Words by Athena Dennis Photography by Julia Gray
Never merely pretty decorations, tattoos are a permanent symbol of one’s heritage, a visual story carried on the skin. Tattoos have their roots embedded deeply in the origins of human history. They are spiritual and yet rooted to the earth and the footsteps of our ancestors.
Tep Tok: Reading Between Our Lines is an exciting new documentary that’s set to resurrect the lost art of tribal tattooing in the Central Province of Papua New Guinea.
An exhilarating exploration of Papua New Guinea, Pasifika and Oceania tattooing traditions, Tep Tok looks at how these rituals interweave with women’s sense of identity, belonging and collective storytelling.
The documentary follows four Papua New Guinean/Australian women, including film-makers Julia and Nata, on deeply personal journeys. Tep Tok uses modern storytelling methods and production values to tell an ancient story; a homage to their grandmothers and the rich traditions that they uphold.
Julia and Nata’s story calls to mind an ancient Samoan story of two female Siamese twins Taema and Tilafaiga. When the twins grew old enough, they swam away from the island of their birth. While swimming they were hit by a canoe which severed their joined bodies. When they arrived in Fiji they were taught the art of tatau (tattoo), plus spells to recite while performing the ritual. On their return to Samoa, Tilafaiga became a war goddess and Taema became a tattooist, sharing her knowledge with the rest of Samoa.
This story of lineage, self-discovery and legacy bound together by ink uncannily mirrors the story of Tep Tok’s four women.
In the Central Province of Papua New Guinea, some of the tattooing traditions have now sadly disappeared. Although they can still be revitalised and celebrated, Tep Tok aims to ensure that ancient tattoo rituals not only survive, but flourish in the future.
It wasn’t easy to make Tep Tok: Reading Between Our Lines. Julia and Nata self-funded the entire project, along with amazing supporters such as Darwin City Tattoos and generous family and friends.
With a panoramic lens panning all over Oceania, the story is filmed in Australia, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, New Zealand, Cook Islands and Tahiti. It includes footage and interviews with respected and prominent Pasifika tattooists and specialists.
On the journey, Julia and Nata visit their tribal home of Mekeo in the Central Province. This is where Julia undergoes a sacred rite of passage. Taught the ancient art of tattooing, by revered Pasifika tattoo artists Inia Taylor, Croc Tatau and Tihoti Mataura, Julia is granted the honour of tattooing other women from her village.
Given the rise of young Papua New Guineans interest in tattoos, Julia hopes Tep Tok will inspire the next generation to revive a beautiful, delicate and sacred art.
“Don’t forget who you are. This helps you to remember who came before you and who is going to come after you.” Julia Gray