Film Reviews

Chiefly thinking ink

Under the Skin

To kick off the film series portion of its blockbuster Tattoo Honolulu exhibition, The Honolulu Museum of Art’s Doris Duke Theatre couldn’t have made a wiser or more relevant choice than Skin Stories. The one-hour documentary, an executive production of the Honolulu-based Pacific Islanders in Communications (PIC), manages to capture the beauty, history, meaning and excruciating pain of Polynesian tattooing. Skin Stories uncovers the art form’s origins in Samoa (known there as tatau), Aotearoa (moko), and Hawaii (kakau) through the stories of present-day practitioners and wearers who use it to reconnect with their cultural roots. Each of these cultures is part of the “regal cloth of Polynesia,” which becomes a patchwork quilt when it reaches the continental US.

Although the meaning of tattooing is different in each culture, all go far deeper than the epidermis. As Maori moko practitioner Chaz Te Puehu says, “If you belong to a religious group you might carry all of your beliefs, values, and philosophies with you in a little book. We call it The Bible.” Gesturing to his moko-covered skin: “Here’s mine.”

Movement, an aspect of tattoos that can only be captured in film, is well-developed in Skin Stories. According to Maori artist Gordon Hatfield, “With particular movements you can … tell a story, and you can tell somebody where you’re from, and … what your intentions are.” As he speaks, we see undulating spiral moko on the buttocks of two Maori men performing a traditional dance.

There are other affinities. Hawaii filmmaker Lisa Altieri, the editor and co-producer/co-writer (with director Emiko Omori), said, “We edited without a script, stringing individual shots together to tell a story, just as individual tattoo patterns are sequenced side by side to form the larger design. In our editing process we kept coming back … just as a tattoo artist will stop, step away for a while, then return to add more.”

In Samoa, where Polynesian tattooing began over 2,000 years ago, tatau-making brings the entire community together in a party with music, caregiving and moral support. It is not a very private affair. According to Altieri, Skin Stories followed a similar creative process, bringing together many collaborators from the PIC editorial board and executive producers from the presenting PBS station, KPBS in San Diego.

In the end, Skin Stories becomes a moving tapestry of striking images, a film held together by an overall design as bold and intricate as those it features.