So many things in life are fleeting. I guess that’s one reason why people gravitate towards tattoos. But in ancient Polynesia, tattoos represented rites of passage for the men and women who wore them. Known as “tatau” in Samoan and Tahitian and “kakau” in Hawaiian, many Polynesian languages describe the art in a similar way. When missionaries arrived in the late 1800s, they nearly stamped out the practice.
The old ways of carving wild boar teeth into combs called au that were filed down by lava rock, attaching the au to tortoise shells and lashing them to a stick may have been lost, but the Samoans’ tufuga ta tatau (masters) are known for continuing the practice even after Western influence. Intricate Samoan pe‘a, a body piece from the waist to knees, were applied only by ritual and bone, wood, tusks and turtle shell.
Samoan master tattooists have grown their influence over the past 20 years, with the Sulu‘ape family sharing their art and style at international conventions around the world. Sua Sulu‘ape Paulo II trained master tattooist Pili Mo‘o, who continues to travel and tattoo in the ancient style–what’s locally known as “hand tap.” When Paulo II passed away, Chief Sua Sulu‘ape Alaiva‘a Petelo named Pili, the last protege of Paulo, a master in his own right with the title of tufuga.
Pili Mo‘o says he made a promise to Paulo II, as it was his vision to see the art of tatau travel across borders. It was controversial in the 1990s that the Samoans would share the pe‘a outside of their culture, but the interest of other influential artists like Ed Hardy and invitations to conventions continued to showcase the beauty and significance of these artists.
The name Pili Mo‘o translates as “Samoan Lizard,” and the mo‘o is a sacred entity in West Maui. Mo‘o believes there’s a lot of faith and trust involved in the tatau, and credits his clients for also perpetuating the tradition. Pili Mo‘o is versed in Tahitian, Samoan, Marquesan and Maori.
He will share his tattoo artwork at Blue Hawaii July 1-15. For more information, visit Tataubymoo.com or email email@example.com.