I have a handful of tattoos, but none of them were done in the presence of a horse. In an open air bungalow. In the lush tropical setting of Mo’orea. But I suppose there’s a first time for everything?
I’ll start by saying that there is admittedly some controversy surrounding non-Native Polynesians having Polynesian tattoos. That’s an entirely different topic that I hope to cover in the future. However, being tattooed by a talented artist in Mo’orea was something I chose to do out of immense respect and adoration for the culture. I’m honored to have this artist’s work on my body, and my experience being tattooed was one I’ll cherish for a long time.
Now for the story.
We arrived at the lush jungle property on the west side of the island and were greeted by James and his wife. Their property sits in the shadow of the volcanic ridges that make up Mo’orea. Chickens and a horse or two roamed freely.
We sat down with James Samuela - a renowned traditional tattoo artist in French Polynesia. I had made this appointment nearly a year in advance, and for good reason. James is a descendent of the original tattooers of the Marquesas and his appointment slots book up quickly. He has studied the traditional method of ‘tatau’ and is one of the few remaining artists throughout the islands still practicing this ancient method of tattooing.
We gathered around a picnic table and James offered us each a Tabu beer while we chatted. Instead of jumping right to the art I envisioned, he asked me about… me. James wanted to know who I was and about my life, and that helped guide him in designing the tattoo. His warm and friendly demeanor made him instantly likable - I felt like I was talking to an old friend.
James explained the process to me. The word “tatau” comes from the tapping noise of the tools used to pigment the skin. The black ink is traditional and colorful ink is not used in Polynesian tattooing. The ink is tapped into the skin using sharpened animal bone, shell, or shark’s teeth. James makes a brand new tool for every client - and the client gets to take the tool home with them as a souvenir.
Once we finished our drinks, we moved to the open air bungalow where James does his tattooing. Everything was incredibly clean and tidy. Music played and the tropical breeze weaved in and out of the bungalow. James then began to free-hand the design right on to my skin; using my skin as a canvas, he roughly sketched out what would become my treasured tattoo. A curious horse peeked his head in a few times and James playfully swatted him away.
He then had me lay down on my side, arm draped over my head, and we got started. My husband helped to hold my skin taut along with another assistant. The repetitive “tap-tap” of the tool against my skin was almost meditative, and I alternated between intense pain and half-napping.
Approximately 2-3 hours later, I had my completed piece.
Is it feminine? Nope. Is it cookie-cutter? Absolutely not.
That’s why I love it so.
James explained that after talking to me for a bit, he understood this restless spirit of mine, and crafted the tattoo after that. The wave shape symbolizes a traveler, one who gains knowledge as they move through the world, the way a wave gathers strength as it approaches the shore.
The healing process was much easier than modern methods of tattooing. James encouraged me to be in the sea, as the salt water would help heal the skin faster. I applied local Monoi oil to the area a few times per day, and it healed quickly.
I hope to visit Mo’orea and James again someday soon. I would love to have another piece done, or have this one added to. James’ commitment to the authentic methods is inspiring and noble, and I count myself as lucky to have been welcomed into his bungalow to be a part of the preservation of this ancient technique.