Tatau (Tattoo) Poetics

Craig Santos Perez
February 8, 2013
Comments 2


Last week my Theory and Form of Poetry course discussed Somatic Poetics, so this week we discussed Tatau poetics, or the poetics of the tattoo. Specifically, we read Samoan author Albert Wendtʻs famous essay, “Tatauing the Post-Colonial Body” (1996). This essay draws an analogy between Samoan tattooing practices and (post)colonial Pacific literature. The tatau and malu, the full body male and female tattoos, are “not just beautiful decoration, they are scripts-texts-testimonies to do with relationships, order, form, and so on. And when they were threatened with extinction by colonialism, Samoa was one of the few places where tatauing refused to die. Tatau became defiant texts or scripts of nationalism and identity.” The tattoo marks identity, genealogy, family, maturity, and strength. The tattoo marks the responsibility to serve the community. Ta, ta, ta.


By tattooing (post)colonial Pacific literature, Wendt is saying that it is a body, and a body of literature, “coming out of the Pacific, not a body being imposed on the Pacific. It is a blend, a new development, which [he] consider[s] to be Pacific in heart, spirit, and muscle; a blend in which influences from outside (even the English language) have been indigenized, absorbed in the image of the local and national, and in turn have altered the national and local.” Ta, ta, ta.


When I think about Pacific bodies, I also think about other kinds of clothing. Military uniforms. Sports uniforms. Hotel uniforms. Restaurant uniforms. Big box store uniforms. Religious uniforms. Prison uniforms. We are clothed to serve you, Uncle. And I see other kinds of markings: cancers, blood quantums, insulin injection sites, cut tongues, poisoned livers, broken spirits, radiation effects, shattered dreams. Ta, ta, ta.


In my home island of Guåhan (Guam), my people are being disappeared. Foreign diseases have killed most of our elders: only five percent of the population is over the age of 65. Young Chamorro people are joining the US military and dying in Uncle’s wars at alarming rates. Nearly as many Chamorus live away from Guahan (as I do) as the number of those who live on-island. Currently, Chamorros only make up less than forty percent of the island population. “This Land is Your Land, This Land was My Land.” Ta, ta, ta.


Like our bodies, the body of our island is tattooed by death. Streets are named after death: “Marine Corps Drive”, “Purple Heart Highway”, “Army Drive”, “Sergeant Roy T. Damian Jr Street”. The US military occupies one third of our island and all our surrounding waters. The military fences that mark their territory are iconic American tats. They are not just colonial decorations, they are evidence and testimonies to do with power and greed and hate. We are wrung out. Ta, ta, ta.


Sometimes I don’t know if our bodies coming out of the Pacific will survive the tsunami and rising tides caused by climate destruction and America’s Pacific Pivot. When I think about all the ways we are dying, I want to remember home—a place I am so far away from and miss. The village I come from is called Mongmong. Mongmong comes from the word Momongmong, which is the sound of a Chamorro heartbeat. In our creation story, a brother and a sister give their lives to give us life. His body became islands (many villages on Guåhan are named after the body). Her body became breath and ocean and rock pillar, the cradle of my people.


I think about Wendt’s words: “In a deep psychological, mythology, symbolic way, tatauing is the act of printing or scripting a genealogical-spiritual-philosophical text on the blood, of testing it to see if it can bear the pain of being in a human body, of storying it, giving it human design, shape, form, and identity…” Ta, ta, ta.


If we listen to our Pacific heartbeats, can we hear the text inscribed on our blood? Can we hold the hands that are continuously storying us? Can we bear the pain of being in a Pacific body during the Pacific Century? Threatened with extinction, I want us to refuse to die. I want this to be true: momongmong, momongmong, momongmong.


2 thoughts on “Tatau (Tattoo) Poetics

  1. The poetics of Samoa. Ta Ta Ta and Momongmong mamongmong. I could feel the tapping of the heartbeat as it sent a rhythm of authenticity through me.

  2. We were an English family living in this town that overtly favored the Axis powers, as a boy my classmates built and idolised models of enemy planes; you can guess the status of our family, the town has not changed covertly.

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