My time at the ‘Traditional Tattoo and World Culture Festival’ in Mallorca was an eye opener for me into the ‘tattoo world’. My world of marking is centred in giving voice to our women, youth and men through our Melanesian marks, a visual statement of who we are and how we connect to our people and place. How I see the ‘tattoo world' is very much akin to ‘stamp collecting’. Various people wearing a collection of beautiful marks celebrating a freedom to express themselves through the ‘tattoos’ on their skin. In quoting Michael Lothian, this is my understanding of the world of tattooing today.
‘It’s that problem, that education, that need for information to be shared but if you don’t have the traditional custodians having control over some of these images and designs, it’s gonna lose its context therefore its gonna lose its meaning and it will just become a patchwork quilt on people that don’t link them to their past it just pronounces their present. It’s a projection or persona of their individuality or their personality and its all within their own morality and traditional tattoo is never understood in those terms.
- Michael Lothian, Independent Tattoo Historian,
interview for the Tep Tok documentary, 2012
Today's tattoo culture as 'stamp collecting' is a term I've used that doesn't pay true tribute to the breathtaking art on skin that filled the grounds of the festival. Though it is the 'stamp collecting' or the 'patchwork quilt' approach I have come to terms with accepting as being very different to my approach to marking. Speaking to Samoan Traditional Tattooist, Tufuga Lawrence Ah Ching about the anger and frustration I felt upon hearing casual remarks made about renaming ‘Polynesian tattoo’ by another name to allow the use and control of tattoo designs for people not of Polynesian heritage, was a conversation that left me with total respect for his approach and understanding of what it is to ‘tattoo’ today as a Tufuga. His words ended with the advice to accept the situation and to lead by example.
Anger and frustration against something you can’t change is futile. The Melanesian, Micronesian and Polynesian marks born from our old peoples' thinking, which were once discouraged, stopped and taken away from us are now marks that are popular within the ‘tattoo world'.
After my experiences at Mallorca and seeing so many beautifully tattoo, wear and carry our patterns, I recognised that I felt the same way when wandering through a gallery or museum exhibit full of our long ago taken artefacts. Breathtaking, amazing and so moving to see but feeling sorrow for the objects that are no longer in context, lost to their purpose of creation.
In Central Province cultures in Papua New Guinea, our marks were not only a visual statement of strength and familial connection, they were also about the transition from young girl to woman. This woman's practice involved the elders of the family choosing what marks were appropriate for the young girl. In no way would the young girl be directing the choices of what was to be marked upon her skin as an individual. Her marks would reflect her place as an individual within her family and society.
The approach I take in marking is to talk to the individual, learn about their stories, read their bodies and after intense consultation choose the marks and the placement of them, as a mark of transition from one phase to the next.
This approach for myself, as one of the many custodians of our old peoples' thinking, helps me to stay true to what was. It is a way for myself personally to bring old knowledge forward to fit today's context. In saying that, I continue to educate myself learning as much as I can about our marks across our central province cultures, doing my best to not misuse patterns, only marking with what I have been given permission to use, and reworking patterns that I understand. In explaining my approach I heed the advice from Lawrence to lead by example as a positive course of action.
So I now stand at this point asking those in the ‘tattoo world’;
‘Do you wear our marks for their aesthetic beauty?
‘Do you wear our marks as a connection to our people / place’?
There is no wrong answer.
However, there must be an acceptance on an individual level of how one chooses to continue to use and or wear the marks that come from our old peoples' thinking.
To wear our marks for their beauty alone, there needs to be an acceptance that your visual statement speaks to us (the custodians) of marks, that hold individual relevance to you as part of your expression of self. To wear our marks as connection to place and people, through dialogue and accountability with the custodians, makes a visual statement of your part in adding to our peoples' language of connection and familial heritage.
This is a new day, all around the globe Indigenous people are taking up their old cultural arts practices, reviving and breathing life into what has been sleeping. The Traditional Tattoo and World Culture Festival itself was a testimonial to this resurgence. This is a new day, and with it rises the choice for the individual to be accountable or not. It is an individual choice.
It was indeed an incredible experience to be surrounded by some of the ‘tattoo’ greats from all over the world, profound lessons learnt and amazing connections made. My deepest thanks to Phil and Joanna Antahkarana for the opportunity to participate and represent Melanesia at the Traditional Tattoo and World Culture Festival, 2017 in Mallorca.