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Tattoo Chronicle #7 ~ Return to Samoa

By Bob Baxter
When Paulo Sulu’ape was murdered, we were devastated. We had celebrated with him in Samoa, all seventy or so of us. He was a magnet, a quiet, charismatic leader who set the course for not only his Polynesian brothers and sisters but for the entire tattoo world, from New York to New Zealand. He quest was simple and difficult at the same time. Knowing that traditional forms of tattoo art, the indigenous methods of applying ink to skin, for example, were being lost, diminished by the infusion of self-styled “tribal” artists and misinterpreted information, Paulo was working to bring everyone together, to teach them, to guide their hands and keep the traditions alive. The celebration in Samoa in 1999 was designed to etch his quest in stone and infuse a new energy into the worldwide tattoo community.

The hows and whys of his death are not important. What is important is the man’s legacy. He sought to rekindle a new interest, a reborn passion, in the old ways. While the modern tattoo world was filling the air with the buzzing of electronic tattoo machines, Paulo was patiently demonstrating hand-crafted techniques handed down over thousands of years. He was reversing the trend. And, in his presence, the act tattooing took on a whole different meaning. It wasn’t just about etching pretty pictures into the skin, it was about awakening an inner spirit, the mana; bringing forth designs and shapes and forms that reside within us all and are brought to the surface by the artist and his magic sticks.

Bernard Clark joined me on the second trip to Samoa. We wrote a book about it, Tattoo Road Trip—Two Weeks in Samoa. The reason for the get-together, the convention itself, was produced by Paulo’s brother, Petelo, in order to put the heartbreaking past behind us and to celebrate the art that Paulo loved more than life. Many of the artists who stood in Paulo’s shadow were there: Keone Nunes, Sirpa and Ove Skög (Doc Forest), Mo’o Cappoletta, Inia and Aileen Taylor, Travelin’ Mick, Uti Mika, Theo Jack, Leo Zulueta and Dianne Mansfield, Jorgen Kristiansen, Vince Hemingson, Jordi Marques, Rinus Soisa, Rory Keating, Ana Jukic, Lafaele Sulu’ape, Vanya Taule’alo, Roy Setelo, Jacqueline Koss, Oluf Witt, Freewind, Capt. Caveman and his wife, Lotus and so many, many more great artists.

Tattoo Chronicles by Bob Baxter

Petelo Sulu’ape (above) ~ (to the right) Travelin’ Mick, Inia Taylor, Baxter, Keone Nunes & Captain Caveman. Bernard Clark photo.

But it wasn’t the same. Without Paulo’s leadership, the event was, at best, chaotic. The ceremony to make six of the artists chiefs of the Sulu’ape family was fascinating, the time spent roaming the islands of Upolu and Savaii was unforgettable, but those weren’t the main event. We were there, after all, for a “tattoo convention,” conceived and produced by Petelo and his Samoan partner Fosi Levi.

It all started to crumble with a knock on the door. It was Dianne and Leo. They had gone swimming in a nearby lagoon. Dianne’s foot was cut on some rocks and a major infection had begin. An infection that not only demanded the two of them return immediately to the U.S., but persisted for several months if not years after that. Dianne almost lost a foot over the ordeal. It was a harbinger of bad things to come.

Instead of a warm, family-style gathering close to the hotels in downtown Apia, like the first time that we visited, the convention site was miles away, in the remote village of Saleapaga, a site with only one source of running water (a half-inch, galvanized pipe), sand for a floor and sleeping facilities with leaking palm frond roofs and only bread and butter sandwiches to eat. There was even an incident when a local villager put a knife to a tattoo artist’s throat and demanded a free tattoo. Not good. None of this would have happened if Paulo were alive.

I can’t say the entire experience was negative. After all, Bernard and I got to stay at the beautiful Aggie Grey, listening to the rain fall on our tin-roofed fale. We were chauffeured around the island by dedicated taxi drivers and the food was great. Even the fact that, when I asked the waiter at the Aggie for a tequila sunrise and he returned to ask, “The bartender wants to know if that is made with Bourbon or Scotch?” Even that was fun and funny. But, for many, the entire two weeks was nightmare and a disaster.

On the final day there was a barbeque complete with a entire steer, slow-cooked on a spit over glowing coals. There were dancers and musicians. And because this was held near to town and the local bus routes (which the convention was not), the party was attended by dozens of natives from the local villages, all eager to share in the festivities and delicious barbequed beef. Bernard and I were even awarded some beautiful, hand-crafted Samoan crafts (Bernard got a war axe, I got a hand-carved, Samoan-style wooden “pillow”). These were presented to us with much hoopla for our coverage of this event for an American tattoo magazine. Bernard and I both agreed, quietly, that the giving of these prodigious gifts was designed to “shut us up” about the failed convention. At that point, however, neither of us cared. We are too busy basking in the sun, drinking the local Vailima beer and ogling the pretty dancing girls.


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 baxter@tattooroadtrip.com.

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The Tattoo Chronicles >> Archives >> Chronicle #7