The History of the Tattoo

Interview with Emiko Omori, director of Skin Stories

In celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage month, DUE EAST airs on PBS and features special programming on the history and culture of Asian Pacific Americans. On May 27, 2003 Thirteen (WNET) presented the documentary Skin Stories, an anthology of stories and stunning images gathered from the hot spots in the Pacific. The film covers a wide range of areas from the steaming landscape of Rotorua in New Zealand to the vibrant gathering of the first international tattoo convention in Apia, Samoa, to the terraced, lush taro fields of Maui and the golden beaches of O’ahu and California. Featuring traditional tattooing ceremonies, compelling interviews, and a breathtaking collection of tattoo body art, Skin Stories traces the roots of the tattoo, highlighting individual stories and the evolution of cultural traditions in the Pacific.

Emiko Omori has traveled the globe for more than 30 years as a cinematographer for many award-winning documentaries. Omori taught filmmaking in California and Hawaii and was the San Francisco Bay Area's first Asian American female news cameraperson. As Director and Co-Producer for Skin Stories, Omori was able to explore her personal interest in tattooing, which dates back to the 1970s.

Asia Society spoke with Omori about the making of the documentary and the significance of tattooing in South Pacific cultures.

What made you interested in exploring the history of the tattoo?

I have had a personal interest in tattoos since the '70s when I was introduced to Japanese style tattooing. Pacific Islanders in Communications [a nonprofit organization that supports the development of national public broadcast programming by and about Pacific Islanders] already had this project in place and I had done some work with them in the past and so it seemed like a good match. I had not really explored Polynesian style tattoos but I am a friend of Leo Zuleta who was instrumental in exposing this particular style of solid black abstract designs. I knew him when he first started getting interested in this style and he published a magazine called Tattoo Times. It featured this style of tattooing, calling it "new tribalism," which caught on as the name for it.

How is Japanese tattooing different from styles seen in the Pacific Islands?

The Pacific tattoo is very different in several ways. In the West, the types of tattoos, particularly the ones we were used to seeing 15 or 20 years ago, were the collector's style. You got little things here and there; it came out of the tradition of sailors who went some where and returned with a tattoo and could say, "I got this in Hong Kong or Japan."

The Japanese style, generally speaking, shows one story on one body. It is integrated and usually figurative. There could be dragons or warriors and there is usually a myth behind the images. So the Japanese style is pictoral whilet the Polynesian style is much more abstract. Particularly in the South Pacific where they did not have access to colors, the styke is characterized by black design. In the US, this style became popular in prisons because they also didn't have access to colors.

I don't think it had the same family significance in Japan as it did in the South Pacific. Although in Japan there were groups that used a similar design that characterized a particular group. There may have been crests that were used. Working people also had them, such as fishermen and firemen, because often times tattoos were used for protection so people in dangerous occupations had them. I think a lot of people see tattoos as having this kind of protection power and that is why the tattoos themselves can be ferocious looking. They are like the lions at the temple gate to ward of evil and hostility.

How did you find these skin stories?

Since the project had already begun when I started, some research had already been conducted. The first production shoot was of a tattoo convention in Samoa. I was not at the convention but when I reviewed the footage, we were able to identify these wonderful people. Since it was the first ever convention in Samoa, and even western Samoa where a lot of the master tattoo practitioners live, people felt they were going to meet the true masters where the tradition has been unbroken. So the original people who started this documentary talked to a lot of people there. When watching the footage with my co-producer Lisa Altieri, we knew we needed to go back to talk to these people in New Zealand and Samoa. Lisa lives in Hawaii and so we went around there as well. It is not a huge world so the same names came up who we knew we should talk to.

It was interesting to see a revival among many of the younger people, both Samoan and Maori, who decided to bring back this tradition of tattooing after an older generation had rejected it. Do you think this is a passing trend or is this a larger reexamination of history as seen sometimes in the US when younger Asian American populations turn back to Asian traditions to gain back a sense of self?

I can see the whole revival of cultural interest in the South Pacific in one physical example of the building of the Hokule'a canoe in Hawaii. The effort to build it was to test and prove that the people in the South Pacific were all fine navigators who could navigate celestially and that they didn't accidentally bump into these islands the way people assume. In reality these people were very fine and sophisticated navigators. So in the '70s when interest began in Hawaii to look back into their cultures, there was a building of this canoe called "The Hokule'a" that sailed to Tahiti, which is where we think a lot of people from Hawaii came from. They did this just by celestial navigation and this was the beginning of a great interest in looking back into the past.

It was surprising and unexpected to find this desire so strong in the people that we spoke to for this film. Tattoos are a real way of reclaiming a culture that was almost lost. In some cases in Hawaii, the connection is pretty thin and they are continually searching through the past. In New Zealand, there are lots of photographs documenting tattoo designs but of course meanings are lost. It is always evolving.

Not only is the tattoo itself sacred and important for people but so is the tattoo artist. Your documentary focuses on stories of people who get tattoos but did you anticipate that there would also be stories about the people who design and make the tattoos?

This is again very different from the way it is in the West. The tattooist was really seen as a shaman who was very important. That artist could decide for whatever reason whether you were worthy of the tattoo or not. In the US, it is a commercial art where you go into a tattoo parlor and pick something off the wall. But in Samoa and New Zealand you couldn't get a tattoo without permission from certain people such as chiefs in the village. It is still today a little like this in Samoa where not just any person can get one. It has special meaning and status and you need to earn that status. In Maori and Samoan cultures, tattooing is much more a community thing. I think also in Hawaii tattooists are trying to revive this aspect of the tradition so that is why in the film you see that a person can't just say, "I want this one on me." It has got to have some meaning for you. It is more spiritual and tied to traditions.

I got a tattoo during my trip by the Maori tattoo artist Gordon Hatfield. I love it but when I think back about when I got it I think it is pretty frightening in the sense that he just started drawing the design on my wrist. We didn't discuss anything. But this is after we had spent some time together. So the person picks it for you. Since I am not a Maori, he gave me symbolic images of the ocean including a hammerhead shark and a stingray. Those creatures have their own meaning in this culture. They mean strength and courage. You want something on you that has some relationship to you. It could have a familial aspect or just something about you personally.

Is the tattooing process painful? In the film it seems like all the people are quite calm when receiving the tattoo.

It is painful but it is bearable and it doesn't last long. But when I watched the young men in Samoa when they were doing huge areas of solid black tattooing I can see how painful it could be. Traditionally in Samoa and Tahiti when they did that kind of work it was physically very dangerous because of infections, which is why there were a lot of rituals to deal with it. For instance, Maoris couldn't eat and they had to drink from a straw and people couldn't touch them. You were sequestered and this ritual probably came about partially to prevent physical harm. In Samoa, tattooing used to be done in pairs so they could also prevent being lost in a spiritual realm. The two of you protected each other.

Now you have machines that have the needle that goes up and down to puncture the surface the skin but in the old days they used a little hammer. To do those large areas of tattooing they would have a series of needles that looked like a comb. It is amazing that these guys could get these huge blocks of color just with these little needles. Particularly Samoan work that has straight lines takes a lot of skill since the skin is flexible. They also didn't really do a lot of drawing beforehand. They might have made a few landmarks but that's it.

Your film is being aired on PBS's series DUE EAST in celebration of Asian Pacific Heritage Month. What do you hope audiences come away with after seeing your documentary?

I hope they come away with a deeper understanding of the art form. I hope they realize that tattooing is an art and it has deep cultural meaning. It is not what is generally associated with it here in the US, which are gangsters or bikers or outlaws. One of the comments I really like in the film was from one of the Maori men who says, "Imagine coming to a place and everyone has a tattoo but you, meaning the white settlers, and that without one you are the odd one." We tend to view the world from our own perspective. So we often look at tattoos with the perception of gangs, bikers, and criminals, etc. rather than this very beautiful art form that takes a great deal of skill and craft and has a lot of deep meaning attached to it. It is the opposite in the US because getting a tattoo is seen as a rebellious act. In the South Pacific it is to turn them around to be proud of who they are. Some of the tattoo work is cover work, meaning they had gotten tattoos in the past that were the more western macho types and now they are literally covering over that past, covering over what is not them and now trying to discover who they are.

It is also a form of storytelling and graphics arts that has survived. These communities didn't build stone houses so most of the physical things, except for some of the wood carvings and pottery, were made of material that disintegrates. So tattoos are a form of passing down history and stories and now new symbols are evolving. I want people to realize there is a long history and tradition behind tattoos. This kind of permanent alteration of your body in order to make a statment is something you shouldn't take lightly. As well, I would like people to get to know people from another part of the world. I have a New Yorker friend who asked me if you need a passport to get to Hawaii. I think people just find it really exotic so there are moments when we just judge faces. As a non-white person working in this business of trying to communicate stories, I would really like to break down the barriers of race. The people in this film have such beautiful faces and I would like the world to notice.

Interview conducted by Cindy Yoon of The Asia Society