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Tatatau Revival

Traditional vs. Modern


Aisea Toetu'u and myself utilizing the
traditional method of Tatatau

There has been a great resurgence in Polynesian tattooing within the last twenty years.  Tonga, however, has been slow in claiming its place in this renaissance.  Part of the reason may be due to the intense Christianization of Tonga.  Christian doctrine shuns tattooing and views it as a form of mutilation, thereby, harming the body which god gave.  Christianity was introduced to Tonga by European missionaries.  Once the king accepted Christianity, the new religion was spread and soon replaced the old religion.  A modern Tongan society began evolving combining new beliefs with older ones.  Today, Christianity plays a vital part in the Tongan culture.

Perhaps another reason would be that the tradition has been non-existant for almost 200 years.  This 'death' period has taken its toll on the art and created several generations of individuals who practically knew nothing about it.  It has become increasingly harder and harder to revive this tradition because of these factors (as well as others.)

In Hawai'i, 'Aisea Toetu'u is attempting to revive the tradition in a modern sense.  He has studied tattooing for years and has been instrumental in reviving this forgotten art.  His interview with Tricia Allen covers his endeavours more in depth.

The "traditional" Tongan Tatatau no longer exist, and we may never know how it actually looked or its true significance.  However, after speaking with 'Aisea and other's who practice this ancient art, I've come to realize that trying to replicate the past is nearly impossible.  HRH Princess Pilolevu once stated that a culture must change to suit the needs of its people. 

Tongan tattoo artists have chosen to observe the world in which modern day Tongans live and draw their inspiration from that world.  Creating new patterns and designs to describe this world has become the new challenge.  In order for the Tatatau tradition to be revived, it needs to suit the world in which Tongans live today.  Patterns and designs must describe our new cultural identities, yet still remain artistically and descriptively Tongan.  Classic patterns/designs used in Ngatu making and Fala weaving are still important since these designs have been preserved from ancient times.  Their survival continues to identify us culturally.  However, new designs have been created by Ngatu and Fala makers, carvers, and other artistic Tongan individuals.  Many Tongans have also changed old designs as a way of 'updating' the Tongan art form.  Yet these additions and changes can be considered traditional because they were made by Tongan individuals.
Relying on our culturally close cousins from Samoa and other islands also provides us with an understanding of our own tattoo traditions.  The survival of traditional tattooing in Samoa provides us with the blue print to the past.  It was known that Tongans and Samoans did share, and continue close cultural ties.  Our traditions and customs overlap in so many areas that each island can regain what was lost through cultural exchange.

The Tatatau tradition of Tongans has been revived as more and more Tongans receive armbands, legbands, and other uniquely Tongan tattoos on their body. Though they may not be in the same placement as the early Tatatau, they are still marks of our cultural identity.


Tattooing involved making an indelible pattern on the skin by pricking it with a sharp instrument or a toothed tattooing comb carrying piments. The instrument (pictured here) is known as a Hau in Tongan. The Hau was dipped into a pigment dye (made from various natural material) and tapped into the skin using another stick to strike the Hau repeatedly.

'Aisea's Interview With Tricia Allen