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Learn from a living legacy in ‘Tatau: Marks of Polynesia’

This post originally appeared on the Utah Museum of Fine Arts website.

PHOTO CREDIT: John Agcaoili

Tattoo by Su’a Sulu’ape Paul

“Tatau: Marks of Polynesia” depicts the legacy of tatau, the art of Samoan tattooing. “Tatau” tells a story of history, craftsmanship, tradition and, most importantly, a people preserving their own story.

The “Tatau: Marks of Polynesia” exhibition, opening at Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA) on Aug. 12, explores a beautiful and sacred art that is fundamental in the preservation and spread of Samoan culture, surviving many attempts at eradication.

Comprised of over 150 powerful photographs and narratives, “Tatau” displays the work of Samoan tattoo masters (tufuga tā tatau), with a special focus on the influential Sulu‘ape family. Other sections highlight a new generation of apprentices and practitioners working within and influenced by tatau traditions. Visitors will learn about the tatau process, sacred handmade tools called ‘au and associated traditions.

PHOTO CREDIT: John Agcaoili

Tattoo by Su’a Sulu’ape Peter

Through the tatau ritual, whether it’s pe’a (traditional male tattoos) or malu (traditional female tattoos), the tattooed person is provided a strengthened sense of identity and a comprehensive understanding of Samoan culture and values. This ritual is critically important, considering the numerous attempts by missionaries and colonists to suppress cultural expressions like tattooing throughout the Pacific. Despite these efforts, the culture of tatau has thrived and influenced tattoo traditions throughout the world. A great pride for many Samoans—tatau has seen a modern revival, helping its Pacific neighbors in Tonga, Tahiti, New Zealand, Ha’waii and the Cook Islands, by providing a reference for the preservation of their own tattooing traditions.

Celebrate the opening of “Tatau” with the UMFA on Aug. 12. Find more information here.

See all “Tatu” events here.

The traveling version of “Tatau: Marks of Polynesia” was curated by Takihiro Kitamura and organized by the Japanese American National Museum.

The presenting sponsors are Al and Sue Landon.

The exhibition is funded in part by The Joseph and Evelyn Rosenblatt Enrichment Fund.

Community Advisory Group

The successful realization of this remarkable exhibition would not have been possible without the collaborative efforts, expertise and guidance provided by each member of the “Tatau: Marks of Polynesia” Advisory Committee. We are grateful for their commitment to the success of this exhibition and for their enduring impact on our museum and the community we serve. Fa’afetai!

Group members

  • Verona Mauga (Le Malu), co-chair
  • Richard Wolfgramm, co-chair
  • Dr. Maile Arvin
  • Fred Frost
  • Aljay Fuimaono
  • Dr. Kēhaulani Natsuko Vaughn
  • Moana Palelei HoChing