- Originally posted as 'The Hidden Wharenui in Fitzroy' on teptok.com, April 2015.
In 2015, The Contemporary Pacific Arts Festival had flown me (Julia) to Melbourne to tatu (tattoo) and represent our Tep Tok movement. Due to a lack of organisation on their part I then found myself excluded by the festival itself but with some lucky last minute manoeuvrings by the CPAF staff, I was exceptionally fortunate to be hosted by Clyde at Tatt Datt Tattoo. So began a full three days of back to back marking of Melanesian Tatu using the Hand Poke Method.
The first day left me elated. Clyde (of Maori heritage), ever supportive allowed his studio to be filled with strong loud Pasifiks women. As is my process before I mark someone; I look at the body as a whole and as our women did before us, choose where and what to be marked on the body. Normally women bring their familial designs. It's a collaborative process where we talk and decide together; today’s world is highly focused on the 'I' as opposed to our old Pasifika way, which focused on the 'we'. Clyde's studio felt like a safe zone where the ladies to be marked and myself could have these discussions. Tatt Datt Tattoo studio felt like a Wharenui (maori meeting house), hidden in plain sight in the middle of Fitzroy.
Marking Grace on the first day with her aunties’ revareva (tatu) was moving for both Grace and I. Marks she had been waiting for since she was twelve. Dulcie of Fijian heritage shared sketches of Fijian women’s markings from the year 1870. We recreated the marks upon her skin. A truly humbling experience to share with Dulcie. It was an honour.
Needless to say I was looking forward to the next day. The first lady to be marked was not of Pasifika descent and was not someone I had known previously. The issue of marking people of non-pasifika heritage, I do not have a problem with, as the designs used are contemporary and not owned by any families and come straight from my creativity. I believe in respecting 'Intellectual Property'.
Personally, my arts practice as Director of Sunameke Productions has been centered on our motto, "From Old to New Old; that’s how we go forward".
Being of Mekeo heritage the understanding of designs belonging to particular clans and the consequences of using designs not belonging to you was made very clear to me as a child. I've been told that in the past this was a transgression often resulting in humiliation or death. So learning to rework and recreate old designs, dances, traditional dress and song has become a much-developed skill over the years.
The second day with Clyde at Tatt Datt Tattoo proved to present me with one of the most challenging moments I've had in a long time. The lady that I was to mark was young, beautiful and covered with many varied tatus. She professed her love of traditional tatu and had made the trip to the Kalinga province in the Philippines to meet Whang Od and was subsequently marked by her daughter.
As she circled revealing her tatus to me trustingly, I was confronted by a woman wearing a design long lost by my own people. I was looking at a taker of something we (Mekeo people) haven’t had the opportunity to truly claim back yet and already, it was upon skin that was not ours. I was looking at a taker who wanted to keep on taking. In the heat of disbelief I negatively judged and saw a young woman lost in her dislike of self, hoping to find some salvation in marking herself with something she thought was beautiful. The tatu on her back was an exact replica of a design that she found in an article about Papuan Tatu. A design called Mage'au, it is a frigate bird. My name is Mage'au.
The anger I was feeling was FULL. Knowing, she was merely a product of our society I reminded myself that undirected anger wouldn't get me or us as a people anywhere. Clyde in his quietly supportive way sent me a look of solidarity. I circled around, sitting down, standing up, circling again, and then sitting back down with her. There was no laughter as with the previous day. The aftermath of having to suck in my anger and educate her while simultaneously wanting to attack her is another story.
So I sat there holding her hand and holding my temper, talking to her about the ramifications of her actions. My opinion of her formed as a woman so young, so beautiful and so lost. I silenced my judgmental criticism; I chose to mark her hoping to turn a negative into a positive.
While I prepared the tools I couldn't help but think that she was wearing my family and me all across her back. Almost the same mark that I am wearing across my back. In that moment I was so thankful for Tihoti (my friend and Tahitian tatuist) and his wisdom to not tatu exactly what was in that photo found in a document accessible by many, across my back.
I marked her, telling her it could serve as a reminder to slow down, a reminder to create relationships like the one we were creating that day.
It is the only markings that I have ever done where the ink has fallen out so badly. Tūpuna (ancestors) in action? More than likely and the fact that my heart was not in it. It had shattered the moment I lay my eyes upon a mark that connected me to something I thought was long gone.
Two weeks passed, and upon reading a blog sent by Nata (Tep Tok) about a young woman wearing Papuan Tatu in Henna and taking on an alter ego called Grace from Hula, my emotions violently erupted. I felt anger, frustration and a deep sadness. It wasn't directed at the woman who unknowingly marked my name across her back and then asked me to mark her. It wasn't at alter ego Grace from Hula.
It is anger at an accepted attitude of 'I like it, I want it, and I’ll take it'. An attitude steeped in a history of our Pasifika people losing land, language, culture and life. A history that is being consistently repeated. How much more will be taken from us?
My time in Melbourne was aimed at sharing and growing our Melanesian tatu revival movement. The four walls of Tatt Datt Tattoo studio bore witness to us breathing life into old Melanesian tatu practices and designs; learning new ways to keep the mana (spiritual power) and the relationships strong whilst dealing with money, being confronted with issues of 'Intellectual Property' in the most personal of ways, and lastly it bore witness to a group of Pasifika cultural practitioners developing relationships and sharing experiences between the given names of two of our divided regions, Melanesia and Polynesia.
What was meant to be an exposé of our Tep Tok journey with fellow Pasifika artists and community at the CPAF ended up being an intense and richly rewarding experience with the amazing whānau (family) at Tatt Datt Tattoo Studio in Fitzroy.
It would have been great to be given the chance to share our experiences and journey at CPAF.
A missed opportunity. Regardless, my time in Melbourne confirmed that the journey that the Tep Tok ladies have set out on is the right action at the right time.