Travelling to and from my birthplace and the country that birthed my passion to express my cultural identity, I have, as a trained contemporary dancer and practicing cultural dancer, taken the role of tattooist. My name is Julia Mage’au Gray, I am of Mekeo, Papua New Guinea and Australian descent, residing in New Zealand.
The last five years have been dedicated to reviving a cultural practice that has come near extinction. The art of tattooing in Central Province, Papua New Guinea was primarily a woman’s practice and is the focus of a documentary I directed and edited in my role as Director of Sunameke Productions with three Papua New Guinean Australian women that make up the ‘Tep Tok’ crew. Travelling from Australia to Papua New Guinea and then further abroad to Samoa, Tahiti, Cook Islands and New Zealand, collecting stories, interviewing our old women that still wear our marks and also Polynesian tattooists, and with the ‘Tep Tok’ crew, discussed the issues that arose with each subsequent trip. This became a three part documentary titled ‘Tep Tok : Reading Between Our Lines’.
Each trip brought forth new issues to face; identity, validity and acceptance. Issues of the revival and the recreating of old marks that belong to families yet are desired and taken by outsiders. Leading to issues of protection of knowledge and how the marks bring empowerment to the wearer. Tackling issues that ultimately led me to understanding that the eradication of our marks took more away from our women than could be understood at the time of stopping the practice.
Without our tattoos upon our women’s skin, and the shifting of roles between men and women introduced by outside cultures (missionaries and more recently capitalism) served to strip our women both visually and physically. Our marks served as a visual reminder and statement for those around them to see and understand each woman's strength and power within her family and society. Marks, that afforded her respect and dignity. With the removal of the marks from a generation of women we now see the imbalance in the roles between men and women.
As a dancer and a tattooist, these two roles traditionally are visually interwoven and are connected intrinsically. My work as tattooist has been about reviving our marks for our women on their skin. This is a new day, I am not the same as the women from my past, I am not the same as the tattooists or the dancers. I am from them and to keep our cultural practices alive I understand that adaption to fit the way we live today is imperative to the survival of our tattoo practice.
The aim of Mage’au : Melanesian Marks is to revive and continue the practice of Melanesian tatu for both women and men