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By Mailena Pitt-Woonton

Long suppressed by missionaries and the strict rules of Christianity, traditional tattooing is said to have arisen from a deep sleep. After all, it is only in recent years that the practice of this painful but culturally significant art has been truly awakened by new generations of Polynesians keen to explore their heritage.

During chiefly times, the master tattooist commanded the respect and status of a nobleman. It was through him that chiefs and warriors acquired Mana and prestige from the designs he engraved on their bodies.

Today, Boye Nicholas, is an unmistakable part of the ongoing revival that looks back on our traditional past so that more meaning can be brought to the tattooist in the present - a meaning that will also help define the future of our culture and traditions.

Developing a love for art from a young age, Auckland-born Boye carried out his primary and college years at St Joseph Primary School and Nukutere College. It was in Rarotonga that the 25 year old began to gain recognition by topping a few local competitions - including the likes of a "Don’t Litter Raro" poster contest.

After leaving college at the end of his New Zealand School Certificate year, he worked for a short time at the Edgewater Resort on the island, before heading back to school and furthering his athletic talents at St Patrick’s Colleges for Boys in Upper Hutt, Wellington.

At 18, he was ready to return home and soon took up work with Trader Jacks. In 1995, Boye stepped into the cultural arena by joining the Vaka Takitumu voyage to Hawaii and back. The following year saw him through another voyage, this time to New Zealand on Vaka Te Au O Tonga, where he remained for three years.

The time spent in New Zealand proved to be a turning point. While occupying himself with a number of jobs, he attended a five-month course at UNITEC on Compulsive Engineering involving fiberglass. It was during this time that he taught himself to use a tattoo gun and began putting it to use on subjects in his South Auckland garage.

"It wasn’t until I came back to Raro in March of 1999 that I realized tattooing was what I wanted to do, and that I could do it on my own and be my own boss," Boye realized.

Layered with a number of traditional tattoos, Boye explains that his voyaging experiences played a big part in developing an understanding of his heritage and who he was.

"Being a voyager on the vakas brought me a lot of inspiration. A lot of teenagers have scrap tattoos, they’ve never been told about our traditional tattoos. So they don’t fully understand how important they are," he said.

Several months after returning to Rarotonga, Boye secured a bank loan and flew to Hawaii to purchase proper tattooing equipment. Only thing was, when he got there, he discovered that what he required was actually in San Francisco. So that’s where he headed, but not before leaving his mark behind on a number of his Hawaiian friends.

With his new equipment and a solid grounding in hygiene safety skills, he arrived home to open his studio: ‘Polynesian Tattoos’ - opposite the Punanga Nui Market in Avatiu behind Safari Tours.

Here, in spacious but basic surroundings, he tattoos five to six people a week, on average. Prices start from $20 upward depending on how large the tattoo, and how much of his own design work he puts into it.

Boye’s work is a mixture of traditional designs from around the Pacific region - designs he collected while in Hawaii, and the more detailed interpretations of what he has seen.

"In the old days, their designs were based on each island’s own environment. My stuff is a more modern up-to-date version of the traditional designs," he says.

Thanks to modern technology Boye has an advantage over our ancestors whose tattooing tools in those days included combs made of bone, pearl shell and animal teeth. With a power-operated tattoo gun Boye is also able to create more elaborate and flowing designs that might appeal to women.

The young tattooist understands that while his work might appear to be without errors, to himself or the average person, the same may not be the case to another artist in his line of work. That alone is enough to give Boye the motivation to perfect his talent, everyday.

His approach to clients involves a little history with subjects revealing something of their lives, the meaningful things they’ve experienced and accomplished, as well as their genealogy. From this information, Boye designs tattoos that are completely personal.

With the money he makes from doing what he loves, Boye hopes to one day realize his dream and ambition of opening a Polynesian Hut at the Punanga Nui Market.

He envisions The Hut as a tattoo studio, where people can come in for tattoos on the spot and can buy locally made carvings and various Cook Island crafts.

To sum it up, he hopes to create "a place where on entering you can find anything and everything you would expect to be in a Polynesian Hut, a place where you don’t have to be a millionaire to purchase something."

When asked about his feelings towards the fact that tattooing is still partially frowned upon, Boye sadly says, "We lost our tradition of tattoos. A lot of our older generation on the island weren’t brought up with it and what little exposure they had of it, was often associated with criminals, and because of that they have little understanding of how much it links us to our past. Young people today are slowly venturing back, looking for their identities and their heritage, by keeping the past alive on their bodies."

On the subject of non-Polynesians being tattooed, Boye has no complaints. He feels there is nothing wrong in tattooing a tourist visiting our island, as we shouldn’t deny them the privilege of experiencing our Polynesian culture.

"This is something that was happening back in the late 1700’s", he says, referring to Jean-Baptiste Cabri, a Frenchman who was tattooed on various parts of his body in the Marquesas in 1795.

Above all, Boye’s lasting message to everyone "Polynesian Tattoos are a part of us and it is your choice as an individual whether you get one or not."

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