blog / Reviving & Protecting Melanesian Tattoo

Fri, 01 May, 2015

Reviving & Protecting Melanesian Tattoo

Featured back in Issue 3 of Stella Magazine, Julia Mage’au Gray is Director of Sunameke Productions, a Melanesian Tattoo artist of Papua New Guinean descent, and filmmaker of the three-part documentary ‘Tep Tok: Reading Between Our Lines' - which documents efforts to revive traditional Papuan tattooing. 

As part of Melbourne’s Contemporary Pacific Arts Festival on April 9-11, Julia was to spend three days as a festival Artist-in-Residence, demonstrating traditional tattooing by working on individual pieces by appointment. After an organisational error which prevented her from taking residence at the festival venue, Julia fortuitously found a home at Tatt Datt Tattoo, and over the three days of the festival, worked in this studio on tattoos - Melanesian Tatu - using the ‘Hand Poke Method’ taught to her by a number of Pasifika tattoo artists.  

In a recent post on her website, Julia describes her collaborative tattooing process:

“As is my process before I mark someone; I look at the body as a whole and as our women did before us, choose where and what to be marked on the body. Normally women bring their familial designs. It's a collaborative process where we talk and decide together; today’s world is highly focused on the 'I' as opposed to our old Pasifika way which focused on the 'we'. Clyde's studio felt like a safe zone where myself and the ladies to be marked could have these discussions.”

Among her clients, Grace Dlabik (Papua New Guinean heritage) was marked with her aunties’ revareva - marks she had been waiting for since she was twelve years old. It was a profoundly moving experience for both women. Dulcie Stewart (Fijian heritage) shared with Julia amazing sketches of Fijian women’s markings, circa 1870. Julia was able to recreate the marks on Dulcie’s skin.

But the experience also presented challenges. In a recent website post, Julia reflects on the strong, conflicting emotions she felt when confronted with a young client who had lifted traditional tattoos from various cultures around the world. The young woman - not of Papuan descent - had found a photograph of a long lost Papuan Tatu, a design called Mage'au, and had already had an exact replica inked onto her back. 

Julia writes:

“I was looking at a taker of something we (mekeo people) haven’t had the opportunity to truly claim back yet and already, it was upon skin that was not ours. I was looking at a taker who wanted to keep on taking. A young woman lost in her dislike of self, hoping to find some salvation in marking herself with something she thought was beautiful.”

Eventually, Julia decided to channel her emotions into a teachable moment with the client. Read her passionate reflections on this Melbourne experience in full on the Tep Tok website HERE.

Follow Tep Tok on Facebook HERE.


WORDS by Pauline Vetuna.


Photo: Julia marks Dulcie Stewart.

(Photo credit: Seini Taumoepeau)

Photo 2: Julia and Dulcie display Dulcie's completed tatu.

(Photo credit: Moale James)


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