Maori man with full moko tattoo
Maori man with full moko tattoo
Role of Tattoo
Tattoo Stories

Skin Stories: The Art and Culture of Polynesian Tattoo

Man standing for tattoo application

Skin Stories

Tracing back more than 2,000 years to the Pacific Islands, tattoo is an ancient art form that began as a rite of passage for Polynesians and has become a form of expression for people worldwide. Recounting the history of the art of tattooing, Skin Stories, a one-hour documentary, airs on PBS on Sunday, May 4, 2003 (check local listings). Featuring traditional tattooing ceremonies, compelling interviews, and a breathtaking collection of tattoo body art, Skin Stories traces the roots of tattoo, highlighting individual stories and the evolution of cultural traditions in the Pacific.

"The marks we choose to wear are the clues to the mystery of ourselves," opens the program, setting the tone for the explanation of tattoo, known as tatau in Samoa, the birthplace of tattoo. Skin Stories first travels to Samoa, visiting the International Tattoo Convention, bringing Samoans together with U.S. "mainlanders" and others from around the globe in a celebration of the art of tattoo. This convention celebrates the popularity of a personal history etched in skin — which has become significant throughout the world, from rock stars to royalty.

Skin Stories follows traditional Samoan ceremonies, where body tattoo, or pe'a, is being revived after it was discouraged by Christian missionaries. Wrapping the body from mid torso to the knees, the Samoan art form is performed in a traditional ceremony using boar's teeth.

In New Zealand, indigenous Maori tattooing is experiencing a similar resurgence after being discouraged in earlier generations by Christian missionaries. Known as moko, Maori tattoo art is a commanding facial and body tattoo worn by men and women. As part of a renaissance being experienced throughout New Zealand's Maori population, Manu Leilani Neho decided at age 45 to receive a traditional female moko on her chin. Skin Stories showcases the "rebirthing" experienced by Neho as she adopts this ancestral art form.

Hawaiian tattoo art, or kakau, is undergoing both an evolution and a return to traditional styles. Some tattoo artists incorporate traditional Polynesian tribal designs and mix them with images from other cultures, such as Celtic symbols, reflecting the increasing mix of cultures in Hawai'i. Other Hawaiians are reverting back to the traditional Hawaiian designs, even having them inscribed with a moli, or hand tool. Skin Stories recounts their experiences as they revive long-lost cultural traditions.

Sailing across the Pacific to North America, the documentary explores how the art of tattoo arrived, and its impact on culture today. Whether helping a person break from the conformity of society, beautify a scar, or allow new generations to identify with their ancestors, tattoo turns the skin into a canvas, allowing the art form to tell profound stories and illustrate life experiences.

Produced by Emiko Omori and Lisa Altieri, Skin Stories is a co-production of Pacific Islanders in Communications (PIC) and KPBS, San Diego. Pacific Islanders in Communications is a national media arts organization based in Honolulu, Hawai'i. It was created to support and promote programming by and about Pacific Islanders for national public television and for international audiences. Primary funding for PIC is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. KPBS, a broadcast service of San Diego State University, serves the San Diego region with TV, Radio and Internet content that is educational as well as entertaining — and free of commercial interruption.

Additional funding for Skin Stories was received through a partnership effort with the Consortium for Pacific Arts and Cultures and the National Endowment for the Arts. Corporate sponsors for Skin Stories include Aston Hotels & Resorts, Hawaiian Airlines and Polynesian Airlines.