Becoming ‘drawn in’ to Pacific culture

The importance of preserving tatau culture

Foo Jia Kai

Society and culture | Pacific

26 September 2014

Foo Jia Kai details his passion for Pacific culture through his experiences with the art of tatau.

Tataus (tattoos) are used as markers for Pacific Islanders to identify an individual’s identity. The term identity here is entangled with an individual’s genealogy, cultural background, and social status. Having tattoos indelibly inked onto one’s body can be a result of taboos, a rite of passage, or a reward for an achievement. Today tatau patterns are often commercialised for aesthetic reasons, and modified to suit ever-changing concepts of beauty.

I was born and raised in Malaysia. The first time I came in contact with anything related to the Pacific was during my first year at ANU; I partook in a Pacific field school in Fiji, run by Dr Katerina Teaiwa, and tutored by Nikki Mariner. Whilst in Fiji, I fell in love with Pacific Studies and in particular, the cultural heritage of the region. Thus, I found myself enrolling in the next Pacific field school, which was held in the Solomon Islands. Although I initially planned to get a tattoo in Fiji, I decided to give myself more time to consider and understand the significance of tatau (tattoo) patterns. I eventually got my first tatau in the Solomon Islands.

I had my first tattoo done by Mataruau Duday (also known as Albert), a tattooist from French Polynesia when I attended the 11th Festival of Pacific Arts in the Solomon Islands during the field school. It took two separate sessions and a total of four and half hours. The first session was the most memorable. When I met Albert, I began sharing stories about myself and what I was after. I then sat on top of a table with my leg extended and Albert began drawing patterns, explaining what each meant. I was very glad that he picked up on what I was after and made some of his own additions based upon his perception of my personality.

The whole process was interesting and rather awkward. As some of my friends have said, it was a relatively huge tattoo for a first timer. The awkwardness was mainly due to the fact that the hut in which I had my tattoo done was completely surrounded by onlookers who were very engrossed with the process. When I left the hut with my glad-wrapped leg, the place was still crowded with observers. Eventually, I had another tattoo, done by a Samoan tattooist, Lalovai Peseta, which extends from my shoulder to my left arm.

Although I wear my tattoos with pride, I have been subjected to insults and criticism by some members of the Pacific Islander community. Some have even approached me saying that the artists that gave me my ink were ‘shit’. Now that I am back in Malaysia, I always get stares from passers-by. Some of them are curious, others intrigued, and of course there are the judgemental ones that shake their head with disapproval. I had, however, expected and considered the stigmatism and criticism (including harsh remarks from close relatives) I would face before I had my first tattoo.

Having a tattoo does not necessarily make anyone a Dwayne Johnson-wannabe. Every tattoo has its own story and significance. They are a physical representation of the bearer’s life journey. Tatau-patterned tattoos are not mere art. They represent an ancient and evolving tradition that was almost lost when Christian missionaries arrived in the Pacific. These patterns may also represent an array of deities, beings and things but their very presence embodies the Pacific Islander communities’ endurance, turmoil, blood and sweat that is poured into protecting their cultural legacy and customs. Thus, being able to bear a tatau-patterned tattoo is not something I take for granted. It is important to understand and appreciate the meanings and legacy of the tataus that are given to us.

As aforementioned, commercialisation of tatau patterns is considerably common these days and some Pacific Islanders wonder if their tataus will lose their sacredness if they are tattooed on non-Islanders. However, I believe that this sacredness is considerably damaged when anyone (regardless of ethnicity) gets these patterns solely for aesthetic reasons, without making the conscious effort to understand the designs. Such ignorant behaviour is an insult to the people who fought endlessly in preserving their culture and to those who appreciate it. Nonetheless, I am non-Islander and I do not think I have the right to comment further but I do try my best to spread awareness about the conservation and revival of this art that is happening in certain parts of the Pacific.

Despite the stares I have been getting in Malaysia, having a tattoo is a surprisingly good conversation starter. I have been approached on multiple occasions where people asked me about my tattoos and without fail, I have always been asked, “why did you get it done?”. That was the golden question that allowed me to introduce Pacific culture and tatau to my fellow Malaysians. I have always been baffled by my fellow countrymen’s lack of knowledge regarding the Oceanic region but I constantly remind myself that I was exactly the same before I went to Fiji, which was when and where I learnt how to appreciate and love Pacific culture.

I have never considered any of my encounters with people asking about my tattoo a nuisance. In fact, I see it as an opportunity to share my experience, the significance of tatau patterns and Pacific culture. I will continue to share about the importance of preserving tatau culture and their significance partially as a responsibility of bearing tatau patterns but more so for my love of Pacific culture.

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