Bathed in Grey Lynn sunlight, nestled snugly between the past and the future, Sāmoan tatau/tattoo artist and researcher Tyla Vaeau’s business is a masterclass in Moana ambition.
The re-opening of international borders has seen her eagerly awaited return to Australia for a sold-out tour of Sydney and Brisbane during September - the faithful having waited patiently for the past two years.
We were students together at Western Springs College during the early 2000s, her talent for drawing attracting attention then from our peers and teachers. Three years ago, she was awarded Creative New Zealand’s Emerging Pacific Artist. Apprenticed under the Sa Su’a Sulu’ape dynasty, Vaeau became the first Sāmoan female tattooist to be gifted the ‘au (Sāmoan tattooing tool). I’m in awe that the 36 year-old mother of Phyllis (10) and ‘Inoke (8) now leads a new generation of indigenous women reclaiming, reviving and re-imagining ancient marks.
I joined my mother Kim for her first tatau; grateful that a rare cancellation spared us the usual several-months wait to secure a session. Vaeau is listening intently to my mother, she’s given herself over to the process, articulating the journey of her life and a strong desire to literally mark these important moments. Her eyes are closed as Vaeau begins sketching a draft on the inside of her right arm, the vastness of her experiences translated into beautiful motifs.
“They talk about the things they've been through or the things that are coming up, the next chapter, and while I'm listening I start to see the work, sometimes I even dream the tatau before a client comes in the next day,’ Vaeau tells us.
Her practice has a strong emphasis on the protectiveness of fafine (women) and the sacredness of tatau, despite a background in fine arts and academia (her Master of Arts thesis focused on Sāmoan tatau). “People come to me for all sorts of reasons - to honour their ancestors, to show loyalty to their aiga (family) through tatau, but they also come for themselves; to mark important milestones on their journeys.”
As a young woman, Vaeau is already looking ahead to the future - training a circle of women to support her important expansion into malu (customary Samoan tatau for women). There’s international interest to work under her ‘au, but she stays grounded when discussing the importance of following protocols and ensuring the energy is correct.
“The malu covers the entire thighs so it takes a full day, it's so important to my people. I have to know certain things about the family lines before I can bestow the malu, and to inform everybody that will be present on how to engage and be ready for that space respectfully.
“It helps to make the experience smoother for the woman receiving it, but it also helps to keep me ancestrally safe too. My whole career has been driving towards this point."
Tyla Vaeau. Photo: Supplied.
Home is now the house where she grew up in Grey Lynn. It was her parents who left the nest, moving across to the Gold Coast several years ago. “I was sitting in the kitchen looking across to the lounge one day, the sun streaming in and my kids watching television; I thought that’s a lot of space there,” seeding an idea to set up her own business - Vaeau Family Studio would provide a niu future.
Younger brother Hiram, also a tattoo artist, works alongside her. He’s finishing up a full sleeve next to us; beautiful native birds soar on the arm of a young woman while her two friends look on excitedly. Australia-based sister Dee completes the family act as Studio manager.
“I've worked in other spots - in other people's spaces - they were important times for my career but I was definitely ready to level up. It’s a blessing to be able to do so with my family, not many get to move forward and make serious ground standing shoulder to shoulder with your siblings,’ Vaeau enthuses.
Vaeau giving a presentation. Photo: Supplied.
The studio walls are covered in Moana art; there’s a playlist mix of nineties R&B, old school faves and obviously a nod to our twenties, the odd club banger. Vaeau laughs: “Yeah, I get a few requests for my playlist!” Despite the confidence and ease on display, she’s aware of what it’s taken to reach this point in her career, of having to work much harder as a woman. The recognition she’s received from the tattooing world is largely a result of this.
Her vision as a master tattooist places tautua (service) on equal footing with the glory of tatau artistry but there are also the practicalities of compliance. Health and safety are paramount, the benches are clear wrapped and tools maintained to surgical level standards. This becomes apparent when she instructs my mother where to lie as she gloves up unwrapping a clean needle.
“Tattooing is a highly male dominated space,” she muses, “that becomes even more so when you're talking about Sāmoan tatau.
“It's intense to navigate all of that as a woman, to be respectful while also being strong, to be the master in the circle - the Tufuga - it takes a lot of courage and support to do what I do.”
She’s talking about the recent death of her treasured aunt: “I gave aunty her first tattoo when she was in her 70s (pictured above), right here on her outer wrist,” she gestures. It proved poignant knowing there was initially a resistance against tattooing. “To be part of that shift in thinking where she received her tatau with her daughter (my cousin), that was really special for our family.”
She lifts the needle back, studies the work on my mother’s inside arm and then nods her head emphatically at the finished piece. I break the moment of silence telling my mother it’s done, she sits up looking over the symbols, ecstatic as if she’s tracing a map of her life.
I realise then how much is riding on the shoulders of this beautiful artist: running a business while single handedly raising a family, pushing into new territory while remaining open to new opportunities.
“When I first started out I had a great mentor down in Wellington - Roger Ingerton - he encouraged me to keep trying new things. I never felt like he was clipping my wings, I take that energy forward with me.’
Just hours later, I watch strangers in a café surround my mother who had spied the wrapping around her arm. They had to see her tattoo, asked the kinds of questions only those of us who have been inked would understand.
This was the influence of Vaeau.
Her talent and ambition has built a practice and business that's attracted a huge and loyal following. There's an absolute joy watching your friend and contemporary take full flight, followed by a sense of awe knowing she carries the stories of our past within tatau toward the future.
Kim Meredith showing off her new tatau, with Vaeau looking on. Photo: Supplied.