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  • Tatau: A History of Sāmoan Tattooing by Sean Mallon and Sébastien Galliot
  • Kristina Togafau
Tatau: A History of Sāmoan Tattooing, by Sean Mallon and Sébastien Galliot. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2018. isbn 978-0-8248-7849-8; 320 pages, illustrations, glossary, index, bibliography. Cloth, us $80.00.

From deep time to the present, Samoans have always been mobile, maintaining extensive voyaging and networks throughout Oceania. For us, as a seafaring people, mobility has been a means of exchanging language, knowledge, and material goods between ourselves and others in Oceania. In Tatau: A History of Sāmoan Tattooing, Sean Mallon and Sébastien Galliot have traced Samoan mobility via the expansion of the tatau as it continues to reach across the global stage. Their text is both a celebration of the practice and, more importantly, a historicization of the effects of imperial powers in Oceania that have led to a Samoan diaspora. Mallon and Galliot's work elucidates the ruptures in our history made by imperialism, and through that they have opened up [End Page 299] space for the rest of us to continue the 'ave'ega of our story.

Mallon and Galliot begin, as most things do, with a story. They present two perspectives—ethnographic and oral tradition (fāgogo)—of tatau that grapple with its relationship to Sāmoa as its place of origin. In the story of the sisters Taemā and Tilafaigā, they bring the practice of tatau from "Fiti" (Fiji) to Sāmoa, demonstrating it to those they meet along their travels across the archipelago. The story, as well as the practice itself, functions as a map that tracks the sisters' movements, the land, and Samoan history. From this fāgogo, two encounters during their journey led to the beginning of the two clans, Su'a and Tulou'ega, that would from then on be responsible for the practice. Ultimately, Mallon and Galliot favor Samoan oral tradition as the root of tatau and its mapping of the two houses held responsible for carrying on the tradition. These two genealogical lines have become the gatekeepers of tatau. As tatau becomes more popular among non-Samoans, and with the invention of new social media, both of these lines are crucial in preserving traditional practices and ceremony.

The arrival of Europeans convoluted the implications of receiving tatau; their documentation—or lack of documentation—of tatau implied that they did not regard it or the ceremony surrounding it as significant. For Europeans at the time (1722–1900), commerce and trade were the primary objectives in relation to the archipelago. Mallon notes that what little was documented during early contact was mostly in passing and that "we must be content with the impression left by short-term visitors" (35). Many of the mentions of tatau at that time liken the markings to "breeches," which functioned in a similar manner to conceal the wearer's nakedness. The designs and motifs themselves are only vaguely described, if at all.

With the arrival of missionaries, tatau practice and its social and political significance began to change as Christianity took hold of the archipelago. Missionaries pushed for tattooing to be abandoned, but this was not just because the practice was seen as part of a "heathen" culture. Thomas H Hood notes that the missionaries opposed the "social disturbance it caused" through the accompanying ceremony and celebratory feasts, dancing, and wrestling matches (45). The ceremony itself seemed to be the biggest issue, as it distracted from other work. However, strictness among the various Christian groups varied. Catholic missionaries were known to tolerate the practice, while other orders were stricter. The leniency of the Catholic Church has been seen by some commentators as a contributing factor in the preservation of tatau in the western part of Sāmoa. However, as Christianity became more intertwined with Samoan politics, more policies were put into place to regulate the practice for the Church's monetary benefit. This political move transformed the social structure of familial bonds, such as the feagaiga between brother and sister, into a hierarchy with the Church at the top. Tattoos didn't explicitly play a part in this restructuring...