Polynesian Ink

Tattooist Tricia Allen comes for Molokai book signing.

Tricia Allen sits with the books she’s authored spread before her, pen in hand. A lei po`o rests atop her salt and pepper hair, her fair-skinned face curving in a mild-mannered smile. A couple of tattoos peak out of her Hawaiian print shirt. But you’d never guess by looking at her that Allen is a tattooist and expert on Polynesian tattoo history and art.

“It’s a mark that identifies who you are and where you’ve been,” Allen says of tattoos.

A Kane`ohe resident, Allen visited Molokai last Saturday for a book signing at Kalele Bookstore in Kaunakakai. Her most recent book, “The Polynesian Tattoo Today,” is a compilation of 216 photos representing the work of 73 artists from around the globe. The event attracted a generous audience, from local tattoo artists to “tattoo virgins,” curious to find out more.

“I’ve wanted to meet this woman for 15 years,” said Teri Waros, owner of Kalele Bookstore and Divine Expressions.

Creative Process
While her last book, “Tattoo Traditions of Hawaii,” delves more into the history and context of tattoos in Hawaii, “The Polynesian Tattoo Today” has very little text – a sure hit on your coffee table. It beautifully highlights the artists’ work itself.

“Lots of people just want to share their art and not write about it,” she explains.

To create the book, Allen contacted many of the world’s most well-respected Polynesian tattooists she had met or heard of. She asked them to send photos of their work or contact their clients for photos. In some cases, she arranged photo shoots to capture the images. Out of 748 submissions, 216 images made the final cut. The product is a stunning presentation of the best Polynesian-style tattoos around the globe, from small pieces to art that covers much of the body. 

Allen has traveled the world studying Polynesian tattoo traditions, and combines her academic background with an organic and deeply cultural understanding of the art. She says the average time with a client before completing the tattoo is eight months. That time is spent getting to know her client and helping them design a tattoo that means something to them. Both body placement and the design itself influences the meaning of a Polynesian tattoo. Every symbol has meaning, though that meaning can be different for each individual, according to Allen.

Tattoos and Academia
Allen hasn’t always had a passion for tattoos. She was working at the Denver Art Museum, where there was a display featuring a full body tattoo.

“I used to walk by the display, thinking ‘why would anyone do that?’”

But Allen’s interest in tattoos grew – sparked, she says, by an interest in the cultural, historical and artistic aspect of Polynesian tattoo traditions. She went on to get her master’s degree in Anthropology from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, completing her master’s thesis on the early practice of tattooing in the Marquesas Islands.

She continued her studies, researching the revival tattooing in the Pacific Islands, including Samoa, Aotearoa, the Society Islands, the Marquesas, Rapa Nui and Hawaii. She trained to become a tattooist herself, and has now tattooed over 8,000 members of the Polynesian community.

“Now half my friends look like that guy in the case at the museum,” she laughs.

Learning the Art
Tattoos aren’t always pretty – sometimes they’re ugly, Allen admits. But they are a part of you, often marking important transitions in your life. She says the first time she held a tattoo machine, she was tattooing herself. The results weren’t necessarily pretty but proved a valuable part of her training.

She says she makes her apprentices learn the same way. One of the biggest challenges of tattooing, she explains, is using the right amount of pressure to hit certain depths of the skin tissue. The only way to learn what is too deep and what will fade is to observe that tattoo over a period of time. You can either do that by learning on yourself or learning on your dog, she laughs.

Allen has campaigned for hygienic practices around the world, and says she has seen a huge improvement in some areas. She has also worked to revise state statutes for tattoo licensing and testing for people to become a legal tattooists.

Allen talked with her audience about the challenges of tattooing, its history and revival in the Pacific Islands, its cultural and social implications today, and her own mana`o as a tattooist.

“I’m just a tool in this process – to find out what’s in your mind, put it on paper, and eventually on the skin,” Allen explained.

Allen’s books are available at Kalele Bookstore, Coffees of Hawaii, Molokai Public Library, on Allen’s website, www.thepolynesiantattoo.com, and other locations.


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