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Tattoo artist’s evolution marked by respect for Polynesian traditions

Note: Matt Crichton got his first tattoo as a Peace Corps volunteer in Western Samoa from 2007 to 2009. During his two years there he formed a connection to the land, people and culture so when he decided on another tattoo, he looked for one from Samoa. Matt found Tricia Allen while researching Polynesian tattoos and interviewed her by phone about her work.  This online version is longer than the version than appears in November 2019’s print edition.]

How did you get into tattooing and specifically Polynesian designs?

There is no short answer to that. My entrance in Pacific and African art came about when I was working at the Denver Art Museum in the Native Arts Department. The primary curator, Richard Conn, his area was Native American, so by default, Africa and the Pacific fell to me which was great! I got hooked on Pacific arts. Years later I moved to Hawai’i, to the big island. I spent two years on the big island in Kalapana in an area now covered with lava. I moved to O’ahu because there wasn’t enough to do or enough intellectual stimulation in Kalapana. I started grad school because it felt wrong for me to live here and not know more about the land and the archeology. There were a lot of old archeological features, like ancient walls and outdoor temples and such. I started off in art history, but they didn’t offer a degree that was specifically Pacific Arts. I saw a sign that said Pacific Island pre-history and asked if they would take me in.

Freshly inked tattoo with Samoan tribal designs. Tattoo by Mu’a at Paka Polynesian Tattoo in Kent, WA.

At the University of Hawai’i, anthropology and archeology are the same. You’re lumped together whether or not you are cultural anthropology, material cultural, or linguistics, archaeology, or physical archeology. They are all considered one. I didn’t want to do archaeology, dig and sort dirt all day and deal with bits of skeletal remains and pottery and such because I was used to big beautiful ethnographic art. Eventually, Marquesan tattoos—specifically the accuracy of the early documentation— became the topic of my thesis.

To misappropriate a Maori’s tattoo is akin to taking someone’s social security number and using it for commercial purposes.

After I finished my masters’ degree, I was giving a lecture on campus in a room with 150 people. I was on a lit podium so I couldn’t see anyone. I showed an image of Don Ed Hardy’s work. The cover of the Tattoo Times had a contemporary Samoan Japanese hybrid piece he had done. I realized Ed Hardy was in the audience, so I said, “Here, take the podium please, Mr. Hardy” and sat down. After the lecture Mr. Hardy asked if he could publish my pieces. I developed a friendship with him, and we had lunch every couple of months.

Then I took a volunteer position on an oceanography vessel that was mapping the sea floor spreading off of Rapa Nui or Easter Island. They were looking to train grad student volunteers.. They wanted somebody who knew the culture of Rapa Nui because they had been there eight times—the same team—and knew nothing about Rapa Nui’s history. I took the volunteer position which was for 40 days and 40 nights on a ship called the Melville. Herman Melville wrote Typee and Omoo both of which included passages about Marquesan tattooing.

[The Marquesas Islands are located in the middle of the Pacific and have a very unique culture and beautiful artistic traditions. It’s about a third of the way between Tahiti and Hawai’i]. I thought the name of the ship was appropriate and I liked the weird 40 days and 40 nights biblical association. My interest was really the tattoo revival happening on Tahiti, not Rapa Nui but it was a way for me to travel to do fieldwork which was something that otherwise I couldn’t afford.

I had contacts on Rapa Nui as I had been writing to five people on the island—this is before email. I sent them a list of every book/manuscript in our libraries–we have phenomenal libraries on the Pacific. I asked, “Do you have copies of these?” Three out five responded, and said they didn’t know because islanders are not allowed in the libraries on Rapa Nui. I didn’t believe it until I got there and was denied access. I was buying up every used copy of every book on Rapa Nui and photocopying thousands of pages of early material to bring back to the people on Rapa Nui because it’s their culture, it’s their history. It should be in their hands.

One day at lunch with Ed Hardy, I showed him some of the old tattoo illustrations. He said, “Wouldn’t it be cool to give them the real thing, instead of a photocopy?” I said sure, and he encouraged me to start tattooing. I really learned in order to take tattooing back to Rapa Nui. I wound up changing my project, staying there longer—five months. I spent three months on Tahiti on my way back. That was my introduction to traveling in the Pacific and tattooing. I’ve been tattooing ever since.

Why were you interested in doing Polynesian tattooing as opposed to other types?

I had no interest or attraction to tattooing whatsoever. None. When I worked for the art museum I would walk by an illustration of a heavily tattooed Marquesan and think, why in the world would anyone do that? Now I have two or three dozen friends who look like that. It wasn’t the tattoo per se, it was the whole cultural experience. Who does it? When is it done? What does it signify? What’s the methodology? Is there any ritual involved? What’s their apprenticeship program like? Who does this? It was those questions—the cultural context that I was primarily interested in. Looking at it as an art form—as any other work of cultural or indigenous art.

What is the longest amount of time a single tattoo has taken?

I’ve done a few full-body Marquesan suits. The first  took four months and we were working three days a week. It was a long haul.

Are there differences in meaning for tattoos in America vs tattoos in Polynesia?

Yes, that’s an interesting question. In America tattoos are usually a mark of individuality. A person gets a tattoo that speaks to their background, who they are, and things that have happened to them in their life. It’s a very individual sort of thing. In any indigenous culture, it’s exactly the opposite. It’s a mark of commitment and conformity to your culture. In America we would not think that tattoos were a mark of conformity, in fact they’re seen as exactly the opposite within traditional cultures.

What are three interesting things you learned doing Polynesian tattoos?

One question that comes to mind is —  what is a Polynesian tattoo? Is it strictly a tattoo put on an islander by an islander within their specific artistic heritage? Does it have to be done by an islander to qualify as an “authentic” tattoo? What is tradition? Today we’re under so many different influences and most people are of mixed race. I don’t think we can be bound by ancient traditions. We have to respect them. In most cases it’s somewhat inappropriate to wear something that you don’t have a definite connection or tie to. Why would someone get a Marquesan tattoo if they don’t even know where the Maquesas Islands are located?

I deal a lot with cultural appropriation. That’s a hot topic–stealing from other cultures and using it for commercial purposes. I’m dealing with an indigenous art form and living culture. Going about that in a conscientious respectful way is important. Polynesian cultures didn’t have a written language – it was an oral culture. When Europeans required signatures, often the Maori would draw their moko, their tattoo, as their signature. That’s unique to that individual, and you can tell their bloodline and a lot more by looking at their facial tattoo. To misappropriate that and put it on a t-shirt is pretty disrespectful. It’s like taking someone’s social security number and using it for commercial purposes. It would be different if a Maori group of lineal descent from that individual made use of a moko as part of a fundraiser. It’s inappropriate for outsiders to take traditional imagery, especially for commercial purposes—that’s cultural misappropriation.

Christianity tried to stamp out tattooing in Western Samoa. How was the practice kept alive?

There’s been a very good academic paper written on exactly that topic: how and why Christianity failed to stamp out the tattooing tradition. In Samoa and in many other places there was competition among missionaries for converts. All the different religions wanted people to convert. In Samoa, the Catholic Church realized that part of the reason people might not want to convert was because they were banning the tattoo. The Catholics allowed tattooing to continue which is partially why both Catholicism and tattooing survived and even thrived in Samoa. In many of the smaller islands, particularly the Polynesian outliers, tattooing continued but on a smaller scale. These are very remote islands that aren’t commonly visited by outsiders. There is not a heavy colonial presence and tattooing did continue.

If someone is interested in getting a tattoo can you suggest any resources they check out?

First I would tell them to read the FAQ on my website. That talks a lot about the meaning of tattoos, the process of selection, what designs might not be appropriate, and so on. They should give thought to what they want to represent; what’s important enough to mark their body. Take that to a competent tattooist who truly knows that particular artistic tradition. As far as accurate articles out there, there aren’t a lot. Most of the Polynesian dictionaries that are online are very contemporary and very commercial, and don’t always represent the actual history of the art.

Talk about some health hazards of being a tattoo artist that people might not be aware of.

Tattooing is extremely difficult, physical and  intense work. You’re dealing with a live canvas that can move. We are dealing with blood products for long periods of time and the risk of cross contamination. Hepatitis B and C, less so with HIV, but there is always a risk of disease transmission. Most tattooists eventually have nerve problems, severe carpal tunnel problems, oftentimes circulatory issues because we sit all day. Usually we sit cockeyed, in strange positions. I’ve had six lower back procedures, three neck procedures, multiple nerves blocked. I have constant sciatica and extreme carpal tunnel. I get cortisone shots in my hands before my big tattooing trips so I can work ten hours a day. I recommend to any young tattoo artist do yoga, stretch, work out every day, and don’t do long marathon sessions. It’s just not good for your body.

How do you see the future of tattooing?

I can describe what I’ve seen happen in recent years with tattooing. Over the last ten years, I’ve seen pan-Pacific hybrid tattoos. People take design elements from various Pacific cultures and mix them into these hybrid contemporary pieces. I think there is nothing wrong with that. But I have a problem with people misrepresenting what it is. If the artist is doing something that is fairly contemporary – Tahitian, for example – they shouldn’t tell the client this is, for example, ancient Samoan. No, it’s a contemporary hybrid piece. That’s problematic as it’s misrepresenting culture and history.

Partially that’s come about as a result of the many young tattoo artists who really don’t have a deep knowledge, who have not visited these cultures, or studied their traditions. They might not know what is Tongan versus Fijian versus Samoan. They are hybrid pieces, and that ultimately leads to a loss of knowledge of individual cultural traditions. As this continues over time, the youth may not even know what a traditional Tahitian tattoo or what is a Marquesan tattoo, and that’s problematic.

I’m not saying that we should stick to our own traditions necessarily, but we should recognize what they are and give that culture the credit for having created those designs, and not misidentify them as being something else.

Tricia Allen tattoos mainly in Hawaii and California, but also travels the Pacific and occasionally leads cultural tours through the islands. Sign up for her newsletter and read her FAQ to learn more at thepolynesiantattoo.com.

One Comment

  1. Mark Milinkovich February 12, 2020

    Tricia is an amazing tattoo artist with deep knowledge and respect for traditional ways.

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