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My Tatau Experience by Kore’ Grate

My Tatau Experience Video | My Tatau Experience Photos

Tattoos, or pe'a, demonstrate the strong ties many Samoans feel for their culture. Samoans have practiced the art of tattooing both men and women for over 2,000 years. I believe it is crucial to know, respect, honor and give back to the traditions before one “takes” from another culture.

Tattooing has deep roots in many cultures, some dating over 7000 years old as scientifically proven with evidence from the Pazyryk “Ice Maiden”, found buried in the Altay Mountains of Siberia. Because of what was buried with her they say she was most likely a shaman, especially because of the elaborate Scythian style animal patterned tattoo marks all over her body. Wherein, the Ice Man found in 2500 BC, had only simplistic tattoo marks in line patterns that seemed to be placed for healing his injured bones, the Ice Maiden proves that tattooing is not only for healing, it has special properties for protection, empowerment, and connection Some called it “Magic”. There is evidence of tattooing on the Egyptian Mummies, and still, no one really knows how far back this art goes to find the Origin. It is very, similar to the theories that search for the “first of anything” on earth.

The Samoan oral tradition recognizes that two Fijian women, Taema and Tilafaiga, Siamese-twins at birth, as the ones who first introduced the practice of tattooing. One version of this history recounts the twins on a voyage to Fiji were given tools by the “true king of Samoa” to “tatau the women and not the men”, but the words were mixed up in the singing of the story and it became an opposite tradition.

Before the arrival of Christian missionaries, starting in 1830, it was part of the ritual for all Samoan males to be tattooed. As history recalls the gentrification of cultures by the early missionaries who tried over and over to outlaw tattooing because of their beliefs that is was considered as defacement of the human body and heathenish, they eventually succeeded in refocusing the custom on the sons of chiefs.

The Samoan word for tattoo is tatau which means "correct or workmanlike." It also signifies the correct quadrangular figures in reference to the fact that Samoan tattoo designs do not include circular lines, although other Polynesian tattoo motifs do. This tapping process is very painful, and if the design was large, was done in several sittings to give the recipient a rest. Early Englishmen mispronounced the word tatau and put it into popular usage as “tattoo”. Koré chose part of the original spelling of tatau in “Tatu’s by Koré, Inc” to honor the Polynesian origin of the name and to create questions so she could talk about the history.

In the “old ways” the Samoan tattoo master would dip his cutting tools into black ink made from the soot of burnt candlenut shells, and then puncture designs into the skin. The cutting tool, or "needle," consisted of a short piece of bamboo or light wood with a piece of tortoiseshell bound at right angles at one end. A little bone comb is bound to the lower broad end of the tortoiseshell. The larger the comb, the greater the area on the skin is covered with fewer strokes. The master used a small mallet to repeatedly tap a short handled instrument.

In April of 2008, Kore’ was traditionally tatau’d in Auckland, New Zealand by a young Shaman named “Croc”. It began with a spontaneous opening created by a cancellation from the three-month out schedule. Lois, our aunt and host had spoken very highly of a shop named “Moko”-the Maori word for Tatau, and before our trip to the national park, we went for a visit. When I came in, I noticed a woven, decorated mat on my left and a young man, heavily tattooed in all black ink on his arms and legs, in a traditional Polynesian wrap sitting on a pillow drawing. In front of the mat was a sign that read: “Please remove shoes before coming on Mat”, immediately I knew this part of the shop was sacred space.

After talking with Croc, we decided on the design: an arm band that would represent three elements: family: represented by “overlapping chevron shapes”, my travel across the ocean; represented by the linear wave pattern, and tenacity and the tattooist animal totem- the octopus; represented by the edging of small squares set a bit apart. The tatau is done with a series of linear taps, the art has no spirals or circles like the Maori style of Moko, which is carved, not tapped and for over two solid hours I “held the line”. Because the tatau shaman needs both hands to work, there is a very special position called the “holder” who is in charge of holding the skin very tight so the ink will go in properly. For larger back pieces there can be up to three “holders”. The young man that assisted was a new apprentice, so he was totally invested in “doing it right”, and I had the finger-print bruises on my arm to prove it.

I took off my shoes, bowed to the process, and sat on a pillow while Croc free-hand drew with a red pen, what would soon be a traditional Polynesian tatau on my right forearm. Kyle prepared the pillows on the floor where I would lay as they sat on either side of my arm on pillows. My partner, Jan, gave me a hug, promised to take a short video and pictures, even though she felt it was a bit like taking pictures in a church. I layed down on the sacred mat and let them have my arm. With his hand on my arm, Croc bent his head, Kyle followed, and a prayer was given for “all to be good in the eyes of the great spirits” in a language I did not recognize. It was a blessing of the process. I lay on my back and felt the ink drumming into my over-stretched skin in powerful blows, I looked up through a sky-light and watched clouds slowly and surely moving like Taiji in the pure blue sky.

The rest of the Moko gang in the shop were very busy with clients and the electrical world of tattooing, people coming and going in the door nearby, the music playing, and all the time I am on the floor watching the clouds and occasionally smiling and “thumbs up” to Jan. It was like a soft dream.

When I had first entered this small shop, I noticed Croc was kind of pale and coughed a lot. He looked sick. While he was tattooing me, I felt this darkness around him, but not “of him” so I asked if he had a cold. He told me he has had cystic fibrosis since he was a child (*most children don’t grow up to be adults with this disease), and that if it were not for his quest for the spiritual in the mountains of Himalaya where he learned this art and herbal remedies from the monks, he would be dead. Moved to send him continued energy for light and healing, I began to sing/chant/hum as I sometimes do with my own clients to help them through the tatu. He stopped and said “Sis, are ya singing?” I told him that I do that when I tatu people, he smiled and began humming with me. I also was “told” to tell him that “you will live a long time”, and he said “good, cuz I just had a baby daughter!” My belief that tatu’ing is a “three-way endeavor” was validated one thousand and eight times over.

Now every time I look down my right arm as I am tatu’ing, I feel the connection to the depth of the art. I see the tiny black holes embroidered in the patterns that were given to me; the strong ties to my families; blood, heart and martial, to New Zealand-the land of deep True Nature, and to my tribe of tattoo artisans. May we always know where this art we love came from, may we use it wisely and with compassion and clarity, and may be bless the days we have to keep this art in existence.

My Tatau Experience Video | My Tatau Experience Photos