Insiders Guide - Su’a Paul Junior Sulu’ape
For two weeks, Su’a Paul will gradually tatau two other Samoans with pe’a – traditional tattoos that begin mid-girth and extend over the legs and back to below the knees. Once a pe’a is begun, Su’a Paul rarely pauses and works for several hours at a stretch, so Sapphire Aitcheson fielded these questions. She’s part of Wellington-based studio Taupou Tatau, whose contemporary tattoo artists Tuigamala Andy Tauafiafi, Ismael Jaco Augustine Schmidt, and Bryan ‘Juse 1’ Visala are also part of the exhibition.
Sui faiga ae tumau fa’avae, City Gallery, August 27-September 14.
How do you begin to learn tatau?
You have to apprentice. Usually you start off as a stretcher, holding the skin tight and wiping away ink and blood while the tufuga ta tatau makes the marks. Here, Heperona is in training and is the main stretcher for the family and travelled here with Su’a Paul. He has all the speaking roles and does all the introductions and thank yous.
Is tatau still common in Samoa?
Yes, but something this important needs your family’s blessing. Without it you won’t go through the process as well. You need the support of your family to heal afterwards. How long it takes to heal depends on the person, but it’s basically a third degree burn.
Are there many people in Samoa who can do traditional tatau?
The Sulu’ape family is the most well known. Su’a Paul and his brother, Su’a Peter, were born into it. They teach others outside the family in order to spread the tradition and travel quite a lot to demonstrate. If they train someone and they receive the title Sulu’ape, the village must agree.
Do they make own ‘au? What about the ink?
They make them and there are several different sizes and shapes to make different marks, each with its own name. The ‘au used to be made from boar tusk, but now for hygienic purposes it’s a row of sterilized needles and they use the same cleaning methods as contemporary tattoo machines. The ink is made for them and called Suluape Black.
Can anyone have a pe’a in Samoa or only certain powerful people?
Chiefs used to have them. The reasons now are more relaxed but the meaning behind it is the same. As long as you know your culture and are respectful of the culture and have your family’s support, you can get a pe’a. Once you get this everywhere you go people will know you are Samoan or were blessed by Samoans. It’s not just something to show off.
How do they come up with the designs – are they a collection of traditional images or is there something in there that’s purely his own?
They all follow the same designs. It’s an imprinted stencil in his head and there are little symbols that are his signature. The designs all have their own meanings and have to do with Samoan life – different tasks in the village, nets for fishing, rafters for the house, the boat which brought the original people to Samoa.