18 Jun 2019
While traditional tattooing has existed in Polynesia for over two thousand years, each nation has its unique history, style and tradition when it comes to body art.
The pacific island cluster of Tonga in particular has a long and complicated relationship to its traditional tattoos that have only begun to re-emerge as popular designs in the last 20 years.
Tattooing has always been a central custom for Pacific island cultures and designs were traditionally used as a marker of a person’s identity and their role within their community.
The tradition remained popular right up 1800s around the time when Westerners arrived in the Pacific. This arrival brought drastic changes including religious reforms that outlawed body modifications including tattoos.
As Tonga became increasingly westernized, the ancient art of traditional Tongan tattoos faded into obscurity.
While many artists and Tongans were interested in the tradition of Tongan tribal tattoos, there seemed to be very little information about this ancient craft.
It was not until early 2002 that work began in trying to revive this art form. Specialist tattoo artist Su’a Sulu’ape Alaiva’a who was well versed in Pacific tattooing (especially Samoan tattoos) met with several Tongans in Hawaii with the purpose of looking into Tongan tattooing practices.
It was not long after this meeting that two Tongans received the first traditional tattoos of their ancestors. These tattoos even received a traditional blessing to commemorate the occasion.
Within a year, two more Tongans had received tattoos and tattooist Aisea Toetu’u committed himself to being the first artist to specialise in specifically Tongan designs, ensuring that the tradition would endure.
The Tongan name for its tattooing tradition is Tatatau. While designs were certainly influenced by other Pacific cultures, they incorporated their own distinct patterns and meanings over the years in which they flourished.
And while designs were in many ways similar and identifiable, even today every tattoo is different and tailored to the individual.
Tatatau on men is usually situated from the torso to the knees and covers much of this body area. Female Tongan tattoos consist of symmetrical lines across the thighs. Authentic tattoos are created using the traditional tools (made of bone and turtle shell) and designs are based on traditional markings.
And as several artists apprentice under current masters of the tradition as well as increased interest in the tradition evidenced by Tongans, this tradition looks like one that will endure.
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