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Story of my Rotuman Inspired Fạ‘i

by Matthew Bray

A tatau exhibit was curated by the fantastic Loketi Niua Latu at the NGV Studio in Federation Square, Melbourne Australia this year as part of the Craft Victoria Festival, showcasing some modern Oceanic tattooing and putting it in a historical context. Tattooing was conducted on site, including the fantastic Tricia Allen, who shared from her deep knowledge of Polynesian tattoo revival, of which she’s been a champion. Part of the exhibit included a photojournalism project to tell the stories of tattooed folk in Melbourne, and I was lucky enough to be a part of it. Below is my submission with a cheeky instagrammed selfy, because I wasn’t the hugest fan of the professional shot taken of me haha!

Our tattoo (“fạ‘i” in the Rotuman language) is a tangible expression of the pride I have in my family and our people – literally wearing my heart on my sleeve. I come from a mixed-race family but have always been heavily immersed in and gravitated to my mother’s Rotuman culture, but as a half-caste with a European name I am rarely recognised for the Polynesian heritage I grew up in and the identity I hold dear. In my adolescence I saw the burgeoning popularity of Polynesian tattoos in Australia and saw it as an opportunity to change my physicality and bring it in line with the person I felt inside: if I couldn’t be a big brown rugby player, at least I could share my story in my skin.

I designed our tattoo over a number of years of research and reflection. Historically tattoos are designed by the artisan tattooist (“majạu” in Rotuman) but as we knew no Rotuman tattooists and our traditional designs are confined to history books, I took it upon myself to design something that was inspired by Rotuman motifs and aesthetics but that symbolised my family and was suitable for my profession. Taking patterns from Rotuman carvings, weaving and the few recorded tattoos I drew these into a narrative that summarised the three most important facets to my life: my family, our heritage and our faith. As the elder of two brothers, I waited until my younger brother turned 18 so we could be tattooed together and affirmed in these three primary values as we step into manhood.

The mana in a tattoo is as much sourced from the artisan and his/her hands as the artwork itself. As I’d only recently moved to Melbourne we decided upon Maori artist Shane Gallagher of Chapel Tattoo to do the honours. Not only is he blessed with fine skills and vision (evidence of mana) but he is one of very few Western artists familiar with Rotuman tattoos and could appreciate the magnitude of what he was doing both in our lives and in the continuum of the Rotuman cultural revival.

We were careful to have approval from members of our immediate and extended family before proceeding with the tattoo: after all, our traditions are imbued with a spiritual power that does not belong to us and so must be dealt with respect and care. It is customary for those who shed blood ceremonially or therapeutically to have another person sacrifice their blood too in appeasement of the “atua” (spirits), and so it was appropriate as brothers to do it together.

Our family conducted a “hapagsū” ceremony after the tattoos were completed to ward off bad fortunes that may arise after such a major undertaking. Other Rotuman tattoo enthusiasts have in recent years embarked on courageous journeys to renew the artform through their own skin, including using traditional tools. However, as the customary procedures were neglected, some have befallen major accidents which elders attribute to their failure to appease the spirits who still own those facets of our culture. It is an honour and privilege to bring faded artforms back to life in the modern world and so one must assume humility before the ancient custodians of that craft.

Having been tattooed early on in my university career as I worked towards becoming a doctor, one of my concerns was having patients refuse or be wary of me as a student for having clearly displayed body art instead of blending into the standard professional presentation. Instead my fạ‘i proves useful with patients as a conversation piece, a distraction tool for small children and a way to relate with tattooed patients and others who see in a tattooed medico a more relaxed down-to-earth person. As my studies progress into their intense latter stages I find myself feeling less and less down to earth, but whether in the hospital or at my desk I need only look down to my forearm to draw strength from my (l)ink to my ancestors and the seeds of Rotuman culture which have taken root deep in my soul.

Matt's Arm Tattoo

Posted on Mana Musings, November 28, 2012

We invite submissions of other examples of Rotuman tattoos as well as commentaries