Carrying Culture

Sharing the words of Moale James

This year while on a family trip to PNG I received the opportunity to carry the permanent markings of my ancestry from my village, Gaba Gaba back to Australia.

For me it wasn’t just that I was tattooed with my first Reva Reva on the 21ST July. What made it so significant was the fact that I was tattooed traditionally, by a woman, in my own village, surrounded by the women of my family. The first in 3 generations to receive this honor.

My mum is Ranu and as her daughter I’ve followed the Tep Tok journey since it’s beginning. I’ve had the privilege of following my ‘other Mothers’ to New Zealand and around Queensland while they tattoo other ‘Nesian’ women. I’ve sat at the table with them and listen to them talking, laughing and crying as they search for clues, pour over photos, listen to hours of interviews and try to discover the significance and stories of our Bubu’s tattoos.

I have always found the Tep Tok journey incredibly inspiring, especially the moments when women there to be tattooed come, with their stories bringing their own clues to discovering and explaining the tattoos of their family.

I have sat and watched as Auntie Julia finishes tattooing a woman, we all sit quietly until the newly tattooed woman bursts into tears. Cries ‘I wish my Bubu was here to see this’ and I have struggled to fully appreciated or understood why the women cried as their tattoos were completed. Now that I have joined these women I am starting to understand that there are many reasons for these tears.

A milestone in my own tattoo journey was when Auntie Julia arrived in our village with her Mum, her Daughter (Vasa – Tattoo Apprentice), her Son (Keama), and other family members.

The women from my family gathered later that night to talk about what tattoo I would be getting the next day. As I sat quietly listening to my Aunties, Bubu’s and Mum discussing my Gatana’s (great grandmothers) tattoos and what my design would be, I wondered – What would my Gatana have been doing as she was preparing to be tattooed? Would it be similar to this? – The Women elders of her family sitting on the verandah in the night with cups of tea, laughing, talking and crying?

I understood that with this being my first tattoo I wouldn’t get to ‘choose’ my design, the women would choose for me – I was quite happy with that, but I kept asking myself – What if I didn’t like it? Is it too late to back out? Then I realised how ridiculous I was being. These women know what is right for me, they know my story and the tattoo they pick for me will be perfect. I didn’t need to be afraid.

Auntie Julia sat quietly listening to the numerous conversations until she silenced everyone and said, “We’re all thinking of the wrong design. This is one, this is the one. This is what she is having.” She pointed to the ’toto’ markings on my Gatana’s back – for us the story of these dots is not clear but from what we’ve read we think the dots represent the stars that the men used when navigating the oceans on the hiri voyage. And just like that the decision was made. I listened to the ‘Oh’s and Ah’s as they all nodded their heads in agreement’. I was sent to bed, ready for the following day.

The following day I was full of excitement more than nerves and as I prepared myself I couldn’t help thinking – This is it. After years of pleading with my parents to let me get a tattoo, in twenty minutes this is actually going to happen.

I didn’t quite understand the significance of this tattoo until Auntie Julia had finished. I am privileged to have been tattooed by Auntie Julia and the upcoming tattooist – Vasa. As the tattoo was finished I sat quietly staring at the ground while family women surrounded me staring, laughing and smiling. I was in shock, I couldn’t speak – I didn’t know what to say, and just like the women who had been tattooed before me, the tears began to fall down my face. To explain why would be too difficult. This was significant. We were all crying and for so many reasons. I, Moale James the first in my generation to be traditionally tattooed in my village after three generations. Maybe that was why I cried? Perhaps my mother cried because her first born had chosen to carry on this tradition. Perhaps my Bubu cried because I had moved to a new milestone in my life.

The Reva Reva on my body is significant it gives me an opportunity to stay connected with my Gatana, Bubu, my mother and my Papuan culture. And I thank my ‘other mothers’ and my family for that opportunity.

It’s difficult as a White-Papuan-Australian to be recognized as Papuan, not only in Australia but PNG as well. Although my name is a give-away those who don’t know my name, my story or history, find it difficult to ‘connect’ and ‘explain’ my ‘Papuan-ness’. These tattoos are not on my body for those people who can’t understand how I am Papuan. These tattoos are on my body to carry and express my Papuan heritage, to connect with my Bubu’s – to have that small piece of Bubu and her story on my body, to be able to carry this down to my children. I’m only young but this is important to me my children will be recognised as Papua New Guinean, and I want them to see my tattoos and know that they are Papuan, that their ‘Papuan-ness’ is not defined by the colour of their skin, but by their family lineage, by their Bubu’s story, by their tattoos. To explain my feelings and experience at this time is very difficult, but I am honored to carry these tattoos, to carry this culture and story and be apart of this practice.

Please note this article was written for the Tep Tok production. I encourage all readers to view the Tep Tok documentary and it can be found through the link below:

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