Tagata Pasifika

The Pacific voice on
New Zealand television
since 1987

Tagata Pasifika

The Pacific voice on
New Zealand television
since 1987

Sought-after book on Cook Islands tattooing returns to the shelves

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

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Gladys Hartson | Senior Journalist

A sought-after book on Cook Islands tattooing published nearly 12 years ago is back in print. 

Patterns of the Past–Tattoo Revival in the Cook Islands, is written by Cook Islander Therese Mangos and her cousin, veteran journalist John Utanga, with photography by film photographer Kirsty Griffin.

Since its original release, it has become a vital resource for people not only in the Cook Islands but also for those who have a passion for the Tatatau (tattoo) to understand its role and impact, patterns, motifs and significance. 

Patterns of the Past was first published in 2011, with 1000 copies sold in three months. Another batch was printed which took it longer to sell. But since then, demand for more copies has grown thanks to a strong online following and a renaissance of the art-form among Cook Islanders in the diaspora. 

Patterns of the Past book launch at the Pacific Arts Centre. Photo: Gladys Hartson / Tagata Pasifika.

12 years on and Patterns of the Past has been revived with 500 copies reprinted. A special blessing was held earlier this week at the Pacifica Arts Centre in West Auckland to commemorate the relaunch.

Therese says while the book has been out of print for the past seven years, she is excited to continue sharing their Tātatau story. 

“(Patterns of the Past) will get out to our people, which was the whole idea right from the beginning, to create this resource that is accessible to everyone,” she says. 

Artist, educator, and broadcaster Tuaratini Raa opened the ceremony with words of welcome to the family and friends of the authors.

She invited the community to bless the work and research of Therese and John, who dedicated years to writing the book.

“We acknowledge, we will honour, and we will celebrate the authors,” she says.

Cover art and tattoo from the Patterns of the Past -Tattoo revival in the Cook Islands.

Therese was curious to learn more about the patterns and motifs after deciding to get her first tattoo back in the Cook Islands in 1992 while attending the South Pacific Arts Festival.

This curiosity would result in a journey of more than 15 years of research, interviews, study and travel to the Cook Islands that culminated in her publication.

“I focussed on the six islands out of the Cook Islands 15 in the Southern Group; Rarotonga, Magaia, Aitutaki, Atiu, Nga- Pu- Toru and Mitiaro.” 

Therese sought information from the Cook Islands Library and Museum in Avarua and reflected on what she discovered through her research.

Imagery from the book. Photo: Provided.

“So that was a really interesting time because I basically found out that I was a generation too late. They all said to me, ‘Oh, you should have come when my Papa was alive’, ‘you should have come when my Mama was alive’, but actually, it was a lot earlier than that because Christianity, when it arrived on our shores, did a great job of wiping out basically the oral history and the practice of Tatatau in the islands,” she says.

Information was not readily available online, and without the luxury of Google at the time, Therese relied on her skills and experience from her university days to access what limited information was available.

“I knew how to go into these glass rooms and put gloves on and flick through the old books, but I did it the hard way and what I wanted to do is to create this resource so that everyone could have access to it.”

John Utanga paid tribute to Therese for her passion to see the project through and her painstaking work over the years. 

“The thing that really struck me about it was not only her passion about tattooing, but her passion for our history of our Cook Islands community, and the other thing that struck me is how little there is of it,” he says.

“I think the best thing the book does is bring a whole bunch of sources together in one place so you can go on your own journey.” 

John shared his reflections during the blessing and said while the journey was long, it was one he was privileged to be part of. 

“There were so many incredible stories, both historical and kind of contemporary. When we go to history, we’re looking all the way back to Captain Cook. So as a journalist looking at these stories, I thought, ‘wow, this is a great picture’, and so it was a real privilege to be able to look back into our history of the Cook Islands and see that it has some deep roots and a lot of strength,” he says.

Therese and John both acknowledged the work of leaders of the past who worked to keep the records of the culture and practices of the Cook Islands alive. 

“So while it’s great to have oral history and oral culture, it’s great to have it written down as well, and perhaps that’s where our role has come in this journey,” he says.

“I don’t see it as a book; I see it as a resource. It’s basically the start of a journey for anyone to take.”

So where to from here? Is there another book in the pipeline?

Therese encourages the next generation to take on the challenge of writing the next chapter. John agrees and is encouraged to see the new generation take up the art of the Cook Islands Tatatau since the book’s publication.

“It’s totally indicative of how it has inspired a younger generation of Cook Islanders who actually say, ‘you know what, we can actually go beyond just studying this stuff in a book. We can actually take part. We can actually create.’

“That’s been one of the amazing things to see almost daily on Facebook as new people are inspired by their own culture and history, and I am glad that it is their culture and history that’s represented in their artwork and not someone else’s.” 

Patterns of the Past is now on sale and available at Moana Fresh. 



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