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Talking with Ema Tavola

A conversation between Julia Mage’au Gray and Ema Tavola

Papatoetoe, Auckland (January 2018) penned by Ema Tavola.

- originally published in the first edition of Mana Pacific Magazine

How did you become a tattoo practitioner?

As Artistic Director of Sunameke Productions I created the documentary, Tep Tok: Reading Between Our Lines featuring four Papua New Guinea Australian women including myself. As part of that, it was really clear that I had to pick up the tools. It was actually the Samoan Tufuga ‘Sulu’ape’ who said, ‘there’s only one way to bring it back, and that’s to pick up the tools.’

I realise now that as dancer it was natural that I take on this role of marking skin. You can’t have dance without the marks, because they go together. In Melanesian cultures, what you wore told everyone who you were… it was part of the language that identified you.

I didn’t want to pick up the tools at all, at first. It stopped me dancing for three or four years; I stopped making dance work and started the process of learning how to mark skin. Only last year when I started Melanesian Marks, did I fully accept my new role. Today, I am a Melanesian woman making marks using the Hand Poke and Hand Tap tattoo method.

What is the process of marking?

You have to ask people questions, and ask them to share as honestly as they can. I look at their body, and the body never lies – the mouth does, but the body doesn’t. I look at them, and I see where the blocks are, and I see where I can be of help. That’s part of the initial consultation. Often the design changes when it’s time to mark them, because as soon as the needle hits the skin, the truth comes out, if there’s any resistance. If there’s anything that needs to be spoken about, your skin changes in how it reacts to the needle and ink.

The design comes after the consult, it shifts and changes. I never draw on to paper, it’s always directly onto skin. In fact, I draw on myself because then I can see, while they’re talking, so I get an idea of how it should fit.

The designs are based on your cultural background. If you’re Papua New Guinean, and you have familial designs, I work with those. If you don’t have familial designs I work from designs based on the area you are connected to. If you’re Fijian, I give you a choice – one is to reconstruct the veiqia – as in, what was worn by women in the past, and the other is to work with the weniqia, which are the patterns and motifs.

Do you only tattoo women?

I don’t. I mark everyone who wants to accept the gift. Today is different from the past. In the past, it was a women’s practice, where it was women marking women – most of the time, it was the older women in your family that chose your marks.

Is it different tattooing women to tattooing men?

It’s so different! Most Melanesian cultures have rules about the space between men and women. When a man tattoos a woman, the energy is very different to a woman marking a woman.

So, when I mark a man, there are always women present. Because it was a woman’s practice, and now ‘tattooing’ is a men’s domain, it’s actually really humbling for a man to be marked by a woman, and I have immense respect for those that choose to work with me. For them to allow me to choose what and where, it says a lot about where they stand in relation to women, and the women in their life. It’s respect, it shows respect. Interestingly I’ve marked more Fijian men than Papua New Guinean men.

There seems to be a lot more awareness of Melanesian tattoo in recent years, and you’ve had a big role in its revival, what’s the cultural value of what you’re doing?

It’s empowering our women, our men, our disconnected and connected diaspora. It’s giving us our physical, visual language back. And it’s completely and totally unique to that person and their family and journey. Nothing is ever repeated identically because everyone is different.

It’s about energy. For us, in a Western sense you might call it sorcery. But we’re talking about working with the energy between people. Each person has a different flow, so you help find ways to make them strong or help them transition.

I think a lot has been lost in the actual practice, because now what people see and want is the end result, so everyone takes the designs of their Bubus and puts it on their skin and they’re happy with that, but what people don’t understand is that it’s not only about the end result, it’s about the process. When you start being marked as a child, it talks about transitions in your life. So, each marking is a different story relating to different parts of your life at that time. So, it’s transitions – that’s what I do, I mark transitions.

Even if you’re reworking your old designs, you’re a different person, and I’m a different ‘tattooist’, so it can’t be exactly the same. Culture shifts and changes with time. Old to new old.

Your disclaimer on Instagram says, Potential Takers: please don’t copy these designs, they are culturally significant, they belong to the wearer and their family. What has been your experience with regards to copying and appropriation?

It’s like having a clothes line in your backyard, and someone likes your clothes hanging on it, so they just come and take it. That’s called stealing. I like it, I want it, I’ll take it. I was taught by my Mekeo family that we weren’t and aren’t allowed to do that, because our designs belong to families, so when you take another family’s designs, you have to pay for that. It’s a serious thing, even in Papua New Guinea today, you bring shame to your family. They’ll rip off your grass skirts, they’ll come after you. You eventually pay the price!

I’ve now accepted that many people are inspired by the work that has come from reviving Melanesian marks. And this work is often beautiful, though the question I have for the tattoo community is, ‘do you wear our marks for their aesthetic beauty as an individual, or do you wear our marks as an individual connecting to our people and place?’ There is no wrong answer, it’s just important that you know that your marks are either a personal mark or marks that are part of a collective movement that further the empowerment of our Melanesian cultures. Do you take or do you ask?

For me, true revival comes when the marks are worn in a way that connects the genetic narrative that people carry in their bodies, in their cell structure.

Melanesian marks are not about an individual connecting to the moment, it’s about connecting to all the people in the past; for us, it’s reviving a collective sensibility. And then, it’s about the next generation, because your marks get passed on to your children.

Who comes to you to get marked?

All manner of people from many different backgrounds. Though I’ve found that people who come to me to be marked are people who have learned to be honest with themselves. And they’re ready to talk, and they’re ready for change. They’re willing to let go, and go through the process together.

For Melanesian women, they’re ready to embrace their bodies. Years and years of missionary and church influence means we’ve been taught to fear our bodies, and cover up. When they come to me they’re ready to start taking those steps of embracing their bodies, and not being so afraid of them.

These marks are about healing, and moving forward. In my own practice, it has become about that. It wouldn’t surprise me if marking was about healing in the past. Our bodies, our skin, were our story boards.

What does the future hold, what’s in store for you in 2018?

It’s about stepping up, and continuing the work, to keep growing it. Because you’re opening your creative studio space in Suva, that’s where I’ll be when I visit Fiji at some point this year! And then hopefully Tahiti in September for the Festival Tatau i Moorea, a huge gathering of traditional tattoo practitioners from around the world.

Ema Tavola is visual arts curator who has worked in Auckland New Zealand for 16 years; she is returning home to Fiji in 2018 to open a creative studio space in Suva.

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