A book about Samoan tattooing - tatau - records a story that has been 30 years in the making.

Mark Adams' take on Samoan tattooing is what he calls a quintessentially Auckland story. It starts in 1978, when Adams, down from the north and staying with his old Christchurch mate Tony Fomison in Freemans Bay, is asked by Alan Taylor to take photographs for an article on tatau the folk art enthusiast was submitting to Craft Australia magazine.

They picked up Salati Fiu after church and took photos in his Grey Lynn home. Adams shot colour transparencies of Fiu's tattoo in his home, and then set up his large format plate camera for a shot of Fiu standing in his bedroom, the intricate lines of the pe'a contrasted against the highly patterned wallpaper and carpet.

As Samoan academic Peter Brunt from Victoria University says in his essay in Tatau, the way Adams framed the shot, the man or the room looking "out of place", he broke the mould of 100 years of photographic convention in picturing the "other".

"I wanted to photograph the context, ie, the rooms and everything in them with the people, and to do it with those old ethnographic and problematic photos in my head," Adams says. The intention was to turn upside down the conventions which efface the people and turned them into objects.

"It seemed to be a fairly singular situation, Salati in that context. In fact, it was the beginning of everything. 1978 was another country, but that cracked open the door to the country as we now know it."

Fiu's tatau had been done in Samoa, but in Freemans Bay Adams ran into Pio Taofinu'u, who told him his brother-in-law Sulu'ape Paulo was a tattooist working in Auckland.

"I came down one weekend, picked up Pio and Tony [Fomison] and went out to Mangere. Paul [Sulu'ape] and his family came back from church to discover me and Tony there. I asked if I could take photographs of his practice, and he said yes, so I started going out there." Thus began a friendship and a 30-year project, picked up and dropped multiple times, and interrupted by the murder in 1999 of Sulu'ape.

"This book is not about Samoan tattooing per se. It's not ethnology. It's more about Paul, Tony, me and Paul's work and his cousins and his brothers' work in the context of Auckland," Adams says. "It's more an ethnology of all of us, of the cross-cultural situation that developed. It's also a critique of anthropology and ethnology."

Adams has always been a self-conscious artist, aware of the global archive of anthropological photography and its problematic nature, as well as art history, and the connections between modernism, ethnology and anthropology and of the way Paul Gauguin's romantic view of the Pacific informed Western views of Polynesian peoples.

While Adams remained the observer, the romantic Fomison took the plunge, inserting himself into the culture. "Towards the end of 1978, I don't know what conversation took place, whether Tony asked or Paul said, 'You are having a tattoo,' but Tony got his pe'a."

Unlike the Samoan wrestlers whose skin Sulu'ape was scoring with his sharkskin chisels, Fomison was a slightly built palagi, and the carving of his legs and buttocks strained his physical capacity.

The sessions were done at the Onehunga home of the parents of one of Fomison's Freemans Bay neighbours, law student and Polynesian Panther Fuimaono Norman Tuiasau, who was getting his own pe'a at the same time - the first New Zealand-born Samoan to undergo the procedure.

That series of pictures ended with one after the umusaga ceremony to mark the completion of the tatau, including family members and friends.

"I had the big camera and lighting gear so I did this group shot, which is kind of a summation of the situation. There's Tony looking not quite sure. It's terrific. It sort of stands for the cross-cultural happy new nation we all wanted to build," Adams says.

The encounter with the artists changed things for Sulu'ape, bringing him an audience outside the South Auckland factory workers he was tattooing in marathon weekend sessions.

"At a certain point in the 1980s the European tattoo scene discovered Paul and his brothers were tattooing using the old methods and instantly snaffled them and took them to Amsterdam to tattoo there, because they realised this was the real thing.

"They wanted to celebrate what these guys do. Paul and his brothers were like rock stars touring these tattoo conventions," Adams says. He says Sulu'ape remains controversial in Samoa, where many matai disapproved of his innovations and his accepting cash payment for tattooing rather than the traditional barter.

"A lot of matai in the diaspora don't mind because they live here and it's a different world. But that's a Samoan argument. It's none of our business. It's an argument between him and them. Paul used to say tatau didn't belong to Samoans, it belonged to his family, and they would decide who got it."

After Sulu'ape's death, Adams went to Europe to photograph people he had tattooed.

The images are produced in the same manner as those back in Auckland, incorporating the context of the subject's living room or workspace. "With photographs like this, everything in the room is part of the image. Because I am using large-format cameras, 4x5 and 10x8 film, you get these incredibly detailed optics but you need a huge amount of light so it means trundling a huge pile of electronic flash equipment into suburban homes," he says.

A book was planned early in the project, but never happened for a variety of reasons, including Adams' concern that it could stray too far into ethnographic conventions.

"At some points I dropped the whole project, because I have always been really ambivalent about it. I'm still ambivalent about it, because it's problematic. These photos are easily misunderstood.

"A lot of people thought they were just tat photos or a new sort of anthropology, they just didn't get it.

"Then something would happen. Paul would ring and say, 'Someone's getting married' so I would do wedding photos, or Fuiamano and I would talk and he'd say do something about it and I'd start again."

The book that has finally emerged from Te Papa Press is a collaboration, putting the photographs alongside essays by Brunt, Te Papa curator Sean Mallon and Nicholas Thomas, now a professor of historical anthropology at Cambridge University, who has worked with Adams on a range of projects since seeing two of the tatau photos at an exhibition of contemporary Polynesian art at Wanganui's Sarjeant Art Gallery in the early 1980s.

"This has been sitting under the noses of the local art scene and curators for 30 years," says Adams.

Tatau: Samoan Tattoo, New Zealand Art, Global Culture. Photographs by Mark Adams, edited by Sean Mallon, Peter Brunt and Nicholas Thomas (Te Papa Press $80)