The return of Tatau

The return of the tata’u

Decades after the traditional body tattoo or tata’u disappeared from Cook Islands society it is back and flourishing in greater numbers than ever. FLORENCE SYME-BUCHANAN interviews a key practitioner on its revival

Studio Assistant Brendon Napa, Boye and Clive Nicholas outside the Punanga Nui Tattoo Studio

Although they had no understanding nor wished to comprehend its deep meaning or appreciate its striking magnificence, 19th century missionaries outlawed the traditional art form as a barbaric heathen practice. In some Pacific nations like the Cook Islands, the zeal of early missionaries to forcibly end the ancient practice of tata’u or body tattooing almost obliterated even its memory. Fortunately, that’s no longer the case. The powerful renaissance of Polynesian tattoo has seized the Pacific. Pacific Islanders are today embracing the ancient art form with unprecedented passion as it sweeps across the Pacific Ocean. An ancient tradition resurfaces on the bodies of islanders, adorning our skin with traditional and contemporary motifs and designs that link us to island homes, heritage, and culture. Simply, to being who we are. Life has again been breathed into tata’u. It has regained its mana. Rightly so.

For Cook Islands tattooist Boye Nicholas, the awakening began in the late 90s on a voyage crewing Te Au O Tonga, the double-hulled ocean going vaka that has traversed unescorted, thousands of nautical miles all over the Pacific.
“That opened my eyes, I was able to gather what I saw on the trip and see things Polynesia more clearly. It gave me an insight; the real understanding that Polynesian people, us Maori are just one people and the artwork of Polynesia is of all the Maori people. “Our forefathers’ canoes sailed between the Polynesian islands, contact was maintained, we exchanged, we shared and sometimes we fought.”
Had it not been for the ocean voyage that roused his spirit, “I would not be here today,” says Boye.

A decade later, here he is in his own tattoo studio at Punanga Nui Market in Rarotonga etching Polynesia on to the skin of hundreds of papa’a (Europeans) and Maori. At 32, Boye has quickly taken himself to the forefront of tattooing, joining the likes of respected Cook Islands tattooist Tetini Pekepo. Together they have been instrumental in reviving the art in the Cook Islands. Both have apprenticed young Cook Islanders, further ensuring that the art form is sustained. For younger brother Clive, his apprenticeship started with a lot of waiting and watching – long hours for Boye to finish an outline before getting the nod to fill in. Born and raised in New Zealand, he has come a long way since then and is now a fully fledged tattooist.
“Since being back home I’ve learnt so much more about my culture and heritage,” says Clive, in between applying and wiping a new tattoo for David Fenton, a New Zealand-born Cook Islander who has returned home to marry his New Zealand Maori sweetheart Hine (Ngati Raukawa, Tuwharetoa and Tainui).

On the studio veranda a cluster of young men eagerly await their own tattoos. Some are locals, others Kiwi-Cook Islanders home for the first time. One wants an intricate design covering his entire lower right leg, “but Mum and Dad don’t know about it.” So how will you tell them? “When I get back to New Zealand, I’ll just walk in one day at Mum and Dad’s and it will be there. If they don’t like it, there’s not much they can do about it, but it’s important for me to have something of my island home to take back … I think it’ll be okay.” As Boye puts it, “It’s a privilege to be able to give people something of Polynesia to take away and keep as theirs for a lifetime.”

Lots of people, tourists and visiting Cook Islanders, want that permanence. Like David, who chose getting tattooed to celebrate his commitment to Hine and honour his heritage. He chose the moko, (lizard) to adorn his left shoulder. The moko is known in Cook Islands lore as the “taura Atua”, the link between man and God. It also signifies that David’s Aitutaki and Mauke tupuna were Taunga (high priests). In Cook Islands Maori, tata’u is the art or act of tattooing. As also known by the teina of Aotearoa, the moko describes a finished tattoo. Hine chooses a small cluster of tipani (frangipani) flowers for her upper back. Finished, it is delicate and feminine, expressing her personality well. Polynesian tattoos for newlyweds have become trendy.

“For a lot of couples, getting tattoos is a really meaningful way of showing their commitment to spend their lives together. They carry that promise for their lifetime,” explains Boye. “I’ve been really fortunate in being able to turn a Polynesian art form into a business for myself, and helping with its revival here at home.” In the Pacific, the art of traditional tattooing can be traced to every corner of the Polynesian triangle - the Cook Islands, Aotearoa, Marquesas (who still have the most elaborate tattoos), Samoa, Hawaii, Tuamotu, Society Islands, Tonga and Rapa Nui. Considered to be highly attractive and indicative of tribe and lineage, tattoos were always left visible for all to see. There are reports which claim that while the Polynesians of warmer climes had tattoos that covered parts, if not all of their bodies, the New Zealand Maori tattoos, or moko, were confined to the face because of the colder weather.

According to renowned New Zealand Maori anthropologist Sir Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hiroa 1877 – 1951) the last Cook Islander before the current revival to be traditionally tattooed was Teretai of Turangi, Rarotonga. Teretai’s rau-teve tattoo was the most painful of all tata’u styles, beginning behind the ear and spreading across the neck to the lower back. The pain was so unbearable for Teretai, he was unable to have his tattoo completed. Although no longer done the traditional way in the Cook Islands, for every Polynesian, like Cook Islander David Fenton, the significance of the motifs and the pride with which they are worn are the same as that of their Maori ancestors of long ago.