KEEPING CULTURE: MELANESIAN TATTOO TRADITION
By Lily Iervasi
DISCLAIMER: My family is from Hanuabada, a Motuan village near Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. What I write is based on my own personal history, experience and knowledge. I do not speak for all people from the Pacific, nor all people from Papua New Guinea.
*Bubu is the Motuan word for grandmother/grandparent. It is understood across Papua New Guinea.
When most people think of the Pacific Islands, the first image that comes to mind is of a stereotypical Polynesian man. You think of footballers, bouncers and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. When you think of these men, it is not far off that you will think of their tattoos. You think of the intricate curves and symbols marking their legs, arms, and chest. You might think of facial tattoos, such as the kind that Maori wear.
But tattoo tradition in the Pacific extends beyond this. In many cultures, it is the women that get tattooed. Samoan women wear their malu alongside the men’s pe’a. Maori men and women can receive moko. In Melanesia, men do not often get tattooed. It is women who practice tattooing, and who pass the practice on to other women. Tattooing is an important and sacred tradition in the Pacific. The word ‘tattoo’ even finds its origins in the region — derived from tatau or tatu, attested in the writings of none other than Captain James Cook.
In the coastal and central regions of Papua New Guinea, girls were tattooed from childhood as they matured through to adulthood. This was done by traditional hand-tapping and poking techniques. Often a lemon thorn was used, though Papuans will work with what’s around them — a relative recalls seeing someone tattooed with a fish hook.
My Bubu received her first tattoo at the age of eight. As the girls got older, more tattoos were added. Generally, they were first done on the hands and forearms, then the upper arm. Next would be the lower body excluding the inner part of the thigh. This would be tattooed closer to puberty, along with the back, back of the thighs and lower leg. In Motu villages, girls’ faces would also be tattooed.
The designs and motifs of Melanesian tattoos were kept within the family. You couldn’t demand a particular pattern or placement — instead, it was the tattoo artist who would decide what was most appropriate. Traditionally, the person getting tattooed had no say in the practice. Today, it involves consultation, but the tattoo artist still advises on tattoo placement.
Tattooing was a secluded process, with only the tattoo artist and close women relations allowed to be present. Exceptions could be made — my oldest uncle recalls the late 1950s, being six or seven old and holding a half coconut shell filled with the dye substance for his Bubu while she tattooed young girls from the village.
Tattooing has been a long-standing tradition in Papua New Guinea. It started to decline and eventually disappear only in the last century, as a result of colonialism. Pointing at a photograph of her family where she is only a toddler, my Bubu will tell of how she was crying before the photo was taken. It was the first time she had seen a white person, and she was frightened of them. Throughout her upbringing and adolescence tattoo tradition was upheld with various consistency. By the time independence was gained from Australia in 1975, tattooing had dropped off completely.
Almost two generations have missed out on this tradition. Women felt ashamed of their marked bodies in the light of white standards. Instead of serving as a type of clothing in their own right, marks became covered. My Bubu has tattoos over her arms and legs. When she came to Australia, she covered her skin. She also stopped speaking her native language, Hiri Motu. My mother and aunts don’t have tattoos. Most of them were born in Australia and it was never something they considered.
A few years ago, I began looking into Papua New Guinean tattoo tradition. In early 2016, I saw a screening of a documentary by Julia Mage’au Gray from Sunameke Productions, titled “Tep Tok: Reading Between Our Lines”. It detailed how Julia’s determination to raise awareness of this dying tradition led to her becoming a tattoo artist. She went around the Pacific, learning traditional techniques such as hand-tapping and hand-poke, and finding women who were willing to reclaim their history and wear their Bubu’s marks. Since then, I knew that I wanted to be part of this movement.
This year, I met with Julia to get tattooed. She worked with pictures of my Bubu to make close copies of her marks. These were drawn onto my skin, and adjusted until it felt right. The tattooing began with an outline hand-poked over the stencil. Then, the hand-tapping began. This required the help of extra hands, someone to stretch the skin taut. My mother and sister both did this for me; and my mother and I did so for my sister. Just as in generations past women helped their family in the process, so too were we recreating this scene.
After three and a half hours my tattoos were finished. At least for now — I do feel this is just the start of the process.
For me, wearing my Bubu’s marks is a huge honour. I feel this especially when I think of her now. My Bubu has dementia. She no longer speaks English, only her native tongue which none of us understands. She no longer recognises most of the family. But I think of all the words of encouragement and support from my family and I know with no uncertainty that she is proud of me.
I am so humbled to have gone through this process of wearing revareva, and especially having my mum and sister with me. I am grateful for the work of Julia in reviving the practice and keeping our tradition alive. I feel strong, empowered. I now truly feel like a custodian of my family’s heritage and culture.
Note: This article was originally published on the 15 May 2018 in Woroni, the ANU student newspaper, as part of the Ehtnocultural Department’s autonomous section.
Lily is a 22-year-old Arts/Development Studies student at the ANU, Canberra, hailing from the sunny shores of Newcastle. Between ranting about language revival and linguistics in general, she can be found behind the scenes in various theatre productions.
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“I feel that so many female folk have the opportunity to rediscover their power through the art making process.”