New article alert! "Psychoneuroimmunology and Tattooing" out now in Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology!
This new article is based on data collected at the 2017 Northwest Tatau Festival and is the first publication of analysis from those data. Summarizing the article in one sentence:
"The psychological and physical experience of being tattooed may contribute to physiological adaptations that prepare the skin for other injury."
Click on this link to the full PDF. Below is a slide show of photos from the tattoo festival for your enjoyment while reading.
I was impressed with the Polynesian Cultural Center. It seems like a cultural Disneyland, but it's owned by the Mormon Church and staffed by Brigham Young University students. So on the one hand, we expected the cheesiness that apparently appeals to tourist; but on the other hand, we expected religious messaging to mar the presentation. I was impressed with the limited amount of cheese and the complete lack of religious messaging anywhere that I could detect. What I know about Mormonism comes from Rob Ruck's book The Tropic of Football: The Long and Perilous Journey of Samoans in the NFL and Arthur Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet. Of course the first is recent non-fiction, while the latter is an old fiction book. But the upshot is that Mormonism doesn't operate the way Christianity does. I've known a lot of Mormons because of their missionary style. My impression is that they go abroad to do service work and set an example but do not actively convert. So a lot of folks like the cultural experience and go into anthropology. A Mormon kid we met had the pule tattoo, which he'd received to settle him down apparently, and he told us that Mormons don't prohibit tattoos. They usually advise against them, but they are OK with cultural tattoos, which is what they consider Samoan tattooing. This is different than what Samoan Mormon kids in American Samoa who accompanied a non-Mormon friend to get tattooed, but I haven't checked this anywhere else.
The great thing for us about the PCC is that we were looking for Samoans to interview, and the easiest way to identity Samoans in Hawaii without just asking (which can be weird and potentially insulting for a variety of reasons) is to go to the Samoan Island exhibit at PCC because each cultural island is staffed by students from that island. The catch is that PCC is expensive, and we didn't want to pay to go in and look for people to interview, especially since we were skeptical of this tactic at first. So we went back and forth between the main entrance and BYU campus behind PCC looking for folks and kept getting steered by to PCC. Finally, we went in and stopped by the kiosk owned by friends of Tricia Allen (more on her later), who promptly offered to comp us in for both the park and the evening show (this happened again later in the month when I returned with my wife--we arrived with malasadas the second time, but the effect was the same--having connections is the best!).
Picked up fresh manapua from Island Manapua Factory in Manoa, just down the road from our room in the East-West Center on University of Hawaii and headed over to TT's parents' house. We were there to pay respects to and watch Su'a Peter Sulu'ape tattoo. Su'a Peter is 8th generation tufuga ta tatau in 'Aiga Su'a, or 8th in a line (according to an interview I conducted with his father in 2019) Samoan master hand-tap tattooist from the Su'a family. The Sulu'ape family have maintained the Su'a tradition for several generations.
TT grew up with the Sulu'apes, and she and Peter call each other brother and sister and each others' parents mom and dad. Su'a Alaiva'a Petelo Sulu'ape, Peter's father, explained things to me similarly when I interviewed him in 2019--he has many kids, some of whom are biological children and others he raised or helped raise. Football fans would recognize TT's last name, but I'm sticking with initials here to give her family some relief from the panoptical gaze of football fans. She is the manager of Sulu'ape Skinz, Su'a Peter's handtap tattoo business, and also married to the uncle of at least one professional football player currently in the NFL. In fact, if we'd have popped in on Friday instead of getting "grounded" in our field site by exploring a bit, we'd have met said football star, who was in town to see family and popped in. TT's daughter also goes to Alabama, and I run into her occasionally at the gym where we both work out. She is easy to spot if you know what a Samoan malu looks like.
TT's parents have a lovely split level home with an open carport in a nice Honolulu neighborhood near a military base. TT isn't home, but Su'a knows we're coming and greets us upon entering the carport. A fale is set up in the carport, and the carport has been extended with awnings to create space for viewers to set off to the side. Immediately upon entering are tables with chairs around it and several bags of McDonald's someone brought (everyone brings food, so there is food arriving all day). We meet Su'a's toso and wife. Su'a is the title and name of someone who apprenticed in the Su'a guild and who was gifted the title with tatau tools by a tufuga ta tatau. Toso is the Samoan word for the stretchers, who stretch the skin so Su'a can tap. The toso include ED, a Samoan language instructor who I had been trying to contact separately, as I had learned that he has the pe'a (traditional Samoan tattoo for males) and knows all the Samoan tattoo artists. Knows? He has been toso for Su'a Peter since 2009 and travels all over the world with him. Little understatement. The other main toso is Su'a Peter's brother-in-law, who received his pe'a in November 2021 and began working with Peter as toso.
We all chatted for about 30 minutes. We inquire about learning the Samoan language and are told of ideas for an online Samoan language course that might interest us but also of an app we can use to learn words and how they are pronounced. He also suggests we listen to the audio version of the Bible in Samoan, because it has more Samoan words in it than any other translated document, and it's easy to put it next to an English translation to make sense of the grammar and syntax. As we're meeting everyone, they tell us they'd just been to Alabama. I knew Su'a and TT had been there but not this whole room of people. The whole crew, Su'a and his wife, TT and her husband and parents, both main tosos, and TT's nephew had all been to Texas in March and had come to Bama to visit TT's daughter. We were supposed to get together in Bama, but our schedules didn't line up. The funny part is that got a tour of the athletic facility, including Coach Nick Saban's office. They got to sit in Saban's chair and try on his championship rings! Let me put this into context: Su'a and his wife and BIL all live in New Zealand. BIL is a rugby fan and doesn't even watch football (there is a time zone issue even the poor people of Hawaii have to deal with--noon kickoffs on the east coast is 6 am for them--that's a dedicated fan who gets up at 6am on Saturday), but he got to sit in Nick Saban's desk chair and try on the championship rings. I am a full professor at the University of Alabama, and I have not even seen inside Nick Saban's office. (Though if I'm being honest, I haven't tried and haven't toured the Bryant Museum or toured the athletic facility since I was hired in 2009, before any of Saban's championships or Heisman trophy winners, etc.).
But I digress. Then Su'a and the toso went to work. There is a mat spread out on the ground for the tattooing area. Two big lights are set up behind the tufuga and fans are set up on either side to keep the bugs off and sweat down. There are customs to be followed to enter the fale: Everyone must wear ie (lavalava), shoes off, no hats or sunglasses, no video/photography/social media during sessions, and soles of one's feet should not be pointed toward elders.
The toso stuff pillows into plastic bags, push all the air out, and tie them off for sanitary padding. Bandanas receive the same treatment and are used to support the 'au (the hafted tattoo instrument). Su'a Peter prepares the various 'au (which he keeps in multiple sizes in a traveling case) by tying the needles to the head of the tool. The titanium needles are soldered together and replace the traditional boar tusk that was previously carved. Boar tusk do not maintain as much sharpness, so I am told that tattooing with the titanium combs is faster, cleaner, and heals better than bone combs. To tie the needles on, he pulls out a long piece of synthetic string (like dental floss), holds the end on top of the needles with one finger, wraps the string around 20-35 times, places a small loop of string on top, passes the end of the other string through the loop, wraps it a few more times, and pulls the loop out, which tucks the end of the string into itself without the need for a knot.
Now is time to start tattooing. The tufuga and toso sit cross-legged on the mat with their first client between them. The first client is a Samoan guy who came by himself from across the United States. The "by himself" part is a bit of an issue, since they're told to bring someone who can help wash them and massage the tattoo to prevent scabbing and infection. Mike (UA doctoral student Michael Smetana was my research assistant on this trip) and I move to the floor so we can watch more closely. The chairs need to be moved to the opposite side of the table away from the fale. Su'a begins marking the arc that will go on each hip. Yesterday, he started with the pe'a (bat) on the back. Today one flank, tomorrow the next, and so on over 5-10 days, depending on the number of clients. Today, he's working on parts of four pe'a and doing one whole malu. Su'a works on him for around two hours. We listen to the Sulu'ape Skinz playlist they have prepared for work, and the sound of the sousou tapping on the 'au gives a second backbeat to the music. (I always come home with a few new tunes or artists to add to my own playlists--this time it's The Five Stars and Mr. Tee).
TT comes home around 11:30 AM and beckons us to the back porch area. We slip our shoes on, walk around to the back, and she shows us the yard and such (including a baby 'ava tree!). They have a giant mango tree growing in the back, and occasionally one falls, making a loud boom on the plastic roof, before it drops into the yard behind the fence and rolls down the hill! Fortunately, they must rescue enough that TT sent us home with four juicy mango. We sat in the back area chatting because it's difficult for most people not raised to it to sit cross-legged on the floor for long and because it's rude to carry on with conversation next to them tattooing. TT caught us up on their travels schedules, COVID19 issues, etc. We learned, for instance, that tattoo shops were closed for 1.5 years, so many never reopened or had to go underground to make a living. Soul Signature, the shop of Samoan-Tongan tufuga Su'a Sulu'ape Toetu'u Aisea, closed its street-level shop and moved to a high-rise, where they do work by appointment only. I had originally met Su'a Peter at the same time I met Su'a Aisea, when I stopped into Soul Signature on a Hawaii stopover just to get a sense of Polynesian tattooing in Hawaii. We were going to pop in again until we saw on their website that they weren't doing walk-in business anymore, but I had no idea they'd moved.
ED comes back to talk with us and stretch out his back. The strain the tufuga and toso put their bodies through to sit on the floor for 8-16 hours is epic, and they pay the price. Other things I learned that I can share here: Su'a Paul Jr. Sulu'ape (Peter's brother) has gotten remarried, and they have a one-week-old baby boy. So I sent him a belated happy father's day via Insta, since I'm not able to get to Samoa this year.
In addition to all the food people bring, TT makes sure they have whatever Su'a and the toso need, so there are flats of soda, water, Gatorade, Monster, Alohas, and canned cappuccino. I down a Monster while we chat, then we go back to the mat to watch the next pe'a. We watch this one all the way through, picking up the hand fans to help out keeping the bugs off. Afterward, the man's wife asks us what we're doing and chats with us about the importance of religion in Samoan tattoo. I'm fascinated and will be processing that one in my brain for a while. That in addition to a comment made that Samoans in Hawaii who belong to a Samoan church maintain the Samoan culture, and those that aren't members of a Samoan church do not, because it is the churches were the center of village life in Samoa.
Everyone sits around the tables to eat some food while they take a break. I have a manapua and a can of cappuccino. Much better than the manapua I ate for dinner out of the nearby 7-11 on my first night, since nothing else was open by the time I was dealt with by the rental car company (just a little double-bind in which first my travel agent booked my rental car for the layover airport instead of the final destination, and then I forgot to renew my drivers' license before leaving).
Then the other brother gets the same part of his pe'a done, which we sit and watch until around 4 or 5. Then it's time for dinner. Su'a invites Mike and I to come sit with him, and they divvy up the dinners that the two families have brought for everyone (part of their responsibility). Food is also prepared upstairs and brought in. There is a steam cooker of white rice and a meat and veggie soup. The meals are teriyaki chicken and beef, garlic shrimp, and white rice with macaroni salad on the side (to keep it cold). There are several containers of poke in coconut milk as well.
After each client finishes their session, they go into the shower that is set up via a hose in a tent in the back to wash and have the tattoo massaged. After this, they help clean up the food then leave. Another family will have arrived in the meantime and are preparing for the next session. Between each client, the toso roll up the mat from the previous client, tear the bags off the pillows and replace them with new ones, strip the needles off the 'au and autoclave them. Su'a puts newly sanitized needles on with fresh string before each client.
After dinner, Su'a administered a malu. Aside from making the initial arrangements and making sure the client arrives with everything they are supposed to bring, TT stays out of the art and technical aspects. So she was speculating with us as we took a break after the first leg of the malu was completed to chat. The client's father was from American Samoa, as attested by his ie, which was a tailored ie faitago with pockets and belt loops, as opposed to ie lavalava, which is called sarong in other places. This ie also suggested he might be a church leader, as the style and pattern are associated with them. Furthermore, as Tracy indicated, the double malu (the malu is the whole traditional tattoo worn by women in Samoa, but it is also the name of the main symbol of the tattoo, a diamond on the back of the thigh) is reserved for daughters of priests and similarly high-ranking people. And the mother of the girl was also wearing a dress associated with church leaders' wives. She said she thought the girl's father might be a bishop. Initially, my eyes had been drawn more to his Michigan Wolverines shirt, so I'd been planning to talk football if we started chatting.
I met both of TT's parents while we were there, and they were very gracious and lovely. Her mother especially came down to watch and chat and was very generously teaching us Samoan words. She told us about her son the inventor too. He invented a toilet seat that sanitizes itself called "Washie." It's pretty ingenious, I gotta say. We've all struggled with those paper rings that we place on public toilet seats--the middle part falls in the water, gets wet and heavy, and pulls the whole ring into the water before we can land our hinies on them. Furthermore, public toilets during COVID19? Fuggetaboudit. So he invented a toilet that squirts sanitizer on the seat that you just wipe off with a little piece of toilet paper. Genius! TT was going to be the distributor (she has a few jobs), but they have licensing interest from a big public toilet company. The money is in the liquid to refill the toilet seat, so maybe Washie will be the next Harry's or something. Why not a subscription for Washie refills?
When the malu started back up, we scooted back down onto the mat to watch, though by this point our hips were screaming so badly it was difficult to sit there. Don't get me wrong--tattoos are painful, very painful sometimes, and I found the handtap style even more painful than electric, though I admit it's been many years since I got an electric tattoo--but the real pain being experienced in that room is by the toso and, to a lesser extent, the tufuga. The Old Man, as all his family respectfully refer to Su'a Alaiva'a Petelo Sulu'ape, grew up sitting cross-legged everywhere and seems to suffer not at all. Su'a Paul Jr. told me how painful it is for him, that the numbness causes him problems. TT worries for Su'a Peter's health, not just because of the posture he maintains, but the long days he works. Those of us unaccustomed simply cannot hold the posture for long after the first hour or so. I switch my legs back and forth to ease pain. The mat chafes the sides of my feet, so I wrap my arms around my knees and hold them up. Later, all I can manage is to fold them under me to either side and switch back and forth. By the end of the 16 hours stretch, I had to do it very slowly because spears of pain would shoot up through my back, and I was trying to keep my poker face. Other toso popped in for shorter stints, and TT's husband came in during the 2nd or 3th pe'a as a 3rd stretcher. I can see it causes them all problems to sit that way, and it is something we all note and comment upon over the course of the days' sessions.
Because this client got the double malu (malu is technically a specific pattern within the larger tatau, as the pe'a is the bat image of the male tatau, but the whole piece is also called pe'a), it took a little longer than usual, and Su'a finished her up around midnight. Even though they'd told us that he was doing parts of four pe'a, I couldn't imagine him starting another piece that late or of the person showing up ready to be tatted at that hour. But he did, and he did. Apparently, he has TT book up to five pe'a at a time sequentially in different cities, so he works under deadline and maintains his timeline hell or high water. Apparently he'd been at it till 6 the night before and 3 another night and had even worked on Sunday, which is unusual. We stayed until 3 when they wrapped up, but we did not go back the next day at 9 when they started up again. #Beastmode
By the time of the last pe'a, Mike and I were both brain fried. I was groggy from dinner for a while, then started to get a headache, as the pain from my ass radiated up through my body. Around midnight I drank a Coke, ate two donuts (at our donut break), and drank a full cup of cold McDonald's coffee of the six that had been brought over earlier in the day. Helped my headache. By the time of the end of the malu and the last pe'a, my hips hurt so bad that I'd moved up to a chair behind the table. However, Su'a Peter kept an eye on everyone throughout the proceedings. When he wanted anything, he'd whisper to a toso who would turn and ask anyone but Mike or me. I think that was out of respect, but at one point I awkwardly asked him at his own house if there was anything I could get for him, just so I could feel useful. One of the things I love about working with Samoan tufuga is that he chats with the toso the whole time they work, and they laugh a lot, and I like joking around with them too. They have great senses of humor, so it's easy to cut up with Su'a. However, one of the things I don't love is that I don't know their language and so want to know what they're laughing at and never do. So there is always a bit of awkwardness in trying to relax into a situation wherein everyone is laughing but you and you have no clue what the joke is. Anyway, Su'a is keeping an eye on things, so I don't want him to catch me drifting off in the chair and bust my chops over it, so I slip back onto the floor for one last stint, figuring the pain would keep me away.
Somewhere along the way I read that Samoans consider it rude to sit and write things down in front of people. So they will listen politely and, if they need to write something down, they do it after the fact. So we don't take as many notes during these sessions as we would if we didn't care about appearing rude. I say this by way of noting that there are several things I learned or that people said, but since I wasn't taking my scratch notes on pad in my pocket throughout the course of the night, I don't have an accurate recall of the order of all events. Not that it matters. Other interesting things I learned:
Su'a Peter is collaborating with the same liaison I work with at the Centre for Samoan Studies at the National University of Samoa on Moana II! Su'a was the consultant for the tattoos of Maui in Moana, and they consulted him again on the script for the sequel, but they had Moana getting half a malu, then running away and leaving it unfinished until the third movie. That's something that wouldn't happen, and no one knows of it happening. The closest TT could relate was a girl who found the malu so painful that Su'a had to stop and send her home to recover herself so it could be finished the next day. Unfinished pe'a and malu are considered shameful to everyone--the tufuga, the family that paid for the tatau and put the person forward as ready, and of course the person. Unfinished pe'a are called pe'amutu, and one way to spot them is if someone has the pe'a peeking out of shorts at the knees but never takes their shirt off because they don't want people to see that they didn't get the pute (navel), which is the last part done and is in, well, the bellybutton. But that's pe'a, which takes like 30-35 hours, as opposed to the malu, which is 3-6. No island girl would run away with an unfinished malu for more than one evening if that, so Su'a Peter refused to be involved unless they fixed it from a cultural perspective. Cool, right?
Su'a kept his ink in an Alabama coffee cup. I forgot to get a photo, but Roll Tide.
So yeah, Su'a finished up at 3 am. We said goodbye to everyone, wobbled out, spent a few minutes discussing, then got to sleep so we could make our appointment the next morning to drive up to the pa of Kawika Au, a Hawaiian hand-tap artist I first encountered when he was stretching for at the 2018 Northwest Tatau Festival. But more on that next post...
Last semester, I started a new podcast for the Inking of Immunity project. I am the executive producer and cohost the podcast with UA doctoral student Mike Smetana and University of Sunderland (UK) evolutionary psychologist Dr. Becci Owens. Check out our new preview episode wherever you download your podcast, then go back and listen to our last season. Of course, be sure to like, subscribe, review, tell your friends, tell your enemies, etc.
I’d been in Samoa for a month, studying Samoan tattooing culture and the impact of the big traditional pieces called pe’a and malu – tatau in general – on the immune system. Now I was getting my own hand-tapped leg tattoo, albeit considerably smaller.
This field season was the fourth of my research on the relationship between tattooing and immune response. My first study had focused on a small sample, mostly women, in Alabama. What I’d observed among that group suggested that tattooing could help beef up one’s immune response.
But one small study in the United States wasn’t proof of anything – despite headlines blaring that tattoos could cure the common cold. Good science means finding the same results multiple times and then interpreting them to understand something about the world.
That’s why I traveled in 2018 with fellow anthropologist Michaela Howells to the Samoan Islands. Samoans have a long, continuous history of extensive tattooing. Working with contemporary machine and hand-tap tattooists in American Samoa, we wanted to see if we’d find the same link to enhanced immune response.
Immune defenders rush to tattoo’s tiny wounds
More than 30% of Americans are tattooed today. Yet, few studies have focused on the biological impact beyond risks of cancer or infection.
Tattooing creates a permanent image by inserting ink into tiny punctures under the topmost layer of skin. Your body interprets a new tattoo as a wound and responds accordingly, in two general ways. Innate immune responses involve general reactions to foreign material. So getting a new tattoo triggers your immune system to send white blood cells called macrophages to eat invaders and sacrifice themselves to protect against infection.
Your body also launches what immunologists call adaptive responses. Proteins in the blood will try to fight and disable specific invaders that they recognize as problems. There are several classes of these proteins – called antibodies or immunoglobulins – and they continue to circulate in the bloodstream, on the lookout lest that same invader is encountered again. They’re at the ready to quickly launch an immune response the next time around.
Your body also launches what immunologists call adaptive responses. Proteins in the blood will try to fight and disable specific invaders that they recognize as problems. There are several classes of these proteins – called antibodies or immunoglobulins – and they continue to circulate in the bloodstream, on the lookout lest that same invader is encountered again. They’re at the ready to quickly launch an immune response the next time around.
This adaptive capacity of the immune system means that we could measure immunoglobulins in saliva as approximations of previous stress caused by tattooing.
In American Samoa, Howells and I worked at the Historic Preservation Office to recruit study participants with help from tattoo artists Joe Ioane of Off Da Rock Tattoos, Duffy Hudson of Tatau Manaia and traditional hand-tap tattooist Su'a Tupuola Uilisone Fitiao. Our sample of 25 tattoo recipients included both Samoans and tourists to the island.
We collected saliva at the start and end of each tattoo session, controlling for the tattoo duration. We also measured recipients’ weight, height and fat density to account for health. From the saliva samples, we extracted the antibody immunoglobulin A, as well as the stress hormone cortisol and inflammatory marker C-reactive protein. Immunoglobulin A is considered a frontline immune defense and provides important protections against frequent pathogens like those of the common cold.
By comparing the levels of these biological markers, we determined that immunoglobulin A remains higher in the bloodstream even after tattoos heal. Furthermore, people with more time under the tattoo needle produced more salivary immunoglobulin A, suggesting an enhanced immune response to receiving a new tattoo compared to those with less or no tattoo experience. This effect appears to be dependent on receiving multiple tattoos, not just time passed since receiving one. This immune boost may be beneficial in the case of other skin injuries and for health in general.
Tattooing seems to exert a priming effect: That’s what biologists call it when naive immune cells are exposed to their specific antigen and differentiate into antibodies that remain in the bloodstream for many years. Each tattoo prepares the body to respond to the next.
Other studies find that short-term stress benefits the immune system. Stress’s bad rap comes from chronic forms that really do undermine immune response and health. But a little bit is actually good for you and prepares your body to fight off germs. Regular exercise provides immune function benefits through repetition, not necessarily single visits to the gym. We think this is similar to how each tattoo seems to prepare the body for vigilance.
Our Samoan findings supported the results of my first study in Alabama. But of course correlation does not imply causation. Enhanced immune response is correlated with more tattoo experience, but maybe healthier people heal easily from tattooing and like to get them more. How could we find out if getting tattoos could actually make a person healthier?
‘Tatau belongs to Samoa’
Samoans have the oldest continuous tattoo culture in the Pacific Islands. Though many Samoans complain that young people are getting tatau for fashion, most get them to honor their heritage, saying their tattoo belongs not to them but to Samoan culture.
Samoans usually obtain permission from family to receive pe'a and malu. Getting and wearing these tattoos involve many responsibilities and indicate willingness to serve one’s community.
Several of the Samoans in our sample had little interest in getting other tattoos, and one even reported being afraid of needles. They get pe'a and malu for the importance of these tattoos to their cultural identity, not because they are fashionable ways to show off. The social expectations for Samoans mean that getting pe'a or malu is less about self-motivated fashion choices than getting a tattoo is in the U.S. This is why Samoa is a great place to investigate whether the immune bump we see after tattooing is due to healthier people going under the needle in the first place – in Samoa people of all body types and walks of life get them, from priests to politicans.
In July 2019 I focused on collecting multiple biological samples from people getting intensive tattoos in Apia, where they are administered daily in the center of town. I collected around 50 saliva samples from a dozen participants that will be analyzed in the coming year by anthropological immunologist Michael Muehlenbein.
An evolutionary take on tattoos
Tattoos may provide visual evidence that others home in on to identify healthy mates or hardy friends. Such signals of fitness have been compared to peacock tail feathers, which would be too much of a burden if the peacock were not have enough to escape predators.
Even in the modern environment with improved health care, tattoos may “up the ante” by artificially injuring the body to demonstrate health. In a study I conducted among nearly 7,000 undergraduates, male intercollegiate athletes in general and football players in particular were more likely to be tattooed than non-athletes and less likely to suffer tattoo-related medical problems than those non-athletes who were tattooed.
It’s not clear that the benefits tattooing provides are big enough to make a clinical difference on health, so don’t expect a new tattoo to cancel out a diet of cheeseburgers and fries. But there is no doubt that tattooing is associated with toughness, and that we humans influence each other through impressions as much as reality.
We're a little behind in our updates, so a few of these are dated...but without further ado.
This summer we ran a successful crowdfunding effort to fund the first half of a second field season to study Polynesian tattooing and immune response. I attended the Northwest Tatau Festival in Seattle/Tacoma, WA, where we collected data from 52 participants.
Next step is to gather the funds to analyze the samples!
It took several weeks, but I finally got my hands on a copy Sean Mallon and Sébastien Galliot’s new book Tatau: A History of Sāmoan Tattooing. To get right to the main point, it is an exceptional book, from the scholarship and ground it covers to the sheer beauty of the package and the hundreds of wonderful photographs. It’s difficult to know where to begin in summarizing it for a blog post, so I won’t actually try—aside from the fact that I have only just dipped my nose in and am not even pretending to give it a full review here. I will go right to what I have been wondering the most about—the missionary period. How is it that tatau survived the missionary and colonial period in Sāmoa but did not in any of the other Pacific Islands? Did they not try as hard?
Oh, they tried. According to Mallon and Galliot, the decentralization of Sāmoan authority may have played a large role and been abetted by the later arrival of the missionaries in the Sāmoan archipelago than to other islands. The initial missionization of Sāmoa was conducted by John Williams and the London Missionary Society, which had gone first to Tonga. Tonga and the Sāmoan Islands are close and have a long (and tense) history of close interaction (this according to a book I picked up published by the Samoan Studies Institute of the American Samoa Community College that I will have to track back down to cite appropriately). Thus, there have always been lots of Sāmoans in Tonga and lots of Tongans in Sāmoa (with the requisite slanders against each other--see my previous post for a bit on this in my field experience). In Tonga, they met a Sāmoan who had already converted to Christianity (not sure how, but there were vagabonds, outlaws, and castaway Europeans who had arrived in the Sāmoas earlier and set up heretical little Christian cults for themselves before) and who became their emissary and assistant in Sāmoan Christianization (this is my memory from reading Robert Shaffer’s coffee table history, American Samoa: 100 Years Under the United States Flag) while sitting in Off Da Rock Tattoos waiting for Joe to finish tattooing so I could collect another saliva sample).Drawing of Tongan tatatau by Louis Auguste de Sainson, official draughtsman of the voyage of Jules-Sebastien-Cesar Dumon d'Urville 1826-1829 on the corvette Astrolabe (From Mallon & Galliot 2018, p. 31)[/caption]
Importantly, early European reports of South Pacific tatau have it that Sāmoan and Tonga styles were similar or the same and characterized mostly by description of the pe’a, the male tatau the looks like nearly solid blue shorts. But Tonga was centralized under King George Taufa’aahau, who was Christianized by 1831 and banned tattooing in 1839 in the Vava’u Code, Tonga’s first set of laws. This effectively ended “traditional” tattooing as practiced by Tongans, but this did not apparently stop the Tongans from getting tatau—they simply traveled to Sāmoa for them! The same was true in other Pacific Islands. Makiko Kuwuhara indicates that tatau had disappeared in Tahiti shortly after the arrival of missionaries in the early 1800s in Tattoo: An Anthropology, and Tricia Allen notes the same pattern for Hawai’i in Tattoo Traditions of Hawaii.
According to Mallon and Galliot:
Part of the issue was that not enough missionaries were in the Sāmoas to have the kind of impact they’d had on other islands without the help of a central native authority. A previous Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society (WMMS) mission had made a small number of converts, but the mission was ended early because John Williams of the London Missionary Society (LMS) convinced the Wesleyan London HQ that the two missions (WMMS and LMS) had agreed to give LMS free reign over the Sāmoas. WMMS didn’t return until around 1857 and seems to have been somewhat indifferent to tatau. Reports about missionary indifference to tatau are ambivalent though—the issue seems to be that missionaries were aware of their limited numbers, precarious support, and potential for backlash if they were too heavy-handed in banning everything Sāmoans liked about their own culture. Tufuga tā tatau (tattoo master craftsmen) were considered matai (chiefs) and garnered high rank, status, prestige, and honor. Tatau ceremonies were huge village expenses lasting weeks to months that bonded alliances together. For instance, German colonial efforts to limit the authority of matai is what led in part to Sāmoan colonial resistance and forging allegiances with the U.S. and British to push the Germans out.Auta collected before 1871 and now in the British Museum collection (from Mallon & Galliot 2018, p. 43).
Sāmoan culture may have also benefited in ways from a period in which several matai were struggling to attain dominance over others but not succeeding. Part of Williams’ LMS missionization strategy in the Sāmoas was to convert chiefs who would impose Christianity in their territories. Not long after he arrived in 1830, he converted powerful chiefs Mālietoa Vaiinupō and Tui Ā’ana Tamalelagi, who made it possible to establish long-term missions in several districts. However, other districts resisted specifically because of traditional oppositions to the ‘āiga sā Mālietoa (Mālietoa clan). Williams realized he couldn’t institute laws without backlash by the powerful opponents and thus trained his missionaries to apply a light hand, making themselves available to give advice and so practice a more subtle form of evangelizing. Thus, Sāmoans were able to pick and choose what aspects of Christianity they wanted to abide by and which they did not.
The ability of some matai and their villages to hold out—and, ironically, an extended period of civil war among Sāmoans in the 18th century—may have protected much of Sāmoa’s cultural traditions, including tatau, from being relegated to the wastebin of the Christian missionization. Many districts on the big islands of Upolu and Savai’i remained untouched by LMS even 30 years after Williams’ arrival. Not far from where John Williams first landed in Savai’i, for instance, Chief Su’a of Salelāvalu remained faithful to native beliefs and maintained the last temple shrine in Sāmoa, a temple of Taimā (Taemā and Tilafigā are the twin women fabled to have brought tatau tools to Sāmoa and gifted them to ‘āiga sā Su’a).Tattooing day in Samoa 1868-70. Illustration for a publication titled 'The Natural History of Man: Being an Account of the Manners and Customs of the Uncivilized Races of Men' (from Mallon & Galliot 2018, p. 49)
Despite how über-Christian Sāmoans are today, their adoption of Christianity was reportedly very strategic. Missionaries arrived with cool swag (metal stuff, linen cloth by all accounts was just way more comfortable on the loins than siapo bark cloth—go figure), and chiefs could obtain prestige in their communities by allying with them. But the missionary period coincides with a struggle for the four pāpā—the four supreme titles of the Sāmoan hierarchy that comprised several large alliances—to become Tafa’ifa or sovereign over Sāmoa. The previous tyrannical Tata’ifa has literally just been offed by villagers from Fasito’outa weeks before Williams arrived. Thus Williams was faced with converting chiefs who were in the process of consolidating power for their own purposes. Thus, they would promise to obey Christian rules not to kill thy neighbor…right after they killed all those SOBs in the districts that opposed them. Ultimately, Sāmoans chiefs allied with various missions and colonial powers in attempts to attain hegemony in the archipelago, but no one power ever actually succeeded.
Since there is little record or description of Sāmoan tattooing before the colonial and missionary period, it is unclear how much tattooing changed. It appears to have varied throughout the islands, consistent with the prehistory of political instability across not just the Sāmoan Islands but also in conjunction with the extended relationship with Tonga. An ethnographic account by German naturalist Augustin Krämer (probably largely co-authored by Sāmoan chief Tofā Sauni), who worked in Sāmoa from 1897-99, suggests that the missionary impact on tattooing was that it transformed from being a large public ceremony to being a private one. The political system of Sāmoas remained largely intact; thus, tattooing was preserved in Sāmoa. Some of the larger changes in how Christianity appears so ubiquitous today in Sāmoa would come later with the arrival of the Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Pentecostals; but, while some of these continued to ban tattooing, some of the staunchest defenders of tatau today are among Sāmoan Christian pastors. More on that in a future post as I continue to explore this amazing book!
I am excited by the prospects of returning to the field next summer to do more research, as I’ve been digging into relevant theory in cultural evolution that is, I believe, spot-on in outlining what is going on with the resurgence of Pacific tattoo cultures. I’m struck by how completely so-called traditional tattooing practices were quickly purged from many Pacific cultures in the 19th century. (I use the term “traditional” as shorthand, since Pacific cultures have maintained tattooing practices to varying degrees during this period and never been isolated from the influences of each other or outsiders—according to Samoan poet and activist Albert Wendt, as quoted by anthropologist and Te Papa Museum Senior Curator of Pacific Cultures Sean Mallon in “Against Tradition”—there is no such thing as “traditional.”)
Mind you, we all know what shits missionaries and colonial agents were in trashing native cultures, but it wasn’t one-size-fits-all trashing. For instance, the French were more interested in trade alliances than enforcing decorum, such that it appears many French colonials got tatted up in native styles to show their sincerity (e.g., Bienville). It’s like when our ALLELE guest speakers throw out a gratuitous “Roll Tide” at the beginning of their talks to ingratiate themselves with the audience, except, well, way more committed to their cause (I wonder if LSU ichthyologist Prosanta Chakrabarty will say “Roll Tide” this week when he gives his talk two days before Bama whips LSU’s patootie…).
I’m a few chapters into reading Makiko Kuwuhara’s 2005 ethnography on tattooing in Tahiti (efficiently titled Tattoo: An Anthropology), and she notes that Tahitian tattooing almost completely disappeared right out of the missionary gate in the early 19th century (perhaps why we don’t see any tats in any of those Gaugin paintings). Tahitian tattooing reappeared like it did in the mainland U.S., among fringe and “deviant” types and in similar motifs. Then, what is so fascinating to me, traditional tattooing was reintroduced by Samoan tufuga ta tatau (tattoo masters).
I am imagining the Samoan tufuga who reintroduced traditional tattooing to Tahiti was the Sa Su’a Sulu’ape guild, but I haven’t read far enough in to confirm. However, based on our ethnographic interviews with tatau historian Christian Ausage in 2017, the Sulu’ape branch of the Sa Su’a guild was all that remained and that persisted of traditional Samoan tattooing. Sulu’apes have, as far as we can tell, ensured that the Samoan tradition remained unbroken and taught all active Samoan tufuga today. At least this is one of the things we’ll be investigating. Some of these answers are no doubt in the new book by Sean Mallon and Sébastien Galliot, but I have yet to get my hands on a copy.Su'a Petelo Sulu'ape sharing knowledge with our student research assistants before the Northwest Tatau Festival, Puyallup, WA, 2018 (Photo by author).
I am imagining that a variety of environmental/social factors are at play here, which, in theory, we can mathematically demonstrate with the data in hand. Joe Henrich, Bob Boyd, Pete Richerson, Christopher von Lueden, Alex Mesoudi, Maciej Chudek, and others I’ve been reading over the past few weeks make the case and provide the models we can use to test a few predictions in this regard.
Robert Shaffer’s giant coffee table book American Sāmoa: 100 Years Under the United States Flag indicates that tattooing and other native practices were banned by missionaries in Samoa but that Samoans just tended to compartmentalize and ignore some of those dictates, while becoming über Christian. Some have derisively called Shaffer’s history a biased account of governmental propaganda, but he was good friends with several Samoans I’ve come to respect immensely, such as Reggie Meredith and Wilson Fitiao, so I don't dismiss it out of hand. The book essentially indicates that, in the mid-19th century, American Samoa asked to become a territory of the U.S. so German mercantile companies did not take them over as was happening with Western Samoa. According to the book, Germans came into Western, set up trade, took land from native peoples, made tons of money, were pricks, and that led to the infamous standoff between British, U.S., and German navy ships that was interrupted by a hurricane (the summary of most brief histories of American Samoa). The colonial powers then simply divided the Samoas up instead of fighting over them, with Western Samoa going to Germany, Eastern going to the U.S., and the U.S. giving Britain Guam. After WWI, New Zealand was gifted Western, which became independent in the 1950s. After that, a quote from former American Samoa Historic Preservation director John Enright from his noir detective series (Fire Knife Dancing, in this case) based in American Samoa seems aptly to describe the circumstances, though it also brings into question the whole please-help-us-U.S. of Shaffer:
But I digress. The simplifying model I’m imagining (great quote from someone via Katie Hinde during her recent visit by the way—“all models are simple; some are useful”) is that:
Among the sources I know I’ll be returning to again and again as I explore this, Joseph Henrich “Cultural Transmission and the Diffusion of Innovations: Adoption Dynamics Indicate That Biased Cultural Transmission Is the Predominate Force in Behavioral Change.” I think everything we need to know right now is right there in that title. [Nerd drops mic]
One of the reviewers for my recent article on tattoos among undergraduate athletes turned me on to another tattoo researcher who I'd previously overlooked. Andrew Timming is an associate professor of human resource management at the University of Western Australia whose focus is the social psychology of work. Of interest to us in particular is his research on perceptions of tattooing in the workplace. How do employers/potential employers view them? How do customers view tattooed folks in businesses they patronize?
I like his work because the perception of tattooing research has largely been so coarse-grained. We've been focusing on how people perceive others with tattoos---usually as open-minded people who take a lot of risks---but we all know that a lot goes into that perception and which we struggle to measure in our studies: style of tattoos, quantity, location, quality, how it fits the person, context, other stuff about the person, etc. and so on. Timming's work is digging into specific situations with ingenious nuance. Since he's interested in human resource psychology, his focus gets at a locus where a lot of these opinions and the possibility that we act on them matter. And one of his major findings is something I've been interested in my work. In "Body art as branded labour," he
His intuitively logical finding is that some employers market in hipsterism and edginess and value visible tattoos. Their employees looking cool makes them look cool. I say this seems intuitive, but maybe that's because I worked in the music industry for several years. Working in records stores and music distribution, it was people who dressed in suits or conservatively who had a more difficult time.
Of course, it's not all about having tattoos or not having tattoos. What makes tattoos so important is that they are unique as a permanent commitment to style or attitude. Jack Black's attitude comes across quite clear in the movie Hi-Fidelity, but maybe it takes asking for "I Just Called to Say I Love You" to learn that (probably not, but you get my point).
(Incidentally, I have acted just like this in my former life as a record store clerk. It was because I didn't like the store owner and didn't want people shopping there, but the owner saw me and didn't care. It's really a thing.)
I wanted to introduce Timming's work because a new article is out that is getting a fair amount of press. Though it's sort of meta. When I search "tattoo study" on Twitter (yes, to RT my own press □), I get:
Which leads back to a study that was just published in August in Human Relations called "Are tattoos associated with employment and wage discrimination? Analyzing the relationships between body art and labor market outcomes" by Michael French (lead author) and Karoline Mortensen at University of Miami. They collected survey data from 1323 females (women? men? trans?) and 685 (males) via MTurk and found that
This does not suggest that tattoos are accepted in all walks of life now, but it does suggest what it means to say that tattoos have gone mainstream. The number of occupations where tattooing is now OK has crossed the cultural Rubicon (it's now cool to be a tattooed college professor---elbow patches are only cool if you're ironic or not ironic that you're 'cute').
OK, now this part gets a bit confusing. Another new article out in 2018, this time in Journal of Social Psychology, is "What do you think about ink? An examination of implicit and explicit attitudes toward tattooed individuals" by Colin Zestcott and colleagues. (This is not to be confused with "What do you think of my ink? Assessing the effects of body art on employment chances" by Timming and colleagues the year before.) Zestcott is as assistant professor of social psychology at SUNY Geneseo (note, while neither Andrew Timming, Michael French, nor Karoline Mortenson appear to be tattooed hipster doofuses like me, Zestcott is fully ironic with shirt, tie, and tattoo-sleeved forearm! □).
This is a survey study using MTurk as well (40 females, 36 males---again, I self-righteously ask---it's 2018, can we use self-identified gender and not sex, if it's nuance we're looking for, as well as more accurate representation). Zestcott previously conducted a similar study of tattooed individuals with neck tattoos and found evidence for an implicit bias against people with neck tattoos even if they said they were acceptable, suggesting there are still latent negative feelings in the general public against tattoos. While tattoos may be mainstream in general, some tattoos are still not so common or accepted, including neck tattoos.
But in this new study, they had folks rate 27 different tattooed people across a variety of dimensions, some of whom had neck tattoos, and took 6 that received the most average ratings to be compared compared to a variant of the Implicit Association Test. While participants expressed negative explicit and implicit biases toward tattooed individuals, those biases were not associated with strong negative emotions or disgust. This is an important point because
Cool, so I don't disgust you... □
Christopher D. Lynn
I am a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Alabama with expertise in biocultural medical anthropology.