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‘Tatau’ Exhibition to Make Its Mark at JANM

Tattoo by Sulu‘ape Steve Looney. (Photo by John Agcaoili)

Tattoo by Sulu‘ape Steve Looney. (Photo by John Agcaoili)

The Japanese American National Museum will present “Tatau: Marks of Polynesia,” a photographic exploration of Samoan tattoo practice, from Saturday, July 30, to Jan. 8, 2017.

“Tatau” explores the beauty of Samoan tattoos as well as the key role they play in the preservation and propagation of Samoan culture. Through photographs taken in the studio and on location in Samoa and elsewhere, the exhibition showcases the work of traditional Samoan tattoo masters alongside that of younger practitioners working within and influenced by the tradition today.

The opening day of the exhibition will include live tattoo demonstrations by several of the featured artists, lectures by exhibition curator Takahiro “Ryudaibori” Kitamura and others involved in organizing “Tatau,” and signings of the full-color catalog that accompanies the exhibition. All opening day activities will be included in museum admission, though space for some is limited.

Samoa’s tatau, along with Japan’s irezumi, is one of the world’s most distinctive living tattoo traditions. An indigenous art form with a continuous history that dates back 2,000 years, tatau has played a pivotal role in the preservation and propagation of Samoan culture, surviving many attempts at eradication.

Tattoo by Su’a Sulu’ape Peter. (Photo by John Agcaoil)

Tattoo by Su’a Sulu’ape Peter. (Photo by John Agcaoil)

In Samoa, tufuga tā tatau (master tattoo artists) are accorded high status in society, and acquiring tatau is considered a powerful affirmation of national identity, particularly for young men, for whom it is an important rite of passage. Tatau motifs and symbols are also being adapted by younger artists for new media and art forms. Both the traditional tattoo and its more contemporary manifestations have helped to create and affirm identity for new generations of Polynesians and others living outside of Samoa.

An important focus of the exhibition is the influential Sulu‘ape family and their disciples; the legendary Petelo Sulu‘ape and his deceased brother Paulo are credited with spurring the resurgence of Samoan tattoos worldwide. Photographs taken in New Zealand, Hawaii, California, and Nevada demonstrate the spread of the art form outside of Samoa and some of its newer interpretations.

Among the artists featured in “Tatau” are Su‘a Sulu‘ape Alaiva‘a Petelo, Su‘a Sulu‘ape Peter, Su‘a Sulu‘ape Paul Jr., Su‘a Sulu‘ape Aisea Toetu‘u, Sulu‘ape Steve Looney, Tuigamala Andy Tauafiafi, Mike Fatutoa, and Sulu‘ape Si‘i Liufau.

Kitamura is the master tattoo artist and author who previously curated the exhibition “Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World,” which originated at JANM in 2014. “Perseverance” is now traveling and currently on view at Middlebury College Museum of Art in Vermont.

For “Tatau,” Kitamura has collaborated with photographer John Agcaoili; Sulu‘ape Steve Looney and Danielle Steffany-Looney of Pacific Soul Tattoo in Hawaii; Sean Mallon, author and senior curator of Pacific Cultures at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa; and Sulu‘ape Si‘i Liufau of A-Town Tattoo.

Tattoo by Sulu‘ape Si‘i Liufau. (Photo by John Agcaoili)

Tattoo by Sulu‘ape Si‘i Liufau. (Photo by John Agcaoili)

JANM is located at 100 N. Central Ave. in Little Tokyo. Museum hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Thursday from noon to 8 p.m. General admission is $9 adults, $5 students and seniors, free for members and children under five. Admission is free to everyone on Thursdays from 5 to 8 p.m. and every third Thursday of the month from noon to 8 p.m. General admission prices and free admission times may not apply to specially ticketed exhibitions. Closed Mondays, 4th of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. For more information, visit or call (213) 625-0414.

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