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book review: the Polynesian tattoo today

 The first book by Tricia Allen, ‘Tattoo Traditions of Hawai’i,’ was a fascinating read-up in my favorite style – lots of pages to read, some interesting pictures to study. The book was a perfect blend of a historical outline of the culture, people and traditions and a modern touch of tattoos today. There was a strong base deriving from the past directed for the future. A new book by Allen, ‘The Polynesian Tattoo Today,’ differs from this formula.

According to the author’s own words in Foreword, the feedback from readers showed her clearly that ‘there’s a huge demand for a book that is predominately pictorial, from both tattooists and readers, hence this endeavor.’ Unlike the Hawai’i book, here one won’t find elaborate information on Polynesian tattooing, explaining traditions and meanings but if readers look for inspiration and an overview of possible motifs and modern variations on the traditional Polynesian tattooing, this book certainly is the right choice.

What I found the most interesting here is placed in the introductory part and barely hinted at. The questions what Polynesian tattoo really is, whether it is defined by a maker or not, is it still Polynesian if worn by an outsider having nothing in common with the culture itself and Allen’s fleeting mention of such tattoo categories as ‘Polynesian tattoo,’ ‘neo-Polynesian tattoo’ and ‘Polynesian tattoo style’ show clearly that there’s much more going on behind the scene than readers suspect and it’s certainly worth another book!

The main part of the book is focused on the tattoo art itself and consists of good-quality pictures of tattoos in various styles and done by various artists, not only those with the native background but also some outsiders (Cory Ferguson’s reflections on creating traditional tattoos by an outsider are especially interesting). Picture captions by Allen provide additional information and that’s where my little ‘problem’ with this book appeared.

Allen juggles with very specific terms while describing tattoos with impressive ease and again and again a reader has to struggle with words like ‘moko poho,’ ‘moko tuhono,’ ‘pe’a’ etc. without explanation provided. If it’s true (and without doubt it is) that traditional tattooing is heavy with meanings, then readers lose on appreciating cultural aspects of this book and, willing or not, are forced to enjoy only a visual aspect of it. Allen is quite inconsistent here as sometimes she provides English translation of traditional terms only to ignore others later on. Going through the ‘featured artists’ section and reading their personal statements somewhat helps as they briefly explain what they do and why it’s so important but still, I’d love if this book had a small glossary of the most important terms relating to the Polynesian tattooing. The same goes with motifs typical for specific parts of Polynesia. I’m sure that Allen knows what she writes when she states that this tattoo was inspired by ‘Marquesan designs’ while that one is about ‘blending Maori themes with Samoan elements’ but what is typical for Maori tattoos? What makes Samoan designs and which motifs are Marquesan? A short outline on this subject would be appreciated as well.

All in all, though, it’s a very nice book presenting in a concise and visually striking form the beauty of the tattoos in Polynesian islands and also documents, in a way, their revival. It’s good and useful both for the tattoo artists and readers interested in tattoos in an unprofessional way. And it’s all thanks to Allen, of course, who is both an outsider (an American tattoo artist turned a cultural anthropologist and historian determined to preserve the cultural tradition of the islands) and an insider (she lives in Hawaii and is a part of the local tattoo culture) and manages to keep both perspectives balanced. Thanks to her work, people from many different parts of the world can appreciate the beauty of the traditional Polynesian tattoo (even we can’t really tell what’s Marquesan and what’s Samoan) and enjoy the fact that – ancient as it is – the tradition of tattooing in the southern islands is still alive!

Tricia Allen, The Polynesian Tattoo Today, Mutual Publishing 2010

About Ania Reeds

fit, modified, open-minded, well-read, always eager to learn. Don't judge me by your standards!

One response to “book review: the Polynesian tattoo today

  1. Pingback: help, trends and a history lesson « Aniareads Weblog

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