Modern tattoos are an outlet for self-expression. A symbol of devotion toward a loved one or a hate group, an act of empowerment after a mastectomy, or a drunken mistake, tattoos speak to our sense of individuality. Though historically used to dehumanize Jewish people during the Holocaust, tattoos today are generally viewed as a permanent brand of free will.
In certain civilizations, however, body art functions as a link to one’s culture. Painfully carved into the flesh, the permanence and prominence of Samoan tatau is an enduring nexus between ancient and modern tradition. Tatau are physical manifestations of a person’s mana, their spiritual influence or life force. Similarly, despite their impermanence, Indian mehndi (henna tattoos) are culturally significant. A representation of the sun, mehndi is a Vedic custom meant to evoke the awakening of one’s inner light. Henna body art is an ancient medium known by many names within many cultures. Though commonly attributed to India, the art form has also been practiced throughout the Mediterranean, Africa and the Middle East for centuries. Despite minor variations in customary style, henna is frequently applied in Morocco, Israel, Turkey, Somalia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan.
Likewise, while tatau is a Polynesian tradition once practiced in Samoa, Hawaii, Tahiti, Tonga, Fiji, and the Cook Islands, it is now most commonly associated with Samoa alone. The practice declined throughout Polynesia in the 19th century as a result of the emergence of Western missionaries and their Christian beliefs. Tatau was completely eradicated from Tonga and has failed to reemerge, on the basis that the procedure is unsafe and unchristian. The people of the Samoa Islands were unique for their uninterrupted preservation of traditional tatau.
Excruciating, and dangerous for the risk of infection, the continued practice of the traditional tatau process is a testament to the significance of ritual. Some modern Samoans have turned to contemporary Western tattoo machines, though master tattoo artists argue that the resulting tattoos are not authentic. These artists, called tufuga tatatau, are responsible for determining the placement and design of traditional tatau. Samoans believe that patron gods bestow tufuga tatatau with their skills, and as such the artists are revered and well compensated. Tufuga tatatau use handmade tools constructed of animal bones, shells, and wood. Driven by short taps from a mallet called the sausau, the au works like an adze, to carve out patterns in the flesh. The au consists of serrated bone combs affixed to a small turtle shell, with a bamboo hilt.
All tatau are rites of passage, though some are of greater symbolic importance. Covering mid-torso to knees, and meant to represent bat wings enclosing the legs, the pe’a is the most extensive tatau. Men who complete the pe’a are henceforth referred to as soga’imiti, and are commended for their commitment to their extended family and heritage. Historically, this demonstration of courage was required of any man seeking the chief title, matai. While malu encircle women’s thighs, perhaps the most significant tatau for women is the lima. Performed on the hands, lima were necessary for any woman who wished to serve the ceremonial narcotic drink called kava.
Mamanu, or traditional patterns, are overwhelmingly geometric. The placement of a certain shape on the body can alter the design’s meaning. The tufuga tatatau who determine the outcome of the tattoo act as a guide, transitioning the tatau recipient from one stage of their life to the next. Tatau procedures are ceremonial events that can take upwards of three months to complete. Individuals are not tattooed alone; instead two or more people undergo the process at once.
Like traditional tatau, mehndi application is often a group event. Women from every generation of a family gather to adorn their hands and feet before holidays or major life events. One of the most popular applications is the Bridal Mehndi, performed before a wedding. Traditionally performed in the past by members of the Nai caste – an economically and educationally disadvantaged group considered an Other Backward Class by the Indian Government – modern mehndi artistry is a lucrative business for women of any social class.
Unlike tatau, the mehndi application itself can be completed in one session. However, both processes rely on curing, where there is an element of time involved. The tatau may take a year to heal and set properly, while the final color of a mehndi depends on a gradual oxidation over the course of one to three days. After being drawn on the skin from the tip of a cone, the design is washed in a mixture of lemon juice and sugar, and left to set. The henna itself is derived from a thick paste of mashed henna plant leaves. In fact, tatau and mehndi processes are both deeply rooted in nature. As previously mentioned, the tools a tufuga tatatau uses are all organic, and much like the natural henna leaves, tatau ink is a composite of soot from burned candlenut, sugar cane juice, coconut milk, and other plant-based liquids.
Tatau traditions have been passed down through legends, songs, and ritual ceremonies over the past 2,000 years. According to Samoan mythology, two sisters named Taema and Tilafaiga brought the art of tatau to Samoa after a visit to Fiji. Their original tools were made of human bones and their ink was human blood. Though the tatau is old, the henna tradition is perhaps thousands of years older. Hopefully, both traditions will endure long into the future.