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vol. 10, No. 5
October/November 2007

  >>   The Great Race
  >>   In the Land of the Western Sun

Making a Mark 

story by Julia Steele
photo by Kyle Rothenborg


In the Sheraton Papeete ballroom, there are bodies everywhere in various states of undress: pants hiked up, shirts pulled off. There is blood, angry skin, fists clenched against pain. The buzz of electric needles and the flow of ink are constant. Everywhere, art is being made on flesh.

Welcome to Tattoonesia, a weekend-long homage to one of Polynesia’s greatest gifts to the world: tattooing. The art form originated in these islands, and for the third year in a row now, hundreds will gather in Papeete to celebrate that fact. They’ll come from throughout Oceania and as far away as Japan, Canada, Australia and America, some to be tattooed, others to do the deed. Those in the latter category are among the best tattoo artists on Earth, their dedication evidenced by the canvases of their own bodies: Most are tattooed from head to toe, sometimes in the wild, intricate colors and characters that typify Japanese tattooing, sometimes in the bold geometric patterns of classic Polynesian tattooing, sometimes in something completely unique.

In the ballroom, the dozens of tattooers set up individual workstations. There is a medical center, too, to make sure everything is sanitary and sterilized needles are in abundance. Then the doors are thrown wide and hundreds enter for their markings. Ink is spun into turtles, lizards, marlins, flowers, kanji, dragons. Artists trade techniques, information, stories. The styles vary dramatically: In one booth there is a tattooer from Samoa who has foregone needles altogether to work with traditional tools; in another there’s Zulu, a tattooer to the stars from Los Angeles who has marked everyone from Bruce Willis to Janet Jackson. Talk to Zulu, though, and it’s clear that while his art may look very different, philosophically, he’s not so far from his Samoan counterpart—his mission, he says, is not to put something on a person, but to bring that which is within him to the surface. Thousands of years ago, tattooing began as a sacred ritual, a rite of passage that marked—literally—the next phase of a person’s life. Though it’s gone global, at Tattoonesia, that spirit remains.