and other stories to be told…’ (p. 299). Their book will be a superb reference for future authors who are likewise privileged and trusted to bring these stories to life.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Tatau: A History of Sāmoan Tattooing
by Sean Mallon and Sebastien Galliot
Published by Te Papa Press
ISBN: 9780994136244

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