HERALD WEEKLY ISSUE 608: 21 March 2012

Maria Tanner spends 5 minutes with ... Croc Tatau

On the Brink of Distinction
As a pacific nation our cultural identity is notably marked out by several hallmarks that clearly distinguish us as Cook Islanders, from the tie dyed pareu that wrap our waists to the rito hats woven specifically for the Sundays service, they are forever permanently seared into our minds. But a building resurgence is taking place in a forgotten art form that has for many years now been reserved as specifically Samoan and was originally performed as a nod to our cultural distinction; as the Cook Islands rekindle their love affair with tatau.
Tatau, ‘Ta’ which means to strike an object, is the process in which the skin is struck with ivi, handmade tools of bone or tusks, and ink to create elaborate symmetrical patterns or designs. Tatau however is just as heavily embedded in the Cook Islands as any other pacific nation, the art form was originally introduced to Samoa from two travelling Fijian sisters who brought along with them the first implements of tatau and can be traced across the pacific turning up on the legs and forearms of Hawaiians –kakau, Tahitians - tatau, Marquesas’, Tongans, Fijians, New Zealand Maori –ta moko and Cook Islanders, where women of rank underwent tatau as a signal to their societal standing.
The 19th century was an industrious era for the Cook Islands; the South Pacific Ocean became a beehive of international trading coining what could only be described now as globalisation at its infancy, and with it saw an influx of missionaries to the pacific bringing about the decline in what was affectionately dubbed “barbaric heathen practice”. True for many reformed pacific nations the knowledge of tatau and its symbolism became a dormant pastime shrouded with a colonial haze where by the Samoan pe’a was the major contributor in continuing to stoke the fires of tatau.
The meaning of tatau has a broad understanding and helping to reinstate it to its original settings is the Cook Islands based, neck to toe covered, English tattooist Croc Coulter, who to this day has never worked with a tattoo machine gun and was apprenticed to the New Zealand Maori tattoo artist Inia Taylor of Moko Ink, who reigns from the familial line of tatau artist to the Kinigtanga and is responsible for the Vivid moko designs in the New Zealand film Once Were Warriors, “the irony never surpasses me that here’s Croc doing it (tatau), the whole thing is kinda weird,” Taylor says pointing out the obvious, “But how many Maori or Polynesians in New Zealand know how to make P but don’t know how to make a traditional hand tool? I realised that Maori were the worst tattooist because they couldn’t even spell mongrel mob correctly.”
Sharing a mutual respect for the art Croc and Taylor met in New Zealand where the two formed a lasting alliance; Taylor who was under the understanding that “all Maori could draw and play the guitar” had been apprenticed to prominent Samoan tatau artist Paulo Suluape, and took on Croc as his student teaching him the traditional ways of tatau.
“At the time I was pushing patterns with a needle in a stick, the old school way, and Inia realised that I might be the right person to make the commitment to continue (tatau).”
Continue he has setting up his Croc Tatau studio in Titikaveka tattooing with ivi on his specially woven mat, the process takes on a ceremonial manner opening with a karakia before dipping his tools into an ink pot to begin the tapping of the recipients’ skin.
“Initially I was freaked out,” admits Croc, “it dawned on me that something I started to become interested in, that it wasn’t just about decoration it had massive culture behind it and one that I knew nothing about.”
Taylors forward thinking is an influential force on Croc and his work, and believes the sudden popularity and “brown superiority complex” could possibly wreck the work put in place of their predecessors shifting and changing its cultural significance.
“We’re in a dangerous situation, I tattooed a couple of All Blacks about 10 years ago, never before had we seen tatau in a rugby paddock, now it’s almost compulsory, just check out the NRL! The popularity is going to kill it; it takes longer to make a traditional tool than to do a piece.”
“There was a point in Tahiti,” Taylor continues, “where they were going to ban the use of traditional tools, at the time no one was using them but the focus was on the hygiene methods, I thought to myself it was like trying to ban the dinosaur, oh those T Rex they better not come around here anymore,” he laughs in retrospect.
 “For me it’s about honouring the art form,” says Croc, “and taking on the challenge of learning a huge part of history when I work with certain people I like to have an understanding of them, if I’m working on certain areas I’ll usually show the areas that I’m tattooed and that will give them a bit more confidence but is about relating to them, it’s their big day and their journey.”
While its origin and ritual process maybe peppered with interpretation, what is certain of tatau is that it was an art form held in the highest reverence throughout the Pacific, the relationship between recipient and artist was just as central and the appropriate marking in paying homage to that notion.
“There is nothing more tapu (sacred) than a person,” says Taylor of the process, “so to make a change to someone is a sacred thing. Tatau use to be about who and what got tattooed where, it was a very communal thing all done in ink. I haven’t met someone with the same kind of commitment 14 years ago when we met. Croc’s probably one of the best traditional tattooist on the planet right now there’s no Samoan who’s doing a better job right now, I hate to say that and as embarrassing as it is, it’s true.”

Herald Issue 608 21 March
- Terms of one China Policy document should be reviewed
- Pacific Media Assistance Scheme Seeks Innovation
- Successful NZ visit by PM
- Rerekura Teaurere New Climate Change Coordinator
- News Briefs

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