1 Oct 2018

Council reviews rules on Samoa traditional tattooing

From Here Now, 7:00 am on 1 October 2018
Li‘aifaiva Imo Levi liaifaiva, 2016-17.

Li‘aifaiva Imo Levi liaifaiva, 2016-17. Photo: Supplied

The biggest Polynesian city in the world is considering how best to regulate the centuries old cultural practice of Samoan traditional tattooing, which is still seeing a resurgence.

Auckland City Council is reviewing the migrant practice of traditional tattoo, with Samoan Tatau in the spotlight.

Well over half of the Samoan population in New Zealand reside in the urban Auckland area, and mostly in South Auckland.

Currently people who provide any tattoo service need to be licensed by Auckland Council, and comply with minimum standards in the Health and Hygiene Bylaw 2013, to ensure appropriate hygiene and good health practices are in place.

However the current bylaw currently does not acknowledge that there is a difference between a cultural tattoo (Samoan Tatau) as opposed to a commercial one.

In order to review it, the council asked several questions at a community meeting in Māngere.

Should traditional Samoan Tatau continue to be licensed? Should the practice of Tatau continue to comply with minimum standards? And is proposed new wording in the bylaw more culturally appropriate?

Avondale Road, Avondale, Auckland in 2005. From left: Lui Betham Pasina Betham Su‘a Tavui Pasina Iosefo Ah Ken Fune Betham unidentified and Gus Bet.

Avondale Road, Avondale, Auckland in 2005. From left: Lui Betham Pasina Betham Su‘a Tavui Pasina Iosefo Ah Ken Fune Betham unidentified and Gus Bet. Photo: Supplied

Auckland Councillor Linda Cooper (Waitākere Ward) is the Regulatory Committee chair. She points to an instance of someone in Auckland dying while receiving a Tatau.

The person is possibly Aucklander James Leota-Tui who died in 2002 from a blood infection reportedly due to poor hygiene standards while trying to complete his Tatau and his death highlighted gaps in the bylaw.

Linda said they just wanted to make sure that when people were going to do these things that there were minimum safeguards against infections.

"We don't want infections passed from one person to another."

Community views were mixed at the South Auckland meeting facilitated by Alaelua Leasoiloaifaleupolu Taulapapa Malesala, who already has his pe'a.

He believed the bylaw was a good thing as it was about the health and well-being of Samoans, and said most practitioners - known as tufuga - supported the council's move.

"For them, it will weed out any cowboys, so to speak," he said.

"So of course, for any licence you obviously need to have training - and so in this situation it'll be training around safety and all the risks that might be involved."

But there were some people who believed the council should not be regulating a centuries-old sacred practice that is part of a cultural tradition.

Others said the annual licensing fee, at a cost of $386, was just a revenue-gathering exercise by the council.

A key difference for Samoa tatau is that it is often done in residential homes, and many tufuga who perform it actually travel from Samoa to do it in New Zealand before flying home again.

The council has temporary premises permits for up to 5 days. But often this traditional tattoo takes more than a week, due to cultural rituals and preparations, as well as intricate patterns, designs and size.

Alaelua said more thought was needed as to how the bylaw could actually be enforced by the community.

"Having it licensed and then having a programme, so to speak, where all the tufuga that want to practice - can go and have some foundation or something to align their practice with - to ensure that our community are safe. But also safeguarding and safekeeping themselves as well. "

Alaelua Leasoiloaifaleupolu Taulapapa Malesala holds a copy of the new Tatau: A History of Samoan Tattooing book.

Alaelua Leasoiloaifaleupolu Taulapapa Malesala holds a copy of the new Tatau: A History of Samoan Tattooing book. Photo: RNZ / Sara Vui-Talitu

The Samoan tatau has already changed somewhat with the times. Some practitioners believe only traditional tools should be used, while others are more relaxed.

"The tufuga ta tatau has done away with the boar tooth and now using needles," Alaelua said. "But if we are going to do that then we may as well do the licence thing and everything else."

He said Samoans are often guided by the sayings of forefathers.

"E tūmau le fa’avae ae sui le faiga. The way we practice evolves, but the foundation remains the same." 

When fatalities do occur, either in Samoa or here in Auckland, Alaelua looks to the past.

"When things like that happen, you know you can't help but hear that saying of the old people. The beliefs of our ancient forefathers still exist today, which is the reason why we are always careful with what we do, and what we say, and how we behave."

Tattoo artist Inia Taylor said the traditional tattoo practice for Māori, Tā Moko, is actually exempt from council bylaw when done on a marae.

"I don't know any Māori doing this tradition who pay the council money to be licensed," he said. 

Inia runs his small studio in Woodhill, and his specialty is Polynesian tattooing.

He learned the art under the late Su'a Paulo Suluape II, the famous Samoan tufuga who many people considered a master.

There are two main types of tatau - the pe'a for men and the malu for women.

"All cultural tattoos should be treated in the same manner or have as much parity as possible," he said.

Inia said that the Fa'a Samoa, or the Samoan way, and the taking of titles, (k)ava ceremonies and chiefly meetings could not happen in the same way without the pe'a.

"So that cultural practice of Samoa tattooing is integral within the culture itself but the council doesn't acknowledge that."

"So we are trying to get the Samoan practice to fit into a Western paradigm, which is never going to happen. And if anything, it is going to push the whole practice underground."

Inia Taylor inside his studio, Woodhill Auckland

Inia Taylor inside his studio, Woodhill Auckland Photo: RNZ /Sara Vui-Talitu

Inia said that he agrees with the push towards safe standards of practice, but first and foremost is the education of people receiving it.

"But the idea to regulate it? Well, that is just going too far. As soon as you start regulating, then who has the right to be tattooed? Is it the person visiting here to do it the one who comes up with the $386 licensing fee? Or the client who lives here in Auckland? How does that work?"

He said for example, the Māori traditional tattoo of Moko Kauae (woman with tattooed chin) can often just cost a koha or some food or a greenstone. Sometimes it can be done for free.

"I don't see how council can share that sort of payment," he said.

"I don't want to see the Samoan tattoo made an example of, or pulled aside, or pushed underground where we can't police (it) or recommend or help the modernisation and sterilisation of the tools and the practice".

Inia agreed that there are risks. 

"It is a very dangerous thing to receive," he said. "And these people died because they got blood infections."

There are often time limits to finish too, and some people want it done in a hurry.

"No one wants to be unfinished. You are either inside or outside the body - you are not halfway in or out."

"So when you are getting a tattoo, you are in a tap state."

Inia said people getting one also need to be fit and healthy, and the place needs to be clean.

"Everything involved in a tattoo should be either sterilisable (sic) or disposable."

But is this solely the tufuga's responsibility?

"I would say it should be the tufuga's responsibility and in the past when people have died the person prosecuted was the tufuga."

"But often it is actually the Solo, (apprentice, assistant), who ends up cleaning all the tools and keeping things clean and sometimes they really need to be trained properly."

Inia said more Samoans are being born and raised in Auckland and the Samoan malu and the pe'a is even more important.

"The practice keeps them tied to the islands and helps keep alive the Fa'asamoa here."

"Let's have something that works to keep this practice safe, and hopefully going forward in another 200 years, the pe'a will be alive and well."

Auckland City Councillor, Linda Cooper

Auckland City Councillor, Linda Cooper Photo: RNZ / Sara Vui-Talitu

In addition to traditional tattooing, the Health and Hygiene Bylaw 2013 protects people who use a wide range of services such as beauty and health treatments, body piercing and local swimming pools.

"We have a five yearly cycle of reviewing all bylaws and that is our requirement under the Local Government Act. Every time we review a bylaw we take the opportunity to see if it is working well and what we can do better," said Linda.

Aucklanders have been asked to give feedback online and at community consultations. Council recommendations will go to the governing body by November.