JULIA MAGE'AU GRAY, is passionate about reinvigorating traditional women's tattoo designs and hopes Pacific Islanders will once again value this almost vanished cultural practice. She speaks with Matilda Simmons of the Fiji Times….
I AM of Papua New Guinea and Australian heritage and was raised in both countries and have been exposed all of my life to the impact of two very separate and distinctive cultures.
As an artist I find various ways to express my heritage and the experiences and issues from a mixed race perspective. I am a dancer, tattooist and a visual artist.
For the past 20 years, I have directed Sunameke Productions with the ethos, ‘From old to new old, that's how we go forward’.
For the past five years, I have been dedicated to reviving a cultural practice that has become nearly extinct.
The art of tattooing in Central Province, Papua New Guinea, was primarily a woman's practice and is the focus of a documentary I directed and edited in my role as director of Sunameke Productions with three Papua New Guinean-Australian women who made up the Tep Tok crew.
We travelled from Australia to PNG and then further abroad to Samoa, Tahiti, Cook Islands and New Zealand, collecting stories, interviewing old women who still wear our marks and also Polynesian tattooists.
The Tep Tok crew discussed the issues that arose with each subsequent trip. This became a three-part documentary entitled, ‘Tep Tok: Reading Between Our Lines’.
Each trip brought forth new issues to face: identity; validity; and acceptance.
There were Issues of reviving and the recreating old marks that belong to families yet are desired and taken by outsiders leading to issues of protection of knowledge and how the marks bring empowerment to the wearer.
The journey to raise awareness for our dying art form transitioned into picking up tattoo tools. Today, I choose to practise the hand poke tattoo method. In my experience, this is the least painful way to apply permanent marks to skin.
Our bubu (grandmothers) were marked but our mothers were not and becoming a tattooist was the best way to ensure our generation and the next would wear our marks again so our old people's thinking would not be totally lost.
During my time filming our PNG tattoo revival documentary in 2012, I interviewed Auckland-based Fijian artist and curator Ema Tavola about her knowledge and understanding of Fijian tattoo history from an artist's perspective.
This interaction began a conversation spanning over three years, which then led to an invitation to partake in the research trip for the Veiqia Project in 2015.
The most amazing thing about the Veiqia Project for me has been the connections made while searching for documents, artefacts and stories: discovering the Fiji version of the Samoan legend of the origins of tatau in Samoa; understanding the multifaceted relationships between our islands; accepting the loss of knowledge and yet holding on to the hope that the relationships between our islands will help revitalise that which has been preserved.
It has been, for me, about accessing old knowledge sleeping in museum back rooms and libraries and breathing life into our old ways and thoughts.
My personal approach to bringing back our women's tattoo practice in PNG is undertaken with the knowledge that we are not the same as we were.
Our beliefs and our values have changed with the influence of outside cultures and I am a firm believer that we can wear these marks again to pay respect to the women that came before us and simultaneously find the balance that doesn't disrespect our beliefs today.
This approach is something I have been sharing with the artists from the Veiqia Project and the process involves much discussion about what the revitalisation of these tattoos means to all of us.
In Papua New Guinea tattoo designs belong to women and their clans. They denote where they came from and the connections to their family and their village. They speak of a woman's strength and status and the designs themselves tell the lineage of who are and where her connections lie.
It has been a welcomed challenge to recreate and revitalise the marks found during the initial research trip in Fiji and to place those marks their skin, from a Melanesian perspective where tattooing for us in Papua New Guinea was also a woman's practice.
I am truly honoured to be able to share some of the story behind our Melanesian tattoo movement.