HONOLULU (KHON2) — Showcasing traditional tatau designs, or tattoo designs, from masters to young up-and-coming artists and practitioners, Bishop Museum is unveiling a brand new exhibit Saturday, Nov. 13, called “Tatau: Marks of Polynesia.” 

To find out more, KHON2 met with a few people, and when walking the exhibit, a lot of what is shown highlights Samoan tattoos. 

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KHON2 first met with Afu and asked: What does the word tatau mean?

“The word tatau — there are two words in there,” explained Afu Lefaoseu III, Special Projects Manager with the American Samoan Government, Hawaii Office. “It is a compound word, is the word ta which means ‘to strike,’ and the word tau means ‘connect.’ So, it’s a connect strike. The word is originally from Samoa, but in the Pacific, the word tattoo originates from the word tatau. But right now, we call it Marks of Polynesia.” 

When we are walking through the exhibit, there are a lot of Samoan designs. But then what do the designs mean? 

KHON2 then met with Steve — who is actually a Sulu’ape — and asked: What does that title mean? What are these designs, and what are the stories that are being carried within these designs?

“The Sulu’ape title is a title from my mentor’s family, and that title is referred onto his students who have studied under him who he feels are prepared to carry on the traditional form of Samoan tattooing to continue the family tradition.”

tattoo artist Sulu’ape Steve Looney

“So like with Samoan tattooing, it tells the story of our people and their way of life. So, the designs that you see in them usually represents the environment, their home life and then also just the island and the ocean and their way of living,” Sulu’ape Steve Looney.

By continuing to walk through the exhibit, guests can see a lot of different pictures from a variety of parts — from Samoa to Hawai’i to even parts of the continent. 

KHON2 also spoke with John, who is part of the curating team, and asked: With all this being shared and the culture behind the art of tattoo, what are your hopes that each guest who walks through this walks away with?

“The beginning of this, our curator Takahiro Kitamura, came up with an idea along with Sulu’ape Steve too; we want to share this story with the world,” explained John Agcaoili, exhibition photographer. “The sulu’ape tatau art form, the tatau Marks of Polynesia. And I think, I believe, that this exhibit and the images that we captured through this journey encapsulates that and shows not only the history of the art form but where it’s going.”

Tatau: Marks of Polynesia” exhibition opens up at Bishop Museum Saturday, Nov. 13, lasting all the way through July 4, 2022.

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This Saturday, there will be live tattoo demonstrations, cultural presentations, food and much, much more. 

For everything about the new exhibit, click here.