29 May 2023

Paving the way home: Navigating the tatau, identity, tradition, and family ties

12:47 pm on 29 May 2023

First Person - I'm sure every young 20-something at some point asks the question, "Who am I?"

Many of my young Pacific Island peers (or anyone really who comes from an immigrant family) would say they feel as if they're 'in-between worlds', raised with a traditional Pacific Island upbringing in a westernised, urban New Zealand.

Then there is me, born and raised in Aotearoa but attended high school and university in Samoa; I feel like I land somewhere in between this 'in-between.'

I could never quite pin a location on where I call 'home', but I also have never felt lost in that way; I've never questioned 'where' home is, but rather, 'what' home is. And so, what is home if not a location?

traditional Samoan tattoo combs

traditional Samoan tattoo combs, known in Samoan as the 'au Photo: Supplied / Meraz Parker-Potoi

The 'tatau' or 'malofie', the traditional Samoan tattoo, is more than just that. It's also known as 'la'ei Samoa', or 'Samoan clothing', as in the eyes of tradition and culture, even when nothing else is worn, one is still considered fully clothed if donning the tatau.

Dutch sailors in the early 1700's reported they were greeted by locals dressed from waist to heel in "a sort of artistically made silk cloth".

But it holds more significance than the usual "oh it tells our story." It stands for something. It represents 'tautua', the Samoan concept of service and filial piety. I always kind of knew this, but it took a trip back to Samoa and 23 hours over 11 sessions to really drive home what tautua meant to me. Ha, 'home', wherever that is.

I had always appreciated the tattoos as an art-form, growing up wondering if I'll ever get the tatau and thinking "maybe one day." I had made the decision a few years ago to cut down on the number of times I use the word 'maybe' and 'if' and just go ahead and do things I've always wanted to try.

After talking to my parents and grandparents and receiving their blessing to undergo the tatau journey, that 'one day' finally had a date. I was coming 'home.'

Toa Samoa supporters in Auckland, 20 November 2022. Toa Samoa were defeated by Australia 30-10 in the  Rugby League World Cup final in Manchester.

Toa Samoa supporters in Auckland. Photo: RNZ / Marika Khabazi

A few weeks later I woke up to the day of my first session. The sun was just peeking out over the ocean horizon and my grandmother wanted to start the day off with a prayer, for strength to get through the day and the rest of the tatau process.

Have you ever had that feeling where you've been wanting something for so long, and now that you're just about to receive it, you're kind of unsure if you still want it? Yeah, that. I've now chalked it up to nerves but at that moment, I wanted to crawl into a hole and disappear. "I want to go home," but isn't here where you said home is?

The drive to the apisā (the tatau house) was surreal, "Damn this is really about to happen." I was about to undergo the same ritual, the same rite of passage that my ancestors underwent hundreds of years ago; a ritual that survived colonialism, that flew under the radar of pious Western eyes and remained. It evolved yet stayed the same.

When I walked into the apisā, not much was said as the person receiving the tatau has little to no say in the designs, shapes and final look of the tatau, as it is all up to the tufuga (the master traditional tattooist). I laid down, took deep breaths and braced myself. For the next fortnight, the apisā was to be my home; and when I felt that first bite of the 'au (the tattoo comb), I knew I was right where I was meant to be.

Right up until I felt like I'd rather be anywhere else.

A close-up of the tatau session

Photo: Supplied / Meraz Parker-Potoi

I'm not the first one to say that the process of receiving the tatau is far from easy, but you never know how difficult it truly is until it's just you and the 'au; and while it most definitely was painful, it was more a mental game than anything else.

The sessions lasted about two hours each, sometimes a little shorter, sometimes a little longer. It was the aftercare that physically hurt more than anything.

After each session you had to take a shower and massage out all the excess ink and plasma (as tattoos are basically a gushing open wound) to reduce swelling and chances of infection, as well as showers every two hours after to massage out any plasma buildup and blood clots. I was told to eat a lot and sleep well, two things that I could barely do throughout the two-week process, but it was all part of the journey, albeit a part I had never even considered.

Each drive from our house to the apisā felt like a mission, packing towels, clothes to change into, and fans, but also the right mentality, "just get through today, and you got 9 days left... 8 days left… 7… 6." There was never a point in which I wanted to give up and walk away, that was never an option, I wasn't going to disgrace my family and village by not seeing this through, but I did wonder why I even chose to do this in the first place; I'd have had so many more days out swimming at the beach if I didn't sign up for this (*sigh* I write this as I'm back in New Zealand, having only been able to go to the beach a handful of times, what a shame).

Is this the journey home I had expected? Absolutely not.

Anric's grandmother looks on during a tatau session

Photo: Supplied / Meraz Parker-Potoi

But, almost as instantaneously as it had begun, it was over. The two weeks felt both fleeting and endless, a dream that felt like a lifetime but only lasted a few hours, a momentary eternity. The final part of the tatau to be tattooed is the belly button, as it symbolises the recutting of your umbilical cord, a rebirth, a shedding of the old self and a stepping into a new, mature identity.

As I sat up, now a soga'imiti (a Samoan male that dons the tatau), I broke down into tears as emotions that I still cannot adequately describe came crashing down like a waterfall. I felt pride but also an extreme sense of humility, joy but also sorrow.

I felt peace in that moment, a moment that I won't ever forget. As I greeted my loved ones now that the process was finished, that's what I felt most from them: love. I felt the greatest appreciation for their support and love, something that I hope to return to them through the work that I do.

Anric at his samaga pe'a

Photo: Supplied / Meraz Parker-Potoi

It was important for me to have my family there with me every step of the way and it was equally important for my family that I complete this journey. Neither side of my family has had a soga'imiti in generations.

They say it takes a village to raise a child, which couldn't be truer within the Samoan culture. My brother Stan and my cousin Wesley were the two people to have come to every session, with my brother also helping out with the aftercare showers. If it weren't for family and my closest friends, there's no way I would've been able to see this through, which I believe translates to how the tatau represents tautua/service. Service is about providing for your family, making sure your elders are taken care of and the young are happy.

In Samoa it's literally laying down your life for your clan; but you can't do any of that alone. It's the support of your family and community that get you through the tough times so you can all enjoy the good.

As I reflect on my tatau journey, I come to the realisation that "home" is not always confined to a physical location, but rather closely tied to the people who make it feel like home. For me, home is family. It's the sense of belonging that I feel when I am with them, and the love and support I receive from them, regardless of where in the world we are.

To my family, it's said, "home is where the heart is," and my heart is with you all.

Anric and his family upon the completion of his tatau

Photo: Supplied / Meraz Parker-Potoi

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