"SKIN STORIES": FILM DOCUMENTS ART OF PACIFIC TATTOOS

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By Craig DeSilva

HONOLULU, Hawai‘i (March 29, 2001 - PIDP/CPIS)---Production is underway in Hawai‘i on a national television film featuring the art and cultural role tattoos play in the Pacific Islands.

The one-hour documentary, called "Skin Stories," is being co-produced by Pacific Islanders in Communications (PIC) in Honolulu and public television station KPBS in San Diego.

"With the current popularity of tattoos, ‘Skin Stories’ should attract a large national audience," said Carlyn Tani, executive director of PIC.

"We are looking forward to celebrating the cultural roots of this art form and dispelling some of the stereotypes and myths about Pacific Islanders," she said.

The film’s producers are currently editing hours of taped footage and interviews for the documentary in a studio in Kaka‘ako, near downtown Honolulu.

The one-hour documentary, which is expected to be aired by public television stations nationwide next year, features interviews with indigenous Pacific Islanders whose tattoos define their cultural identity.

The film focuses on the cultural and historical significance of tattoos in three Pacific cultures: the Maoris in New Zealand, Samoans in American Samoa, and Native Hawaiians in Hawai‘i.

"There is definitely a genealogical trend," said Lisa Altieri, the film’s co-producer. "How it’s treated varies. The people who we (spoke to for the film) said tattoos are not so much a roadmap of your genealogy. They are symbols of your genealogy that may or may not have been identifiable by other people."

While the art of tattoos was almost lost in the Maori and Hawaiian cultures, it remained a constant in Samoan society, she said.

The film profiles tufugas, or Samoan tattoo masters, who practice the traditional art using hand tools.

The most common tattoos in the Samoan culture are those that are worn on the men’s and women’s legs.

"Though tattoos are cultural, they are still very much individual too," Altieri said. "People have lots of different reasons for doing it."

"There are certain protocols surrounding the Samoan traditional tattoos. For the men, it has to do with their role in family or village ceremony. People who serve the chiefs, or matai, or people who serve the kava ceremonies should be tattooed," she said.

The film also looks at how the Maori and Native Hawaiians are trying to reclaim the tattoo art form, which began to decline after colonization.

"A lot of it wasn’t written down and there’s limited oral history on what the meanings of these tattoos were," she said.

While making the film, Altieri observed a clear difference in the way tattoo making is treated in the Pacific Islands and in western society.

"In the western world, you go to a shop and either pick a design off the wall or you bring in a design that you drew or picture of something the artist can copy and put on your body," she said.

"In the Polynesian tradition, you go to the artist and they decide what they’re going to put on you. Usually it involves some kind of research as to your genealogy as to who you are, your identity and what you’re involved in. With discussion, the artists and subject will come to an agreement on the design," she said.

Altieri regards the sudden popularity of tattoos in the western world as a "fad." While others, especially Native Hawaiians, are getting tattoos with traditional designs as a way to identify with their tribal heritage, she added.

Other Pacific Islanders interviewed in the film include a popular native Hawaiian tattoo artist, a charismatic Tongan man who lives in Hawai‘i and is a master of Tongan-inspired designs, and two Maori grandmothers who recently received moko, or a Maori-style tattoo, on their chins.

As for the future of tattoos in modern society?

"Those tattoos are definitely here to stay," Altieri said.

"I think tattoos for Polynesians are going to grow just like the music, dance and other things that have started to blossom in these cultures. But it will be interesting to see how far the western tattoos will go. It can be considered a valid art form. And art forms evolve and develop."

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