TITO Tattooist on Easter Island

Published: 16 July, 2010 - Featured in Skin Deep 120, April, 2005

Easter Island is probably the one of the most isolated places in the world. It is located in the Pacific Ocean and is 3700 kilometres from Chile (the country on which it depends upon) and is 4000 Kms from Tahiti.


Since Easter Island is extremely isolated, this can explain the development of such a particular culture. It took this name at the time of its discovery by the Dutch explorer: Admiral Jacob ROGGERCEN who said he came across the islands on the evening of Easter Sunday on April 5th, 1722. He named it: ‘PAASCH EYLANDT’, literally translated means: Easter Island.


More commonly called ‘RAPA NUI’, its Polynesian name, the island today is formed by the constant battering by the waves and the wind, where the vegetation has a lot of difficulties getting a foot hold in the soil, although the ground was very fertile in the past.  Populated approximately from the 4th century by the first Polynesian conquerors, in the search of new grounds, this volcanic stone was originally called ‘TE PITO OTE HENUA’, the Navel of the World. 


On Sunday morning, I arrived at the International Airport of Santiago in Chile ready for the flight bound for PAPEETE with a stopover to land at Mataveri de Hanga Roa airport on Easter Island. I arrived five hours later on this small island, which is 23 km’s in length and 12 km’s across. Easter Island is an attractive place, with a tormented and volcanic landscape, shrouded in history and legends. Surrounded by abrupt cliffs on which the waves continually break. RAPA NUI is an immense island of lava (160 square kilometres), and triangular in shape. The landscape looks very much like Scotland with its green hills and its wild coasts but also with the vestiges of a mysterious old civilisation of the famous ‘Moaïs’ (stone heads), who are today, silent eyewitnesses.


Belonging to Chile, the island now thrives thanks to tourism. The major part of the population (a total of 3000 people including approximately 1800 of local people and the others are made up of Chilean or Polynesian nationality), the majority of whom live in the capital of the island: Hanga Roa. There isn’t an awful lot in this small city, only a post office, a church, a market and a hospital. The inhabitants earn their living either from tourism, fishing or from small-scale agriculture. 


It is in the principal street bordered by some trees, that my gaze is diverted to a small store with a sign saying: MOKOMAE TATTOO. I was offered accommodation by a charming lady who opened the door to me. I explained to her that I had accomodation already and that I only wished to speak to the tattooist. This lady informed me that the tattooist is called Tito, who is currently at the hospital getting some stitches following a fall on a rock.  She gives me his personal telephone number so I can reach him directly. 


When I arrived to Tito’s studio, he was tattooing a Polynesian guy in his nicely decorated workshop. There are tattoo pictures on the walls, a computer on the desk where a connection to the Internet is of primary importance in this small island isolated from the rest of the world. In an aluminium framework exposed like a trophy cabinet, a handmade tattoo machine manufactured by Tito himself testifies his dexterity. It is with this first tattoo machine that he started to tattoo on himself, a lizard on the side of his stomach 9 years ago. 


When I asked him the reason for this, he explained to me that he had asked his grandparents to tell him the history of his family:  On the island the population is divided into clans and each clan is represented by a symbol. In his family, the symbol is a lizard, this is the reason why he really wanted to tattoo this reptile. I asked him what was the meaning behind the name of his studio: ‘Mokomae tattoo’ Tito explains to me that in the past, a ‘Mokomae’ was the person who protected the area where the tribe lived. 


The beginnings of Titos’ career was very difficult because he never had the chance to gain any professional references on the subject. On the island there aren’t any other tattooists, no tattoo magazines and no other professionals; he tattoos using his own inspiration. Tattooing is a tradition on the island but has long since disappeared.  When the missionaries arrived, it was instantly outlawed and the last tattooing on the island was done in the 19th century and it was quite difficult to try to establish the tradition again. Tattooing finds its roots within remote civilisations, in particular, the ‘Maoris’, a Polynesian minority. Tito says: ‘we did not invent anything, but simply bought a tradition back to life’. 


Tattooing comes from the word Tatau. A tattoo often indicated a member of a tribe had some social status (the passage of adolescence into adulthood and marked the end of childhood). The elder son of the chief was tattooed from the head to his feet, whereas all the others of the tribe were tattooed in the opposite direction. The reasons depended on the age, the sex and the social status of the individual. Some of the tools used were the teeth of sharks and the shells of tortoises with natural colourings for inks. 


Tito keeps optimistic and says that the local young people tend to seek out their origins more and more and when they face their fears they are tattooed more easily. Currently Tito tattoos few people from Easter Island, his customers are quite often young and most of them are tourists. Tito dreams to tattoo a Japanese guy one day.


Meanwhile he had to leave his island to do his military service in Chile. This gave him some experience by being able to tattoo lots of his buddies. When he returned to his island, he had to wait to build up sufficient customers and he built his studio close to the family house. He doesn’t use his original hand-made tattoo machine anymore and tattooing is now done with proper inks with a new sterile machine and rubber gloves. ‘The American machines that I use are far more effective and less painful. However, tattooing is always painful in different parts of the body especially the armpit. 27 years old, Tito is now a professional within the tattooing world and his trade can now help his family out financially. His working prices vary according to the generosity of his customer who gives him what they feel is the right price. 


His father is Chilean while his mother was born on Easter Island. He is the only boy among his 4 sisters of which 2 live in Chile. But Tito doesn’t want to leave his Island and hopes that thanks to his work he could help to resurrect the traditional tattoo culture on Easter Island.


If you would like to contact him use: hakatattoo@yahoo.com



Text & Photography: Daniel Pissondes


Skin Deep 120 1 April 2005 120