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Exhibition for Tatau: Marks of Polynesia

 Tattoo by Su'a Sulu'ape PeterIf you live in Los Angeles or are planning a trip there between July 30th, 2016 and January 8th, 2017, then consider checking out Tatau at the Japanese American National Museum. The exhibit is celebrating Marks of Polynesia, and will focus on the beauty of the Samoan tatau, which is an indigenous art form over 2,000 years old. The exhibit will explore their cultural relevance, and how they have impacted the tattooing world. The museum will showcase the work of traditional tatau masters alongside the work of younger practitioners and artists who are adopting tatau's motifs and styles for new media and art forms. Participants of the event will be able to appreciate the beauty of Samoan tattoos and learn about what they signify in Samoan culture. Attendees will also develop an understanding of how the tatau helps Samoans and other Polynesians living abroad stay close to their identity and their heritage. Despite numerous eradication attempts, the tradition has survived and is now spreading throughout the world.

 Tattoo by Su'a Sulu'ape Peter

The exhibit explores the cultural tradition and importance of tatau with pictures that were taken in Samoa as well as in a studio. In Samoan culture, the tattoo master artists are revered, and receiving a tatau is a rite of passage for young men, which instills a sense of national identity. When a young man works hard and performs honorably in the eyes of his elders, he may be offered the opportunity to be tattooed. Although tattooing was more ritualized for the men, women also received tattoos, which were traditionally a symbol of high status. Today, tatau designs for women are more common, and they are of a much lighter nature, rather than the large areas of solid dye which are frequently seen in men's tattoos.

Aside from the beauty of the tatau, one reason they command such respect is the sheer amount of pain inflicted during the procedure. At the exhibition, you will learn about the implements used during the tattooing procedure, such as: serrated bone combs, tortoise shell fragments, the tapping mallet, and burnt candlenut soot - which is used to make the ink.

 Tattoo by Su‘a Sulu‘ape Paul Jr.For those interested in tattoo history and important milestones in tattoo culture, a major focus of the exhibition is the influential Sulu‘ape family and their disciples. This group receives credit for spurring the resurgence of Samoan tattoos worldwide. For a modern reference point, there will be additional photographs on display that were taken in New Zealand, Hawai‘i, California, and Nevada which illustrate the spread of Samoan tattoos throughout the world. So if you’re a tattoo enthusiast, or interested in the cultural traditions of the Polynesian islands, I recommend checking out the exhibit. The Japanese American National Museum is located in Little Tokyo near downtown Los Angeles. With exhibits such as Tatau, the Japanese American National Museum works to preserve civil rights through promoting an understanding of diverse cultures, so get out there and learn about tatau, one of the world’s most distinctive living tattoo traditions. For more information about the exhibit and tatau art, watch the "Making of Tatau" video.