Tattoo illustrates change of image. I am now a lizard.

November 25, 2009


I am currently negotiating a return to Rarotonga and my former job with the Cook Islands Herald. Which means I may soon face the toughest decision a man has to make: where to place my next Polynesian tattoo.

To help me get in the mood to add more ink to my body, I’m presenting the story I wrote for The Herald in 2001 about my first experience under the needle:

Years from now – SEVERAL years, actually – I can see my future grandchildren taking a break from whatever entertainment system is considered flash at that particular nanosecond.

They will gather at the foot of my rocking chair and ask me what I did during the early years of the century.

I could dust off an album of yellowing photographs, or dig out a wooden carving of Tangaroa from its resting-place deep in the attic. But, instead, I will simply tug up the sleeve of my housecoat and watch as the youngsters’ eyes bulge in disbelief.

“Grandpa!” they’ll squeal in delight. “You’re, like, so ancient and you drool quite a bit, and you’re a bit stinky but, whoa cool, you’ve got a tattoo!”

Cool isn’t exactly how I’m feeling as Tetini “T” Pekepo revs up the needle gizmo that is about to inject black ink into my skin. The owner of T’s Tattoos in Avarua, T explains how some people have fainted at the mere sound of this instrument, their brain equating the insectoid buzz with that other modern instrument of torture, the dentist’s drill.

Drugs, friends told me. Chow down a couple Panadols and you won’t feel a thing.

Sound advice, but I am scheduled to return to the office later, and I don’t believe my job description includes sleeping off the effects of painkillers while curled up under my desk.

Besides, I’m a Canadian. True North, strong and free. I’ve been hit in the head by ice hockey pucks. Wrestled a polar bear that wandered too close to my igloo. Elected the same prime minister for two consecutive terms. Pain? Bring it on.

A slick of deodorant ensures that the central image is in place, then T goes to work. As the needles dance over my arm, I realize the gravity of my decision. While I’m being transformed into a flesh-and-blood canvas — a scary thought, considering the price of laser surgery these days – I do my best to banish images of faded hula girls smeared across some ancient mariner’s saggy bicep.

Unlike a growing number of tourists, I have not come to Polynesia seeking a tattoo. The idea has flickered through my mind for several years, but it only took root when the thought struck that this would be a jazzy way to mark that part of my life now being spent in the Cook Islands.

I had a rough idea of what I wanted, the themes I wanted to incorporate, and T did the rest. That’s how the collaborative creative process works in this shop.

“People will have a rough idea,” T explains. “They’ll talk about things in their life, in their past. About people, desires, fantasies, whatever.

“I’ll design the tattoo around that, and I’ll use designs unique to Polynesia, and create what they want.”

Visitors often come to the South Pacific seeking tattoos in the mistaken belief that the art form originated in this part of the world. T sets them straight, tells them that his ancestors brought the handiwork with them when they migrated west.

“Tattooing started at the beginning of mankind,” he says, as my new armband develops before my eyes. “It was well-known throughout Europe. The Romans did it, the Egyptians did it.

“It was a form of identification, whether you were a witch doctor or a soldier in the army.”

In Polynesia, several of the tattoo designs derived from woodcarvings and were considered a form of fashion for the highest-ranking chiefs.

Fashion. Identification. These are still considered incentives for getting a tattoo. But the work should be as equally inspiring for the man behind the needles.

“It’s not about making money,” T says. “It’s about expressing oneself artistically. That’s what I believe artists are all about, not just pumping out things just to make money.”

That’s why T won’t repeat the same design twice, unless it has some connection to family, tribe or island. He also steers clear of the work being done in Europe and North America. Don’t even bother asking him to do a skull.

“I don’t like to do a lot of things that they’re doing in Western countries,” he says. “If you want something like that, go over there and get it.”

My tattoo is nearing completion now, two hours almost to the dot. Did it hurt? Hell, yeah. But not as much as I feared it would.

In fact there were places on my forearm where the skin simply went numb and there was very little sensation at all. That all changed when T moved to my underarm area, one of those little-used areas of the body that never seems to toughen up. Despite constant applications of ice and antibiotics, that section would bruise up quite ripely over the next couple of days.

And then it was over. There is no flourish at its completion, no great sweeping removal of the cape that denotes the conclusion of a visit to the barber.

The needles simply cease their whine and, in that great aural void, there is a quiet sense of some new permanency in my life, as if I’ve grown a new limb or fathered another child. Something has shifted and realigned in my personal universe.

I listen with particular intentness as T explains the meanings of the various elements, translated into English so the papa’a can understand.

The central motif, that of a moko poised vertically, that’s the guardian. Inside his body are spearheads, to add positive attitude. The actual band itself consists of several stylized images: People joined together (for unity), waves (voyaging), a bird (travel), and three small triangles inside a larger triangle, which is a blending of past, present and future.

And on the tender meat of the underside? A set of shark’s teeth.

“They represent courage,” says T. “The shark, to us, wasn’t something to be afraid of, but to respect.”

I return to the office a changed man, as if there is a talisman of great power barely concealed by my shirtsleeve. Look at this, I say, baring my new soul to the CITV ladies. Don’t ya think this is sexy?

There’s a lizard crawling up your arm, they laugh. You should have gotten a dolphin.

Oh, great. Now you tell me.


3 Responses to “Tattoo illustrates change of image. I am now a lizard.”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by britney and FrenzyTattoo, 1005 Tattoo Designs. 1005 Tattoo Designs said: Tattoo illustrates change of image. I am now a lizard. « Bitemymoko […]

  2. Nice post..Keep them coming 🙂 Thankyou for sharing.

  3. bobby edwards said

    ill be in rarotonga briefly as im after a tattoo,my parents live in atiu but i wanted to know if T will be in raro and where to find him.i worked with him abit in nz at salthouse working on the vakas

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