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Books: Written on the Body

Author Tricia Allen on tattoos and culture.

When Tricia Allen started her career, she didn’t know she was going to wind up as an expert in Polynesian tattoos. But her research at the University of Hawai‘i, as an anthropologist concentrating in the art of the Pacific and Africa, took her down the intriguing path toward inked skin. “I did my thesis on the old form of Marquesan tattoo, because tattoo tools are found on archaeology sites. I discovered that this was a lot more fun than sorting dirt.”

Allen studied the art of tattooing under famed California tattooist Ed Hardy, then did her first tattoo on her own leg. “It’s one of Ed’s requirements that you do it on yourself,” she explains. Since then, Allen has become a sought-after tattooist who occasionally guest curates for museums on the subject. She lives in Kane‘ohe, but spends much of her time on the Mainland tattooing members of the Polynesian communities there.

Allen also produced a comprehensive book, Tattoo Traditions of Hawai‘i ($18.95; Mutual Publishing), which covers the tools, techniques, motifs and history of tattoos in the Islands. It also includes contemporary examples of Hawaiian tattooing. “I wanted to make the material accessible,” she notes, “to put the tattoos in context and share the personal statements behind them.

According to Allen, the resurgence of interest in Hawaiian tattoo forms arose in the past 20 years or so, during the renaissance of other art forms, including the martial art lua, voyaging and hula.

“Tattooing is a mark of identity, and shows respect for one’s cultural heritage. It’s an amazing art form—it gives you fast, deep connection, and represents your inner self. That’s what has kept me at it.” For more on Polynesian tattoos, visit Allen’s Web site at www.tattootraditions.alohaworld.com.

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