Meet the Artist: Sua Suluape Toetuu, Aisea
Wednesday Aug 08 10:15 AM
Honolulu Museum of Art
Meet artist Sua Suluape Toetuu, Aisea, whose work with ink and skin is in the exhibition Tattoo Honolulu.
Sua Suluape Toetuu, Aisea
Origins: O‘ahu, Hawai‘i; 1974
Years tattooing: 24
Introduction to tattooing: I’ve been fascinated with art since childhood. When I was 14, I picked up tattooing as a hobby using homemade tattoo machines. It was the street boys from my neighborhood that started convincing me to tattoo them. I became interested in my ancestry—I am of Tongan and mixed Hawaiian Filipino descent—and began researching and studying more about my culture. By the time I was 17, I was involved with the revival of the Tongan ta‘vaka. In my late twenties, I met Samoan tattoo master Su’a Sulu’ape Petelo, who also had ancestors that tattooed Tongans in the past.
Mentors: My grandmother told me that her grandfather was one of the last men to wear the Tongan ta'vaka (Tongan male tattoo) and she had inspired me to study my culture and do Polynesian tattoo. Through the help of Tricia Allen, I attended my first tattoo convention and was introduced to other great tattoo artists. I had always admired Su'a Sulu'ape Petelo’s Samoan pe'as, and he became one of my greatest mentors for traditional hand tapping and after years of serving an apprenticeship with him, he bestowed his family title on me, which gave me the right to use the family tools. Tongan master wood carver Tuione Pulotu, lasher Filipe To‘i, storyteller Emil Wolfgram and astrologist Tevita Fale helped me understand all the different designs and patterns.
Artistic inspiration: All the travels I did in life. I was introduced to other cultures and people, and gained a lot of artistic inspiration.
Most significant tattoo experience: With help, I mentored other Pacific Islanders to revive their tattoos, but I would say my most significant tattoo experience was bringing back tattooing to Tonga in 2010, after 200 years of being banned by Christianity. I had the opportunity to tattoo several members of the royal family and taught workshops on the importance of sterilization and sanitization.
What is unique about Hawai‘i’s tattoo culture? Hawai‘i is so diverse, with so many people from different cultural backgrounds—that has a great influence on the different types of tattoos that come out of Hawai‘i. Also it is such a small island yet is home to so many tattooists, and only a few of them are great artists.
Contribution to tattoo culture: I am proud to say that I played an important role in the “New Tribal” era, the foundation of modern Polynesian tattoo. This was where the fusion of Polynesian tattooing began, by introducing the union of different art forms such as Polynesian, Japanese, Asian and graffiti mixed with tribal designs from throughout the Pacific. “New Tribal” began in 1997 as a modest collaboration between artists such as Pooino Yorandi, Orly Locquiao, Mike Ledger and myself. Until this day, our fundamental recipe remains as a large influence in Hawai‘i, the Mainland and in Europe. I also hope to raise health awareness, teach proper protocols of tattooing, and continue to educate others on how to respect our Hawaiian culture and tattoo culture.