Tatau master Pili Mo’o carries on tradition of Polynesian body art
According to Samoan legend, the art of tatau—aboriginal body art from which modern tattooing is derived—was brought to Samoa by two sisters, Taema and Tilagaiga, who swam from Fiji carrying the necessary knowledge and tools. The Fijians, in turn, have a legend that suggests the art was imported from Samoa. In New Zealand, tattooing is said to have been brought to that island by denizens of the underworld.
Regardless of the origin, tattooing has been a sacred art to various Polynesian cultures since long before the Western world worked its way into the South Pacific Ocean. An interesting common thread in these origin myths is the idea of its being brought from someplace else, a gift borne by ambassadorial masters.
Carrying on this long tradition is the man known as Pili Mo’o, an internationally known, award-winning tatau artist who travels the world, traditional tools in hand, to spread the ancient tradition. Just off of stints in New York, the Canary Islands and London, he is currently on a two-month tour of the United Sates that begins with a week-long stay at Chico’s own Eye of Jade Tattoo, Oct. 4-10.
Pili Mo’o means “Samoan Lizard,” and he is known by other names, though friends commonly call him “Mo’o” (as in Larry, Curly, etc.). The name was given to him by perhaps the best-known ambassador of traditional Samoan body art, tufuga ta tatau (master tattooist) Sua Sulu’ape Paulo II. From the 1970s until his death in 1999, Sulu’ape taught dozens of apprentices the art, as well as the spiritual philosophy behind it. Mo’o, who studied with the man he calls his spiritual “father” for five years, was among his last students.
Mo’o’s local sojourn is largely due to the efforts of longtime friend Max Kilbourne, an Eye of Jade artist who was, in fact, Mo’o’s first tatau subject.
“He was already a tattoo guy but started getting more into being a tatau guy, and was going to apprentice with a really famous master, Sulu’ape Paulo,” Kilbourne explained. “Sulu’ape gave him some tools and told him to go do one and get the feel for it before he would start training him, so I was the first one he did.
“At the time I just thought, ‘Who cares, I’ve got a piece of meat here and you can chop it up,’ but it became the beginning of this amazing thing for him. Then we found out we were born on the same day nine years apart and realized we were brothers, even though he’s super island boy and I’m super city boy.”
A veteran body artist since the 1990s, Mo’o first studied traditional patterns and artwork under a man named Chime on the island of Moorea before settling in to ply his trade in Madrid, Spain. Throughout his career, he has regularly traveled throughout Polynesia to continue his education.
Rather than use a tattoo machine as in the Western tradition, Samoan tatau is accomplished through handmade tools, primarily the sasau (tapping mallet) and au (serrated combs originally made of bone), which Sulu’ape taught him to make. The characteristic black ink (“lama”) is made of candlenut soot, and is delivered beneath the skin by lightly hammering the au with the sasau, creating a rhythmic tapping sound from which the word tatau is thought to derive. Ta means “strike,” and tata “to strike repeatedly in a rhythmic manner.”
During his stint at Eye of Jade, Mo’o will be doing tattoos by machine or with traditional tools, but Kilbourne advised that, if you want tatau, be sure to book it before the sun goes down.
“There are all kinds of interesting rules and spirituality that Mo’o takes very seriously, and one is he can’t perform tatau after dark,” he said. “I don’t know if I’m explaining it exactly right, but it basically inhibits his connection with God, which is essential when doing tatau.
“Mo’o is an amazing person, extraordinarily charismatic and very spiritual,” Kilbourne added of his friend. “Meeting a guy like Mo’o is not something you get to do every day.”