Tatau: Marks of Polynesia explores the beauty of Samoan tattoos as well as the key role they play in the preservation and propagation of Samoan culture. Through photographs taken in the studio and on location in Samoa and elsewhere, Tatau showcases the work of traditional Samoan tattoo masters alongside that of younger practitioners working within and influenced by the tradition today. Through exhibitions like Tatau, JANM continues its work of promoting understanding of diverse cultures.
Samoa’s tatau, along with Japan’s irezumi, is one of the world’s most distinctive living tattoo traditions. An indigenous art form with a continuous history that dates back 2,000 years, tatau has played a pivotal role in the preservation and propagation of Samoan culture, surviving many attempts at eradication. In Samoa, tufuga tā tatau (master tattoo artists) are accorded high status in society, and acquiring tatau is considered a powerful affirmation of national identity, particularly for young men, for whom it is an important rite of passage. Tatau motifs and symbols are also being adapted by younger artists for new media and art forms. Both the traditional tattoo and its more contemporary manifestations have helped to create and affirm identity for new generations of Polynesians and others living outside of Samoa.
Among the artists featured in Tatau are Su‘a Sulu‘ape Alaiva‘a Petelo, Su‘a Sulu‘ape Peter, Su‘a Sulu‘ape Paul Jr., Su‘a Sulu‘ape Aisea Toetu‘u, Sulu‘ape Steve Looney, Tuigamala Andy Tauafiafi, Mike Fatutoa, and Sulu‘ape Si‘i Liufau. An important focus of the exhibition is the influential Sulu‘ape family and their disciples; the legendary Petelo Sulu‘ape and his deceased brother Paulo are credited with spurring the resurgence of Samoan tattoos worldwide. Additional photographs taken in New Zealand, Hawai‘i, California, and Nevada demonstrate the spread of the art form outside of Samoa and some of its newer interpretations.
Tatau is curated by Takahiro “Ryudaibori” Kitamura, the master tattoo artist and author who previously curated the exhibition Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World, which originated at JANM in 2014 and is currently traveling. Kitamura is collaborating with John Agcaoili, photographer; Sulu‘ape Steve Looney and Danielle Steffany-Looney of Pacific Soul Tattoo in Hawai‘i; Sean Mallon, author and Senior Curator of Pacific Cultures at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa; and Sulu‘ape Si‘i Liufau of A-Town Tattoo. Tatau is accompanied by a full-color catalog.
Tatau: Marks of Polynesia was on display at the Japanese American National Museum July 30, 2016–January 22, 2017. Below are sponsors of JANM’s presentation of the exhibition.
Patron Sponsor: Su‘a Sulu‘ape Freewind
Associate Sponsor: ROXX 2Spirit Tattoo