This is my first week using the iPad to write my blog- I apologize in advance for any weird formatting !
This week I had the very exciting opportunity to experience the art of traditional Samoan Tatau. No, I didn’t get a tattoo myself, but I did act as a stretcher as one of Michael’s and my close friends had a traditional tattoo put onto into his leg.
The Tatau of Samoa is one of the oldest forms of tattooing traditions and for over 2,000 years these extensive pieces of body art, often covering torso, arms, legs, and even face and head have marked a rite of passage for Pacific Islanders as well as tribal affiliations and spiritual signs. Each part of the intricate tattoo has meaning as well as the placement on the body and the specific lines chosen by the tattoo master. Traditional Tatau is very different than the modern tattoo experience. The ink is placed into the skin through the use of a tool shaped very much like an awl with a row of very fine natural needles at the end, in this case they were fashioned out of boar’s tusk. The awl is dipped in ink, held over the skin and ‘tapped’ by a bamboo rod in a consistent rhythm to cause the boar’s tusk points to bounce in and out of the skin, depositing the ink. Unlike the automated hum of a traditional tattoo shop, the Tatau room is quiet, with music playing, and stuffed with people. Because this form of tattoo requires the needles to bounce into and out of the skin, the skin for this kind of tattoo needs to be stretched, typically by two people, to maintain the correct surface tension and not warp the lines of the design. Traditionally, during tattooing season, the whole village would turn out for a tattoo with different people taking turns stretching. Often a tattoo would be done in one sitting, often over 24 hours long. Our sitting wasn’t nearly as long as that, but I did feel a little like a village with seven of us (FreeWind, Kris, me, Michael as well as stretchers Billy and Nicole) crammed into the tiny grass-matted tattooing room in the middle of Black Wave tattoo shop.
Kris has known the with the Tatau master Su’a Sulu’ape FreeWind for over 25 years through our medieval reenactment group and we have known him for about five. FreeWind is one of the most fascinating people I have ever met. Facial tattoos aside, he is a genuine crazy genius that will one day wake up and decide to learn how to snowboard, the next invent a board game, the next adopt a parrot named Gonzo and the next go out and join the World Cup fencing team. Adopted by a Samoan many years ago, he is a Samoan chief and a world class tattoo artist both in the traditional and modern styles. There are truly no words to describe a person like FreeWind except FreeWind because that is what he is.
Our afternoon of Tatau started Sunday at 3pm when we had all decided to meet at the shop. At 5pm FreeWind arrived. He runs on island time. He began talking about his fencing carrier and showing us a video he had participated in about a new longboard skateboard line. About 6pm he instructed us to tie island print sarongs around our waists and, after Billy and Nicole had sanitized the room we got started. It was a very cool, very strange experience to sit cross-legged on the floor and watch the slow, steady tap-tap of the tattooing tool. With everyone around me and Gonzo honking and calling from the other room I felt transported to a small Polynesian island in the middle of Los Angeles. All in all it was a very unique, very cool experience.