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Tatau: A History of Sāmoan Tattooing

Tatau: A History of Sāmoan Tattooing

A major book on Sāmoan tattooing, the first to fully examine and celebrate the powerful 3000-year history of this distinctive artform and cultural practice, is to be released in August by pre-eminent museum publisher Te Papa Press.

Tatau is the result of a lengthy collaboration between museum curator and researcher Sean Mallon and French anthropologist Sébastien Galliot, and draws on their extensive engagement with Sāmoan tattooists in New Zealand, Sāmoa, Europe and the United States. The authors argue that tatau’s long history of relevance stretches well beyond the Sāmoan islands, and is more complicated than has been presented in other literature.

‘Previous studies have been mainly ethnographic snapshots or studies made at particular points in time,’ says Sean Mallon, Senior Curator of Pacific Cultures at Te Papa. ‘This study analyses and synthesises many accounts of tattooing in their historical context, so we can understand how they were part of larger processes of continuity and change. There are no other studies of indigenous tattooing from the Pacific that have the breadth and scope of this book.’

Moving through a chronology rich with people, encounters and events, the text describes how Sāmoan tattooing has been shaped by local and external forces of change over 30 centuries. Historical images of nineteenth and twentieth century tatau are interspersed with three impactful contemporary portfolios by highly regarded photographers Mark Adams (introduced by anthropologist Nicholas Thomas), Greg Semu (introduced by art curator Ron Brownson) and John Agcaoili (introduced by tattooer and curator Takahiro Kitamura). Diagrams of tattoo designs and motifs are also included, as well as posters, ephemera, film stills and artefacts all featuring the artform.

The depth of research dedicated to the project is matched by the high production values the publisher has lavished on its presentation, with a striking black and white debossed hardback cover, handsome design and mixed paper stocks.

The 328-page book concludes with a look at the globalisation of tatau and how Sāmoan tattooing has been reinterpreted in many locations, and on countless bodies, throughout the world. What might this mean for Sāmoan cultural identity? ‘In the face of globalisation a useful focus could be on ensuring the continuity of ceremonies and cultural practices where tatau has most meaning for Sāmoan people, while acknowledging that these contexts will change too, just like the lines, motifs and meanings of tatau,’ say the authors.

In co-edition deals that acknowledge the significance of the project internationally, Tatau has been picked up by both the University of Hawai‘i Press and NewSouth, the publishing arm of the University of New South Wales Press in Australia.


SEAN MALLON, of Sāmoan (Mulivai, Safata) and Irish descent, is Senior Curator Pacific Cultures at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. He is a co-author of both Tangata o le Moana: The story of New Zealand and the people of the Pacific (Te Papa Press, 2012) and Art in Oceania: A new history (2012), which was awarded the Authors’ Club’s Art Book Prize. He has been a council member of The Polynesian Society since 2008.
SÉBASTIEN GALLIOT is a French anthropologist associated with the Centre for Research and Documentation on Oceania in Marseille, and since 2001 has made several field trips to Sāmoa, Tonga and Fiji. A photographer and filmmaker, he has published on Pacific and Sāmoan tattooing and co-curated the Tattoo exhibition that toured to Paris, Toronto, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Tatau: A History of Sāmoan Tattooing
By Sean Mallon and Sébastien Galliot
Published by Te Papa Press, HB $75.00

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