There has been a huge demand in recent years for cultural themed tattoos and the revival of traditional Tongan tattoos has obviously been as a result of this which is all the more remarkable considering this practice was abandoned in that region for centuries. This was largely in part due to the influx of Western traders and missionaries during the 19th Century which gradually changed Tongan culture and its religious beliefs on the whole. As much of the population was converted to Christianity, previous customs were outlawed including the art of tattooing which was considered to be a pagan practice which was prohibited by law from 1838 onwards. Today, around 98% of the Tongan population is of the Christian faith and many do not even realize the significance of tattooing to their ancestors and the art appeared to have been lost forever.
Fortunately, due to the surge in popularity of tattoos in general around the globe and the huge demand for tribal artwork in particular, Tongan tattoos are making a comeback as modern day artists of Tongan descent strive to revive this ancient art. The original process of tattooing in ancient Tonga was a long and painful transition, particularly considering the amount of heavy black coverage in the tattoo. It was considered a mark of manhood and like other Polynesian cultural artwork it is unique because each mark has its own individual meaning, so there is much more to it than just putting ink on skin. Now, in the 21st Century, traditional tatatau as it was called is definitely on the way back with help from the likes of Samoan master tattooist, Su’a Suluape Petelo. His family was traditionally, responsible for tattooing Tongan ‘eiki like the Tu’i Kanokupolu and since 2003, a handful of Tongan individuals have returned to this tradition. This made them the first to have been inked in this way and the only ones to have sported the traditional Tongan tatatau in over one hundred and fifty years.
According to legend, the art of tattooing was introduced to the island kingdom by two men – Sulu’ape and Tagaloa – and thus Tongan tattoos established their place within the culture. As the centuries passed, Tongan legend has been relived as Sulu’ape and Tagaloa continue to bring back the tools, reaffirming the traditional role of tattooing in the region. Many occasions such as the completion of the Samoan Pe’a, were marked with a Sama or cultural blessing and celebration that honors the tattoo and the individuals tattooed. Every young male would be tattooed by the time he reached adulthood and tattooing among Tongan women was just as common and equally decorative. This style of body art in our modern society is popular with both male and female tattoo enthusiasts.