Preface: In writing the first paragraph of this post, I am becoming increasingly agitated by the need for a gender ambiguous pronoun. One mentioned, “Ve” was suggested by New Zealand writer Kerli Hulme and thus feels appropriate for use.
In the typical (or at least familiar, to us) understanding of tattooing, we allow meaning to rest entirely in the hands of the tattoo aspirant. Ve brings vis ideas for a design to the tattooist, whom functions to develop the concept to an artistic completion and subsequently apply it to the skin. The process almost begins and ends with the client while the actual tattoo artist serves as a conduit, a catalyst, a “prime mover” that sets the tattoo in motion with life and thereafter separates verself from the existence of the tattoo. Thus, any insertion of the artist's history or identity into the tattoo is usually frowned upon. (I can remember one instance specifically during the tattoo contest show Ink Master where the artist designed a clock as part of the design for his client and chose his own birth date as the numbers that the hands pointed to and was vilified by the judges for it.) This concept of tattoo as an often abstract expression of ourselves which we wholly own is not foreign to us, and our insistence to want to ask others what tattoos or particular symbols mean speaks to that. In fact, the opposite, i.e. the immediate knowledge of reason for a person's tattoo, seems unnatural.
By their nature of being symbols, tattoos can contain any number of nearly infinite meanings; even such obvious and profound messages like the cross or the phrase “Carpe Diem” don't necessarily have to conform with their most common associations. Yet in his essay “Tatauing the Post-Colonial Body,” Wendt gives an entirely contrary view to the personal associations that have become almost definitive. In the Samoan culture, the tataus are not expressions but statements. They speak of achievements, relationships, responsibilities, turning points and other factual histories of the one bearing the tatau. They are composed of symbols that relate to deities and mythologies that, when imprinted on the skin, are there to immediately symbolize to the observer a detail about the person. Even the absence of such a tatau says, in the words of Wendt, “I'm a coward, physically!” and an unfinished tatau is a fate literally equatable to the passion of Christ bore by all who share your name. There is a power in their complete form that conveys a concrete declaration of person. In a sense, they live independently off the body, as opposed to because of the body.
The recognition of tataus as independent, living structures pervades into Wednt's works. This most likely stems from the one tatau he does have, which is a small cross between his finger and thumb that gave inspiration for a story that would display the power of tataus. The titular cross of soot first begins as a star, chosen by our young Wendt surrogate. It has no credible meaning other than it being the designation of his first tattoo and perhaps a remembrance of the time he spent with the men and his desire to be like them. The suffering Tagi begins to draft the star for the narrator, to draw his blood in a Christ-like covenant, but is called away before it can be finished, leaving an unintended cross. Chosen by neither Wendt, tattoo aspirant, nor Tagi, tufuga ta tatau, its power exists independent of both of them. Its power even developed young Wendt to see the suffering of Tagi as a Christ parallel. It matured him in a way that might not have happened had he gotten the aimless star.
Wendt and the Samoans believe in a power of the tataus that transcends our typical understanding of the modernized tattoos. If we were to look past the means of ink on skin, the two practices almost seem to be coincidental and opposite in nature. One takes the form of a “dressing” of the body, giving it “armor” and strength, and reinforcing its innate power. The other, conversely, declothes the body, allow one to access a personal history of the bearer; it's vulnerable. Tataus can be waved like a banner, as in Samasoni's eagle soaring in the sky, affirming the history of the body proudly. Tataus are strong, transformative, dynamic, and vigorous, not merely reflective or personal tattoos.