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Traditional tattooing practices in the spotlight: Workshop aims to prevent infection or tragedy

Grace Tinetali-Fiavaai

Traditional tattooists will be reminded about the need to maintain good health hygiene practices at a special workshop being held today.

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

Lia’ifaiva Imo Lavea, the ta tatau artist who tattooed former deputy prime minister Carmel Sepuloni, is set to take the lead on demonstrating proper hygiene and sterilisation routines so tufuga (traditional tattooists) maintain high standards of hygiene.

He said knowledge of health and safety practices is critical for tufuga; especially when there is a risk of infection. In previous years, there have been cases of people getting infections that lead to hospitalisation.

In more extreme cases, they can lead to death. One such case was that of 29-year-old James Leota-Tui, who died in 2002 three days after abandoning a second attempt to complete his pe’a.

The deadly risk of tatau

A Coroner’s inquest later found Leota-Tui died of acute heart failure due to septicaemic shock that was caused by an infection he got during tattooing.

It was reported at the time that testing of the tattooist’s tools and ink found they were contaminated with a variety of bacteria.

The tufuga involved did not face criminal charges, but the Coroner’s recommendations included urging tattooists to follow the recognised method of sterilising instruments in an ultrasonic cleaner.

“Attention to cleanliness by tattooists or tufuga can significantly reduce the risks.

It’s not only for the health and safety of my clients, but also for me as a tufuga. I am also at risk of infection,” Lia’ifaiva said.

“We are in constant contact with human blood and we may also be exposed to infection when handling contaminated linen and tools.”

Getting the traditional Samoan tatau is not for the faint-hearted, but continues to be practiced today even among New Zealand-born Samoans, as it is seen as a rite of passage and brings honour to one’s family.

The tools used in traditional tattooing are non-disposable, so eliminating the risk of blood-borne infections is impossible.

The first health workshop for tufuga in Auckland was held in 2019 and planning for the second workshop was postponed.

Tattoo service providers in Auckland are required to hold a licence issued by the Auckland Council and adhere to the minimum standards outlined in the Health and Hygiene Bylaw 2013.

Notwithstanding this, the existing bylaw fails to recognise the distinction between a commercial tattoo and a Samoan tatau.

Registered nurse and senior lecturer at the Manukau Institute of Technology, Josephine Sasa, was inspired to organise this year’s workshop after having the traditional Samoan tatau for women, known as the malu, done.

She also recently completed a Master’s degree thesis on the Samoan tatau.

She says most of the tufuga have regulations to obtain when applying for their licence.

The problem, she said, is that most of the tufuga are stuck when it comes to passing health and safety standards because some local officials are not familiar with traditional practices.

“We need someone who understands the cultural aspect of the tatau and how traditional practices are carried out, for the health and safety officers to have a better understanding.

“Implementing this workshop means our tā tatau tufuga artists can feel comfortable in their own space because it is a closed workshop for them.

“They can gain a better understanding of the health and regulation standards they need to meet.”

Choosing the right traditional tattooist

Before the early 2000s, health and safety did not emerge as a significant concern in Samoa.

The tatau is a ritualistic process that uses traditional techniques that have been used for generations. But it can lead to contamination and infection in some cases.

Tattoos using traditional Samoan instruments take longer and are normally more painful than disposable needle tattoo machines.

As a result, both physical and mental preparation for the tattooing process is highly recommended.

In the case of the Samoan men’s traditional tatau, known as the pe’a or malofie, the process can take up to two weeks and requires many hours of work each day.

Lia’ifaiva has some advice for anyone thinking about getting a traditional tatau and when choosing a tufuga.

“Address all your concerns before the tattooing process and make sure you feel comfortable. Because, at the end of the day, it is your body.

“So you have the right to ask the tufuga questions about what to expect and the safe hygiene procedures the tufuga will take to reduce the risk of infection.”

Hero Image: Tufuga ta tatau master tattooist, Li'aifaiva Imo Levi, is all concentration as he tattoos former deputy prime minister Carmel Sepuloni. Photo / Michael Craig

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