A Cultural Calling

Tahitian tattoo artist James Samuela has a special expertise: creating the art of his ancestors.

James Samuela
While he’s practiced the art of tattoo in Europe and the United States, James Samuela’s home and parlor are on Mo’orea.Zach Stovall

Many native islanders carry their cultural traditions close to them, but not all carry it on their skin. James Samuela does. Tahiti-born and a descendant of some of the first tattoo artists in the Marquesas Islands, Samuela both sports and supplies traditional Tahitian tattoos. In fact, he's one of the few who still specialize in the ancient style known as tatau. The artist now lives and works on Mo'orea, an island within easy cruising distance of Tahiti that he says is "much more beautiful."

Samuela received his first tattoo at age 12 and began professionally tattooing in 1998, at age 19.

He spent five years studying art at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, but learned his specialty from his family and the masters of the craft who came before him.

"A descendant of some of the first tattoo artists in the Marquesas Islands, Samuela both sports and supplies traditional Tahitian tattoos."

Traditional Tahitian tattoos are made up of symbols that, in the ancient days (dating back to 1500 B.C.), represented one’s genealogy and social rank. Today, they represent ancestors and interests. If a yacht owner or charter guest were to visit Moorea Tattoo, Samuela’s parlor, the design might include star constellations, which ­Samuela’s ancestors used to navigate the seas, as well as wind, birds and the ocean. “Each tattoo is unique and representative of that person’s story,” he says.

The next time you cruise to Mo’orea, book an appointment at Moorea Tattoo at the beginning of your itinerary. Samuela says boaters who wait until the end may be too sunburned. Plus, he believes swimming in the salt water will help with healing. Salt water is, after all, the cure for everything.

James Samuela
Don’t bring a sketched tattoo into Moorea Tattoo; James Samuela only does freehand art.Zach Stovall

Why did you become a tattoo artist? I grew up around tattoo, but it was much later, after I realized there were only a few tattoo masters left, that I decided to go for it. Tattoo is my passion. I don't consider it a job. It's part of my culture, and I'm proud to share it.

How rare are traditional tattoo specialists nowadays? There are only a couple of us left who do traditional. A lot of the younger artists are doing a "faux traditional." I make an authentic traditional tool out of hand-carved wild boar tusk. I can also use sharks' teeth.

What's in a typical Tahitian tattoo? All Tahitian tattoos are based on the four elements: earth, water, wind, fire. A lot of the tattoos represent important events in your life, such as traveling from one island to another.

Do the tattoos express a connection to the water? Do they reflect living on an island? Yes. Absolutely. We are island people. Our life revolves around the water. My ancestors are the greatest navigators in the world, so there are definitely tattoos that reflect that.

Do non-natives get traditional tattoos? Is it common for yachtsmen visiting Mo'orea to get one? All the time! I tattoo tourists all the time. I think people around the world are looking for authentic experiences, and a traditional tattoo is as authentic as you're going to get.

How long have you lived on Mo'orea? I was born on the island of Tahiti. I came to Mo'orea as a young boy. I've lived here my whole life. Well, except for the five years I spent in Paris studying at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts.

What advice do you have for someone cruising or chartering in Mo'orea? What should they experience? I love to surf, and if you don't surf, you still need to get in the water. Go fishing, feed stingrays, swim with sharks. There is so much to do in the lagoon here. But also, look beyond the lagoon to the mountains. Go hiking and see the island from up above.

Mo'orea Three Ways

VANTAGE POINT
Hike or drive to Belvedere Lookout and see Opunohu Valley, Opunohu and Cook bays, and Mount Rotui.

BALI HAI
Mo'orea is said to be the inspiration for Bali Hai, a mythical island in James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific.

ISLAND GROWN
At Manutea Tahiti fruit factory and distillery, guests can tour fruit plantations, and taste juices and liquors.