13 Dec 2015

Tapping into the Past

From Spectrum, 12:15 pm on 13 December 2015

By Daniela Maoate-Cox

Hands in black pull the skin tight as fine bone points pierce it with ink.

A breeze rustles through the thatched roof and a rooster’s crow floats over the riddims of Bob Marley and the tapping of tatau tools.

"Bob Marley, Salmonella dub or Tiki, those three. It’s just got a good vibe to it,” says the man under the hammer, Thomas Tarurongo Wynne.

“Bob and tatau were made for each other,” tatau artist Croc chips in.

Croc moves the ‘ui tatau, a comb-like chisel, up the back of Thomas’ right leg, matching the markings on his left.

It’s a sensitive spot and the full work, which draws upon traditional Cook Island designs, will require a few more sessions to finish.

While there are many who believe tatau belongs to Samoa and is not a part of Cook Islands culture, Thomas disagrees.

Through his job as head of guidance at a local Rarotongan high school, he discovered that a strong sense of identity is created through knowing about history.

And through exploring the Cook Islands’ history of tatau, he says he found that it had been eradicated by the missionaries who deemed it to be a pagan practice. 

“Interestingly people here say 'it’s not in our culture, we don’t tattoo', or 'we didn’t tattoo', or 'if you want to receive a tattoo then that’s not being Maori'.

"Which I find interesting because our very close cousins in New Zealand, Aotearoa, are tattooed.”

The renaissance of Cook Islands tatau is linked back to two events in the early 1990s. One is the teaching of the technique by a Samoan tufuga ta tatau, or master tattooist, Sua Sulu’ape Paulo II who felt tatau should be given back to other Pacific nations.

The other is the 1992 Pacific Arts Festival held in the Cook Islands.

“That really was our awakening around the fact that yes, we can receive tattoo”, Thomas says.

“Now it’s just making the connection to culturally and ancestrally what’s ours, which is tatau. It’s not the machine of course, it’s using traditional tools and traditional methods to receive the tattoo.”

"The idea starts with a question and the question is, what is a Cook Islands Tattoo?" Thomas Tarurongo Wynne receives tatau. Nov 2015

"The idea starts with a question and the question is, what is a Cook Islands Tattoo?" Thomas Tarurongo Wynne receives tatau. Photo: RNZ/Daniela Maoate-Cox

Croc is one of those practicing the traditional method. He’s an Englishman who learned the craft from Moko Ink’s, Inia Taylor, in New Zealand, who in turn learned from Sulu’ape.

“I see it in Europe a lot, tattoo is in its form which is awesome,” he says. “But it’s also out of control, you’ve got young people running around there that have just their hands, or their neck or face tattooed. Sounds odd coming from me but I find it shocking”.

So Croc is practicing his skill in the Cook Islands where the revival is in its early steps and he can help restore what was lost.