Monday, October 28, 2013

The dangers of tattooing

Roald Dahl's 'Skin' tells the story of an elderly tramp named Drioli, who once ran a successful tattoo parlour frequented by a young and unknown painter named Chaim Soutine. One night, after the two men had shared a few drinks, Soutine had made a painting on Drioli's back, and then tattooed over the painting, preserving its lines and colours.

After happening upon a gallery and realising that his old friend has become a famous and very collectable painter, Drioli shows off the masterpiece on his back to a couple of patrons of the arts. One of them murders Drioli, removes the skin from the poor man's back, and flogs a previously-unknown Soutine to an enthusiastic auction house.

Dahl's typically unpleasant story ought to be a warning to my wife, who has just had a pattern designed by the Tongan artist Visesio Siasau tattooed on her back. Visesio held his first exhibition only four years ago, but he's early scoring some prestigious gigs in galleries far from Tonga, as well as shaking up his fellow Friendly Islanders with sculptures and tapa that manage, with their mixtures of Christian, pagan, and coruscatingly commercial imagery, to look both vastly old and radically new.
Visesio's portraits of a money-loving Jesus, an ancient shaman-king of Tonga, and a mysterious plant that seems to offer its cultivators both sugarcane and kava may have inspired acts of vandalism by members of his family, but they went down a treat last week in Shanghai, where he represented Tonga at an international art expo.

Was my wife wise to allow Visesio to make art on her back, given his steadily rising reputation and the sinister lesson that Roald Dahl offers in 'Skin'?
Cerian is not the first palangi to get tattooed in Tonga. George Vason arrived in 1797 with the original group of missionaries to bother the country, but quickly 'went native', chucking away his Bible, taking a wife or three, and charging through local wars. Vason was soon covered in tattoos, as his Tongan hosts marvelled at the contrast between his pale British skin and their blue ink.

Last week I met a charming old Italian gent who lives beside a lake-like stretch of Tongatapu's lagoon and paints large pop art canvases. In between serving me excellent coffee and discoursing on Italian Futurism, my host explained that he spent years travelling the Pacific acquiring tattoos. He rolled up his shirt and showed off the coiled and spiralled lines that the artists of various islands had left on his torso and his upper arms. The tattoos had faded and lost some of their edges, so that they looked curiously like the varicose veins that decorate the bodies of most people of his age.

On the small of his back, though, my host boasted a tattoo which had retained some of its original shape. It showed not some esoteric Polynesia pattern but that venerable icon of Western culture, Mickey Mouse.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Anonymous Anonymous said...


10:11 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I don't like tattoos but I know it is a widespread Polynesian art. I would also be concerned about the dangers of cancers and other effects on the skin.

But it seems Visesio Sisau looks as though he doing some interesting art.

10:11 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Better put was: It seems that Sisau is doing some very interesting art.

10:13 pm  
Anonymous Tattoos and the Bible said...

Well said Richard.

"Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the LORD." —Leviticus 19:28

Pretty conclusive, I would think.

10:16 pm  
Blogger Skyler said...

Visesio honoured me by doing a design that represented the birth and life of our son. It also included a representation of Scott and me and our relationship - our connection to NZ, Tonga and even our English/Celtic heritage but then the Tattoo artist George Cocker reinterpreted it to what he thought would make a good tattoo. I guess it's a collaboration :-) I love it.

1:22 am  
Blogger Skyler said...

Malo aupito to George and Sio :-)

1:22 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

holy war?

9:35 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

holy war?

9:36 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...cancer and other effects of the skin' really Richard? I've never heard of cancer being linked to tattoos?! my lord, you can 'catch' cancer from all sorts of things these days huh?!! What's next....?

10:49 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mohe mimi!

11:06 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

White skin black ink. Fuck off.

3:17 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

You've got a dichotomous view of the world, where everyone is either a Klansman or Malcolm X, anon. You should come to Tonga and try to find someone who considers themselves black. It's an alien term.

The actual tattoo was made by one of the many members of the Cocker family, which proudly traces its ancestry to Yorkshire as well as Tonga's distant past.

5:07 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ataahua cerian looks beautiful

5:19 pm  

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