By Bob Baxter
Paulo Sulu’ape was one of the greatest men I ever met. His self-appointed responsibility to teach and bring together the various countries and cultures of Polynesia into one powerful, focused community was cut short by his death. Extremely knowledgeable and eloquent regarding the Samoan traditions of tatau, in 1999 Paulo brought all of us, seventy or more, together to celebrate the two thousand year old history of tattooing on the island of Opolu. There were celebrations, meetings, impromptu seminars, speeches, dancing, kava ceremonies and lots and lots of sitting on book-shelf bus seats as we toured the gorgeous forests of banyan trees, the wind-kissed lagoons, primitive villages and miles and miles of blacktop leading to nowhere.
Our Hotel was the fabled Aggie Grey, the two story, white, plantation-like structure with rooms and cozy fales named after famous visitors like James Michener and Marlon Brando. A paradise within a paradise. Perched alongside the main road to town, nary a car cluttered the view or interrupted the sounds of waves crashing a few sandaled feet away from the front door. A fabulous setting for artists from New Zealand, Hawaii, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Canada, the United States and beyond to get together and sit, like at an ashram, with the greatest practitioner and teacher of indigenous art we have ever known, Paulo Sulu’ape.
A humble yet charismatic man, when Paulo spoke, we listened. Under his guidance and watchful eye, we learned about tattooing, the art of tatau, in a part of the world we had, up until that time, been too busy to notice. We learned that tattoos stood for something beyond self gratification or fashion. We learned about the symbolic transfer of mana, the moment when the power of the ink infused with the body. We heard stories about and witnessed grueling hand-poking with ink made from candlenuts and tools made from sticks and animal horn.
“Traditionally, the ink that the Samoan tofuga (tattooist) used was made from burning candlenuts. The oily soot was mixed with seawater. Nowadays, instead of candlenuts, those who go the soot route use a kerosene lamp, scraping off the black stuff, mixing in a little sugar cane juice and adding a drop or two of laundry bluing. The idea is to create a thick enough mixture to cling to the teeth of the au, so the tofuga won’t have to dip it into the ink pot too often.”
Tattoo Road Trip - Two Weeks in Samoa
Paulo’s mission was to bring together as many tattooists as possible and steep them in Samoan culture, show them the proper way to use the traditional tools and to share his expertise. We learned that, although many of the Polynesian tribes were situated thousands of sea miles away from one another, the symbols, the designs, were similar and had identical names. It became clear that ancient peoples had travelled thousands of miles from Samoa to Hawaii to Easter Island to the Philippines in hand-carved boats, without a compass or sextant, sharing their tattoo cultures as they went. Traversing great distances was commonplace in the annuls of Polynesian tattoo history. Hey, didn’t the twin sisters Taema and Tilafaiga swim it two thousand years ago?
I was the non-artist in the group, at least not a tattoo artist. I was an outsider than ran a magazine back in the U.S. I was there to observe. I especially remember a beautiful feast on the edge of a mountain overlooking the sea. Palm trees, warm Pacific breezes, the whole deal. All of the tattooists were brought together after dinner for a group portrait to commemorate the event. The photographer set up his tripod as artists from around the world grouped together in front of the lens, one after the other. Paulo called out people’s names and corralled the stragglers. I was standing on a short rise, watching the historic gathering. Over seventy of the world’s finest. Finally, everyone was present, all the participants in the celebration. Everything was ready.
But just as the photo was about to be taken, I heard a familiar voice. It was Paulo.
“Hey, Baxter,” he called. “Come join us. You’re one of us. You’re family.”
I’ll never forget his graciousness. His endearing friendship and support in those early days of my editorship. He inspired me and filled me with grace. I had found my place. I understood my responsibility, perhaps more clearly than I ever had. A small moment in time, perhaps, but an instant that will always remain with me, alongside the memory of The Great One, Paulo Sulu’ape. My teacher. My friend.
After the convention was over and we returned to the States, news reached me that Paulo was killed by a jealous wife. More than fifteen thousand people attended his funeral in Auckland in the country the Maoris call Aotearoa (“canoe,” for the great ocean-going vessels used in the migrations that settled New Zealand). It was heartbreaking. It was cataclysmic.
Time is fleeting. As I grow older, I gather these memories, the ticks on the clock. Hopefully, the hellos will outnumber the goodbyes. So, in that spirit and the spirit of tatau, I’ll skip the maudlin and say, “Talofa, Paulo. Manuia le malaga.” Thank you, my friend. Have a safe voyage.
As editor in chief of Skin&Ink magazine for over fourteen years, Bob Baxter guided the publication to a Folio Magazine Editorial Excellence Award, making it America’s most respected and educational body art publication. He currently edits and writes a Daily Blog at www.tattooroadtrip.com, the ultimate E-zine and resource site for international tattoo artists and collectors. He also has his Tattoo Chronicles series and the 101 Most Influential People in Tattooing right here @ Vanishing Tattoo. To ask questions, make comments or demand an apology, you can email Bob at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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