Tribal tattoos are more than just a fad

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Fred Frost, owner of Frost City Tattoo. Photo by Diego Romo

Story and photos by DIEGO ROMO

The first thing you notice when walking into Frost City Tattoo is an overwhelming sense of community and inclusiveness. It’s as if the shop were a working and living metaphor for the values that most, if not all, Pacific Islanders stand for: community and tradition.

A warm “hello” greets you as you push open the door, quickly followed by a “make yourself at home” and inviting conversation.

But as you walk around and begin to explore the shop, the work of the artists grabs your attention. The walls are filled with pictures of the beautiful motifs that have ornamented the bodies of generations and generations of Pacific Islanders, which entices your focus and sustains it. The tradition is deep and diverse. The art is unique and beautiful.

Anthropologists agree that the tradition of tattooing has existed in Pacific Islander society for over two millennia. Almost all of the island societies scattered across the Pacific have some form of tattoo culture that permeates their community and helps indicate their place in it.

Although experts disagree on the geographical origin of tattooing — there is evidence of tattoos on the preserved skin of Egyptian mummies and countless other ancient cultures — historians can agree that the linguistic history of the word derives from the Samoan word tatau, which means “to strike.”

Called “kakau” in Hawaiian culture and “moko,” the traditional name for the face tattoos of the Maori in New Zealand, the art has always played an integral role in Pacific Islander society.

“Tattooing is as fundamental to Pacific Islander culture as anything else,” said Fred Frost, owner of Frost City Tattoo, which is located at 7045 State St. in Midvale.

Frost, who has been tattooing for 20 years, never saw the craft as a potential career choice. He got into the art by giving tattoos to friends as party favors when he was a young man living in California.

By the time he was 16, Frost gained an apprenticeship with a shop in California and had begun to discover his passion, which in turn helped him to learn more about himself.

“I actually learned how to speak Samoan through tattooing,” Frost said.

Frost jumped into research and began practicing the ancient motifs that are prevalent in Pacific Island tattooing, becoming a master in the process.

The traditional style of tribal tattoo varies from island to island, but the most common themes seen in the tattoos are strength and the representation of the environment in which they lived.

Many agree that the repeated use of triangles, which are representative of shark teeth, generally symbolizes strength and protection. Another very common pattern seen is the spiral-esque design meant to represent waves.

Because the early societies of the Pacific Islands had no written language, they used tattoos as a means of communication between members of the society.

According to Kealalokahi Losch, an expert in Pacific Islander culture, agrees that tattoos were a way of preserving history and culture, as well as a means of broadcasting one’s individuality.

“For Polynesian people it’s kind of our identity. It’s our thing,” said Lala Ellsworth, a tattoo artist working at Frost City Tatau.

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Lala Ellsworth, a tattoo artist at Frost City Tattoo. Photo by Diego Romo

Historically, tattoos contained symbolism that related to the matriarchal and patriarchal lines of the family. They displayed successful hunts and the spoils of war. They also denoted what standing in the society one had, be it king or warrior, and even the origins of their ancestor.

Frost credits these characteristics for his passion and interest in the style. He really liked the fact that he was “able to tell a story using our language.”

Tattoos also played a very personal role in the sense that they shared the story of the bearer to the world. But they were never about the individual, as is the case with most Pacific Islander culture and practices.

“There’s no individual. That doesn’t exist in our style,” Frost said. “You’re all about the family, the clan, and community in a way that makes you whole.”

Historians state that as European cultures began to make contact with the Pacific Island communities, the practices and techniques of Polynesian tattooing began to spread and influence styles all over the world.

“All islanders have always gifted tattoos to foreigners,” Frost added.

And despite many efforts by zealous religious missionaries to curb the practice, it’s still thriving two thousand years later

Frost said that there is a large and growing market of Pacific Islanders who wish to continue the tradition of receiving the tattoos as part of their cultural identity — those who truly understand the deep meaning of the symbolism and the history of the art.

But you do not have to be of Pacific Island descent to appreciate and understand their style of tattooing.

“There’s a lot of non-Polynesians getting Polynesian stuff,” Frost said.

He added that this is a factor in what’s keeping the art alive. The symbols and their meanings are universal. They tell the story of all humans, just through the lens of the Pacific Islander experience.

“The meaning behind it is relatable to anyone in the world,” Frost added. “It’s just done in our style.”

Zay Dela Pena, who has tattooed at Frost City Tatau for three years, was born in Hawaii and grew up in a very religious family. The traditional, Polynesian style tattoos that were inspired by his culture and his spirituality by interweaving symbolism and meaning between the two identities.

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Zay Dela Pena tattooing a client at Frost City Tattoo. Photo by Diego Romo

“I had to figure out a way to connect the cultural symbols to spiritual symbols,” he said.

Dela Pena, like many others, was able to see the universal qualities in the symbols and add his own experience and identity to the tattoo, deepening its meaning.

Although the art-form has remained highly unchanged over its two thousand year existence, artists are now beginning to blend styles and create pastiches that contain the influence of many different works and cultures.

“What’s happening now is you’re seeing an evolution,” Fred Frost said. “Because artists are becoming diverse.”

Younger artists like Jroo Winquist are influenced by the tattoos of their older relatives and peers, but are continuing the Pacific Islander tattooing legacy through exploring different and newer styles.

“I love the look of tribal,” Winquist said. “It’s aesthetically so pleasing.”

But Winquist stated his favorite style of tattoo to work on is contemporary, modern and even surrealistic. Still the art is influenced in some way by the traditional Pacific Islander style.

Fred Frost said the traditional style of Polynesian tattooing will not be going away any time soon.

“It has stood the test of time until now, so I’m sure it will last,” he said.

As the buzz of the tattoo guns begins to fade, the conversation builds at Frost City Tatau in Midvale. Those who have just finished receiving their new ink don’t just pay and leave — they stay and talk for a while. Because before anything else, community and family come first in the Pacific Islander tradition.