I designed this tattoo with a friend and fellow creative, Margaret Aull – she had it tattooed to mark 100 nights after her late grandmother passed away. It was a massively rewarding process of collaboration to develop this design but has challenged my thinking around cultural purism, motifs and mana.

In Aotearoa, there are quite well-defined protocols around Maori tattoo; language and imagery for tattoo worn by Maori, and those worn by others. Within the context of [post]-colonial cultural renaissance, tattoo perhaps has heightened meaning; ownership, intellectual property, belief systems and political affiliations are all part of the social baggage of wearing culturally specific tattoo. It’s a bit different in the Pacific…

Margaret wanted to design something to reflect her Fijian heritage which she traces through her father; his mother, Margaret’s late grandmother, was a significant portal to Fiji for Margaret and her passing inspired reflection and a desire to pay homage to her Fijian ancestry.

Masi (Fijian bark cloth) motifs were the starting point for this design. I sketched a wide range of motifs and also researched how contemporary Fijian tattooists interpret masi motifs into contemporary compositions. I read about the bold stylistic characteristics of masi from various parts of Fiji, and began to feel that direct references to the motifs would discredit the meaning and mana of the tattoo I wanted to create because my practice, and Margaret’s whakapapa do not necessarily relate to the people and places where these motifs have originated.

I knew the design would be a composition of abstract references – literal, symbolic and simplified.

I wanted to relate to Margaret’s role in her family, the eldest grandchild. I wanted to honour the matriarchal role of her late grandmother, the migration and relocation of her family as well as her mixed ancestry.

I’ve referenced the form of the Fijian war canoe navigational mast head (domodomo). It is bold and black; it felt like an important thing for Margaret to see in her daily life – a symbol of navigating your way forward, knowing you can always go ‘home’, knowing that navigation takes leadership and strength of conviction. I had always loved the way the mast head has been stylised in Fijian contemporary commercial design. The one I drew was a stylised interpretation.

I thought about the ‘V’ form which is evident in early colonial illustrations of Fijian women’s tattoos. Only Fijian women were tattooed, not men; here, the ‘V’ form is a distinctly feminine reference. The form is composed of smaller stylised ‘V’ forms which are also like the shape of the sail on a Fijian canoe. The ‘V’ itself is not dissimilar to the formation in which large masses of birds fly, and is also a warring / combat formation. In this design, it is foundational, i.e. it roots the form.

Connecting the mast head and the ‘V’ is a series of visual references to Fijian masi design elements – the triangle, cross, seru form and chevron. Their composition is similar to the way in which motifs are stenciled on the border of a masi kesa. Perhaps in a subtle way, this is my effort to bring that which dwells in the margins, into the centre. A personal take on the marginalisation of the mixed race / diaspora / language-less sectors of Fijian society who are by no fault of their own, culturally marginalised.

I wear one tattoo inspired by traditional Fijian tattoo design, but the rest of my tattoos are very contemporary ways to acknowledge my Fijian heritage. I spoke about Fijian tattooing briefly in a recent interview on Radio 531pi’s Fijian language show, Na Domo i Viti e Aotearoa hosted by Nemai Vucago. I’m interested in the increased visibility of contemporary Fijian tattoo and massive popularity of Fiji-based tattooist, Tony Qumi’s Facebook community.

Collaborating on Margaret’s new tattoo was an awesome experience, seeing its application and considering the weightiness of being part of this process has been inspiring and humbling.