When a Tufi girl is ready for marriage she might, for some weeks, enter the hibernating process of getting a facial tattoo. The tattooing is an old traditional practice that has faded away and disappeared in most communities, but there are some areas where the tradition lives on.
The girl stays in seclusion during the time of the application, which is made by a qualified tattooist – sometimes a relative; always a woman. First the pattern is drawn in black, and when the girls’ parents have expressed their appreciation the tattooist starts the actual process. Dulcie at Kafuaruru village and Levinia at Angorogho, two of the still active tattooists, use a modern needle instead of the bush needle that was tapped by a stick, which was the old way. The dyes today are also mixed with modern ingredients that give a stronger and more lasting colour. This way the tattoo has to be worked over only twice, instead of three or four times which was the rule before.Ethel from Kuruwe says: “Mine was made by a lady from Sefoa. It was my parents that decided, but they listened to me too, of course. Nowadays the girls decide much themselves, but only a few get them. My auntie from Angorogho made one last year on a girl from Mafuia – that’s the neighbour village.”
A hundred years ago tattooing was common all over Papua New Guinea. Most places it was only for the women. The method was basically the same everywhere, but the patterns and what areas would be marked varied between the different areas. Some had their whole bodies tattooed, starting with a section at a young age, then adding some every year, and the final needle applied around puberty. At Tufi it was the face and sometimes the neck, and some would – only for the husbands to view – have their thighs tattooed as well.
You’ll find some more about the Tufi tattoos in my book Beautiful Tufi, and there’s a set of photos on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/29122604@N05/sets/72157622661762090/