Once banned by Christian missionaries as a barbaric, heathen custom, traditional tattooing is making a comeback in the Cook Islands as locals in the Pacific nation reconnect with their cultural roots.
Body art was common in South Pacific nations such as the Cooks, Tonga, Tahiti and Samoa before missionaries arrived in the 19th Century — so much so that the English word tattoo is derived from the Polynesian terms "tatau" and "tatatau".
Applied with bone or shell chisels, tattoos were a rite of passage for Polynesian men and paintings from the early days of European contact show muscular warriors with elaborate designs covering much of their bodies.
"If you were out in a waka (canoe) and came across another boat, you could tell from their tattoos where those guys came from," said Luther Berg, who runs a tattoo studio at the back of Boogies Bar in the capital Avarua. "You could identify whether they were from Tonga or wherever. More specifically, if you were among that group, you could tell which island they came from, right down to their family line and genealogy," he told AFP.
Su'a Paul Sulu'ape, who is descended from a line of master Samoan tattooists, visited the Wellington City Gallery in New Zealand in September to demonstrate the ancient techniques.
Punished for tattooing
Author Therese Mangos, whose history of Cook Islands tattooing "Patterns of the Past" was published last year, said missionaries took Biblical warnings against marking the body literally, and zealously set about banning tattoos.
In the Cook Islands, anyone who received a tattoo was fined or given punishment work details under rules imposed by church authorities, Mangos said.
Croc Coulter, one of the few tattooists in the island nation now practising the traditional technique, said that while some designs had been lost forever, others survived through carving, weaving and tapa (bark cloth art).
It’s a language
Coulter said body art was a type of language in Polynesia and tattooists underwent a lengthy apprenticeship before being considered worthy of working on traditional designs with a chisel and club.
He said the growing popularity of Polynesian designs among Westerners had led to concerns about tattooists in Europe stealing artwork they had seen on the Internet simply for its aesthetic appeal, with no regard for its cultural meaning. Not all efforts to suppress tattooing were successful, the practice remains strong among New Zealand Maor.
Tatooist Sulu'ape said he believes the missionaries opposed tattooing because it is a bloody, painful process when performed with customary tools, but said it was such an integral part of Samoan culture that the church was unable to stop it there.AFP