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 practices.

Tricia:  How and when did you get interested in traditional tattooing?

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 mark.

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?
Francis: 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.


© Copyright 2008-10 | Angikinui Francis Tekatoha and Tricia Allen | All rights reserved