Immigration Museum: Tatau Marks of Polynesia & Perseverance Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World

Today we visited the Immigration Museum in Melbourne specifically to see two new (ish) exhibitions – Tatau and Perseverance. Essentially, both look at the significance of tattoos – one focusing on Polynesia and the other on Japan. Even though there were a few similarities, I am going to address each exhibition separately.

I have previously visited the Immigration Museum to view their permanent displays. If you are interested in reading more about what else is on offer, follow the link here.


Tatau: Marks of Polynesia


Tatau: Marks of Polynesia is a traveling exhibition on loan from the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. The aim of the exhibition is to showcase the work of traditional tatau (tattoo) practitioners and contemporary artists who are currently working with the motifs and style. For example, parts of the exhibition focus on the Sulu’ape family in Samoa who are instrumental in continuing the tatau tradition. They believe it is crucial to strengthen cultural connections and a sense of identity in the country.

The exhibition consists of mounted images, cultural objects and a video. Everything is on display in one room located on the second floor of the Museum.

Exhibition Highlights

There are a few specific highlights I want to mention.

1. Exhibition Atmosphere

Even before entering the space you can start to hear music coming from inside. This traditional Samoan music creates an amazing atmosphere. I’m not usually a fan of loud noise in exhibitions, but this just works perfectly. It is so soothing to hear while walking around. A couple of songs do include lyrics, meaning at times I found it difficult to listen and read the display panels at the same time. Overall, however, it added a new layer to the exhibition and allows for a multi-sensory experience.

2. Video

Leading on from the first point, I will note here that there are headphones available to watch the video. If both headphones are in use, the video has subtitles. A very wise decision considering you wouldn’t want there to be any competition for noise.

The video is a great place to start. Not only are there interviews with some of the tatau artists who have work in the exhibition, but you can see the practice in action. I would highly recommend going straight to the video after reading the introductory panel. It’s also a fantastic opportunity to hear firsthand accounts about both the significance of tatau and having work on display in an exhibition.

Quote from the video.

3. ‘Au ta tatau (Tattoo Tools)

In the middle of the exhibition is a small display case containing a few tools of the trade. These include the sausau (striker or mallet), ‘au mono (for small patterns), ‘au sogiaso (for medium patterns), ‘au sogi’asofa’aifo (for large curved lines) and ‘au tapulu (for blackening the thighs of men’s tatau).


4. Display Panels

There are two display panels I want to mention – the introductory panel and the first panel you see on entering the space.

The introductory panel not only has the text in English, but also in Samoan. I see this as a way of allowing for some agency. In other words, the society or culture being displayed can have their voice added to the space in their own language.


The first panel in the space explores the social structures in Samoa. This serves as both an introduction to Samoan culture and an explanation for some of the tatau visitors will see in the exhibition. This context, along with the music playing, allows for the exhibition to really reinforce its cultural significance.

5. Photographs of Process

Although all the photographs on display are simply stunning, I really enjoyed those that document the tatau process. In particular, this image below of Su’a Sulu’ape Peter tattooing.


The other photographs on display are mainly of individuals proudly showing their tatau.

Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World


Like Tatau, this exhibition is currently on loan from the Japanese America National Museum. Its aim is to explore the history of tattooing in Japanese culture and how this ‘underground’ (aka not overly socially acceptable) activity has persevered. The work of many artists is on display including Horitaka, Horitomo, Horishiki, Miyazo, Shige, Junii, and Yokohama Horiken.


The exhibition consists of full-size images, framed close-ups, cultural objects and a video. Again, everything is on display in one room, but this time located on the third floor of the Museum.

Exhibition Highlights

1. Introduction to Japanese Motifs

After walking past some projected images of animated carp fish, you come across a large introductory panel exploring common Japanese motifs in tattooing. These include snakes, dragons and tigers. You can spend a bit of time here reading about the significance and history of the most popular designs. A great way to introduce the exhibition.

2. Layout = Atmosphere

While Tatau utilises sound to create an atmosphere, Perseverance focuses more on the physical layout. There is a video playing in a separate room that, to an extent, isolates the sound. Instead, what I noticed immediately about this exhibition is the use of light and projections along with the different photographic displays. The use of projectors and lanterns helps to create a certain feel to the exhibition that relates directly to the theme. As for the photographs, as well as smaller framed images, there are large full-size posters hanging from the ceiling near the entrance. Both exhibitions implement different techniques in order to set the scene for their content.


Further Information

Tatau and Perseverance are on display until October 6, 2019 at the Immigration Museum. Entrance costs $15 for adults and is free for children and concessions. The Museum is accessible and open everyday except for Good Friday and Christmas Day.

I highly recommend visiting to see these exhibitions. They are both so important in communicating the significance of tattoos and how they can reveal so much about a particular society or culture.

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