Sacred marks identify Samoans

01:43, Jan 31 2009
SACRED MARKS: Naylor Owen, 27, shows the beginning of the traditional tattoo on his back. Sister Christine, 17, is next.

Naylor Owen and his sister Christine are turning to tradition to show their cultural identity.

They are both receiving a tatau – traditional Samoan tattoo, as part of a symposium held at Unitec on April 18 and 19.

"I’ve always wanted one," 27-year-old Naylor says.

"It represents Samoa and is something unique and precious, especially to Samoan men."

A man getting a tatau will have his lower back, the sides of his stomach, thigh area and knees tattooed. The woman is only tattooed on her thighs and knees.

The pair are undergoing the process as part of a two-day convention called Sacred Marks.


Guest speakers include Samoan photographer Greg Semu, who has flown from Paris where he is based at the Muse’e due quai Branly art gallery.

Maori tattoo expert Professor Ngahuia Te Awekotuku from Waikato University and AUT lecturer and architect Albert Refiti will also talk.

Naylor, who teaches English in Korea, grew up in West Harbour with his little sister.

He is being tattooed with cultural tools including a boar’s tusk needle.

"I haven’t experienced something this painful before," he says.

"It hurts like hell – like getting hard injection after hard injection."

The tatau, according to Samoan custom, is performed in pairs, and Naylor’s 17-year-old sister is happy to take part.

"It was my decision," Christine says.

"I’m fluent in Samoan and grew up the Samoan way. I’ll be the first girl in my family to get one as well."

The siblings have the blessing of their Samoan mother. Their Welsh father died when they were children.

The word tattoo is thought to have derived from the Polynesian word tatau and was first documented by Captain Cook in the late 18th century.

In Samoan the word tatau literally means "must do" – adding historical value to its origin.

"It’s every Samoan man’s birthright," Naylor says. "I’m Samoan so I can get it."

Tattooist Su’a Petelo Suluape has flown in from Samoa especially for the event.

Mr Suluape, who comes from a renowned family of tattooists, has been doing it for 34 years and says requests for tatau are at an all-time high.

"I’m busy all year round," he says.

"Especially people from outside New Zealand."

The 54-year-old says a resurgence starting in the late 1960s has continued to grow.

"Some people get tatau to be regarded as a real Samoan or as a mark of identity," Mr Suluape says.

"There’s nothing wrong with that."

He also sees nothing wrong with tattooing non-Samoans.

"I’ve tattooed close to 100 people who are not of Samoan heritage," he says.

But Mr Suluape says people are still wary of ancient superstition surrounding the 2000-year-old practice.

"Once you get started there are rules, and people feel there are consequences if they are broken," he says.

"That’s why I call my patients victims."

Western Leader