At the Festival of Pacific Arts in American Samoa in the summer
of 2008, I had the pleasure of coming to know members of the
Avaiki group that were sharing their traditional dance and
chants. There were a number of tattooists among the group,
including Francis Tekatoha Here are excerpts from a longer
interview telling of the revitalization of Avaiki tattoo
Tricia: How and when did you get interested in
Francis: There’s no specific time I could
rightly pinpoint as the time when I got interested in tatau. It
was a very visible thing in my upbringing – both the traditional
designs worn by everyone of my grandparents’ generation and the
contemporary tatau worn by my parents’ generation. When, out of
curiosity, we asked our grandparents about traditional tatau we
were taught design and pattern names, mythical and historical
stories related to tatau, and details about their lives when
they imprinted certain designs. But when we asked about the
meanings, purposes and applications of their tatau we were told
in various ways that these were sinful things and we could not
learn about them as it could lead to our getting to hell. Our
parents only scolded us when we asked about their contemporary
designs and name-writing.
It was simply a part of my upbringing. As young lads some of my
cousins and I used a gluey paste from a tree sap to draw designs
on our arms and legs and then blacken them with crushed
charcoal. This maddened our elders and church officials, as they
were quite difficult to wash or rub off. I saw the bigger boys
and girls using thorns and charcoal dust from kerosene lamps to
imprint various designs and names.
Part of growing up in our village was seeing youths imprinting
small traditional designs, as a rebellious statement against
institutions and authority (church and government officials).
And it has only been part of my life as an Avaiki since
moving to urban Honiara (the capital of the Solomon Islands) to
be involved in the revived tatau art. Here in Honiara where we
are a small minority, it’s our wish as individuals and a group
to belong to something we can express as our own, to anchor
ourselves on to, which also represents rebellion against
institutions and officialdom. This effort comes about as a
collective result of our individual experiences of
disillusionment with institutional and societal opportunities in
Honiara, and the sense of living ‘outside’ the norms of urban
life. The experience of institutional irrelevance in Honiara for
a lot of our youth somehow justifies the need to focus our
attention on a cultural detail that institutions denounce but
can not rightly or legally prevent us from practicing. All these
led to our cherishing the application and adorning of tatau.
Tricia: When did you get your first tattoos?
Francis: My first tatau was a ghupo
(general fish) design on my right upper arm, the rebellious
design fashion of the 1970s that was deemed the identity design
among contemporary Avaiki – a token and apologetic way of
sustaining and representing Avaiki tatau. A little ‘plus’ or
‘cross’ design was imprinted on my left hand (base of thumb) as
an afterthought on the same day. These tattoos were hand
imprinted in 1982 by a cousin in town, with four sewing needles
that were held together by cotton. At the time I had recently
returned from studies in New Zealand and got involved in a band
with cousins. Having tatau imprinted, for me, signified my sense
of being within our band, being included properly into our
group, particularly because our band was rehearsing when I had
my tatau imprinted. The design decision for a ghupo was not
questioned as this was what everyone was imprinting at the time,
and it felt like the right design to imprint as a group identity
Tricia: What type of tools and pigment were used?
Francis: Sewing needles bundled tightly
in a straight line with sewing cotton. These needles were
forcibly pricked into the skin and muscle by the ‘mataisau’
[tattooist] who handles the bundled needles by hand. The ink
used was called ‘Indian Ink’ in small bottle containers, bought
from the general merchant shops in the centre of the town.
Tricia: Have any artists today tried reviving the
old hand-method of tattooing?
Francis: Some artists have tried out
working with traditional bone comb (au) and mallet (pakiau). But
these have been done to learn the art of making au and pakiau
from elders, and not so much as efforts to specialize and
enhance skills in imprinting with traditional tools.
Since the development of the home-made ‘masini tatu’ (imprinting
machine) in the 1980s, youth ‘mataisau’ tend to use the machine
only. The youth ‘mataisau’ who had demonstrated knowledge and
abilities to make traditional tools and imprint with them,
continue to prefer working with the ‘masini tatu’.
Tricia: And when did you get involved in the
ritual aspects—the chant, dance and preparations?
Francis: As a formal pursuit, I started
reading into our traditional rituals and ceremonies from 2000
onward, when I got myself prepared in Denmark to get into
postgraduate studies in London. But the details of these
ceremonies, rituals, dances and singing are part only of things
I had spent time learning from our elders. As part of my
upbringing there were things I had to be taught (by various
elders, including my own grandparents and particularly my
father). These things relate to land and tribal boundaries and
history, and these details were not encouraged by the church.
But these details are necessary for us to know. My elders made
sure I was taught these things for future reference. Later in
Honiara, I got involved with the cultural dancing group which
was put together by some of our elders who were living in
Honiara. Learning in this group was unstructured, but it covered
chants, singing, dancing, ceremonial details and rituals. By
2000, when I was in Denmark and preparing to get into London for
my anthropology studies, I was already an instructor among our
youth on traditional dancing, singing, ceremonies and rituals.
This is how, in recent years when most of our elders and
instructors had died, I have been able to instruct a much
younger group of dancers for our participation in the Amerika
Samoa Festival of Pacific Arts (2008).
Tricia: What are your goals now?
I hope to get into a PhD program in anthropology, and will base
my dissertation on the research I've done on our tatau. I'm also
working on a book on Avaiki tatau art - both the traditional
practice, and the social/political context of the revival today.
I'm now working with our youth who are behind this revival, as
performers (tatau rituals, ceremonies and traditional dancing
entertainment), 'mataisau' artists and adorners of the revived
art. Participating in Pacific festivals and presenting Avaiki
tatau art and the Haka'anga ceremony at symposium are also high
priorities for me in the immediate future.
Check back here for future updates and announcements.