The View from My Window: Art historian Peter Brunt looks at the globalisation of Samoan tatau through the lens of documentary photographer Mark Adams
The home where I grew up was in Kingsland, a cheap migrant suburb at the time. I remember looking out the kitchen window as a young kid with a sense of the world out there and not knowing how I was going to fare in it or where I’d end up. Both my mother and father were born in Samoa. I was the last of my father’s children. He was in his 80s when I was born, but he had 19 altogether with different wives. Actually, I’m the 20th, I think.
Dad died when I was 9 and my mother brought us up on a widow’s pension. I thought we were poor, which we were on one level, although not in other ways. My father didn’t have a pe’a [the traditional male Samoan waist-to-knee tatau], but a woman who stayed with us, we called her Aunty Paula, had a women’s malu. I remember being fascinated by the marks, but not brave enough to ask her about it.
The first tufuga tatatau [master tattooists] to come to New Zealand were Su’a Tavui Pasina Iosefo Ah Ken and Su’a Sulu’ape Paulo II. They were the catalysts. But the 70s migration from Samoa was to other places as well — Sydney, Brisbane, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City — so the culture was re-rooting itself in cities across the world.
I was on a train in London once sitting opposite three people who were talking in a language I didn’t understand. One of them was wearing a pe’a. That’s an example of the global dissemination of Samoan tattooing. I couldn’t interrupt their conversation because they were complete strangers, but where did he get his tatau? Who gave it to him? What did it mean to him?
You can dislike and oppose the easy accessibility of Pacific tattooing of all kinds or not. But when it comes to really valuing the meaning and the significance of it, intent is complicated as well. In the village, a pe’a implied certain rights as the mark of an initiated man. But the meaning of tatau is not fixed and can evolve with its contemporary practice. Someone may be very distantly removed from the culture and want it as a consequence of that sense of distance and loss.
Part of what Paulo is renowned for — or infamous for, depending on your point of view; he’s quite a controversial figure, you know — is bestowing the title of tufuga tatatau on people who are tattooists but not Samoan. On one level, that’s controversial. On another level, I think that’s where the cultural savviness comes in. In Amsterdam, in Germany, there are people who are legitimate Sulu’ape title holders and in a way able to give people authentic Samoan tattoos.
One of the defining skills Mark has as a photographer is how little he intervenes. He’s not like a fashion photographer where you’re told how to pose. That’s not just an aesthetic of his work on tatau. With some of his landscapes, he doesn’t wait for sunsets. The place is as it is when he turns up with his camera.
The intimacy he has with the subjects has a lot to do with his ethos. He’s not looking at something exotic and thinking, “I’ll take a nice shot of that.” The kind of respect he brings to it is definitely defining. The camera is right there, photographing the teeth of the ‘au [tattooing comb] as it’s hammered into the skin, the blood creeping out. That visceral quality of the images — the blood stains, the pressure, the grimacing of the face. Even though this is deliberate, accepted violence, it’s still bloody. It still hurts.
If you read Mark’s own reflections, he’s thinking about violence as a metaphor for the colonial encounter as well [New Zealand was the colonial power over Samoa from 1914 through to its independence in 1962]. When he’s photographing Tony Fomison, a settler Palagi artist taking on this tradition of pe’a and undergoing that ordeal, he’s absolutely conscious of all of those histories.
They weren’t just artists, these two skinny Palagi boys from Christchurch who turned up at Paulo’s home one day, asking permission to photograph him. They were activists who were interested in coming to terms with colonial history through their work.
– As told to Joanna Wane
• Peter Brunt is an associate professor of art history at Victoria University. His essay “The Portrait, the Pe’a and the Room” features in an extended new edition of Tatau (Te Papa Press, $75), which documents the work of Su’a Sulu’ape Paulo II and other Samoan tufuga tatatau through images taken by Canterbury-based photographer Mark Adams over a 45-year span. The book also includes essays by Sean Mallon, senior curator of Pacific cultures at Te Papa Tongarewa, and Nicholas Thomas, director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, UK. Due for release on May 11, it can be pre-ordered through tepapastore.co.nz