What Does 'Tatau' Mean? This BBC America Series' Title Speaks Volumes About It
BBC America is debuting yet another new drama on Apr. 18, and since they rarely do American productions, I know I'm going to pay attention. The title of the network's latest show is Tatau , which means "tattoo" in Pacific Island cultures, like that of the Cook Islands, where the show takes place. Tattoos and tattooing have cultural meanings in the South Pacific, and PBS even did a whole documentary about it called Skin Stories , and they enlisted a Hawaiian professor, Kealalokahi Losch, to describe the historical relevance of the art of tatau: "The master of tattooing was a highly trained individual, usually male, who was knowledgeable of both literal and figurative meanings of motifs, placement, and associated responsibilities or consequences. In most cases, it was the master who determined not only what designs were appropriate, but also who could be tattooed and when." Of course, that means that these "masters" had a high level of skill and responsibility, as Losch continues: "The master's lifestyle was also restricted to avoid tainting themselves or their work. There were spiritual responsibilities [...] The master always had to take care not to offend their gods lest their gift of tattooing others be taken away."
And that spirituality can be found in the show, which follows two young Brits named Kyle and Budgie who travel to the Pacific out of curiosity and stumble onto a local conspiracy of murder, cover-ups, and, seemingly mystical tribalism, possibly related to tattooing. In the premiere, one of the students, Kyle, gets a tattoo to commemorate their trip, but then realizes that the symbols that have been tattooed on him may end up having a greater significance. Don't freak out about Jack from Lost similarities — this show is building a mystery around the tattoos, not retrofitting one to waste time in a terrible season.
But the meaning of Tatau can tell us a great deal about the show, beyond the obvious. If you find yourself in the Cook Islands, you can actually get a Maori tattoo, although it has a particular significance for the locals that shouldn't be taken as a joke, since the craft is still taken very seriously — there is even a Polynesian Tatau Awards show that mixes the contemporary with the traditional. The winner of the most recent "Public's Choice" Award, Tikiroa Tattoo, doesn't even use machines to tattoo his clients — it's all done with bamboo needles. That doesn't mean that he sacrifices an ounce of detail, either:
If you're worried about the mysterious patterns you've had tattooed on your arm, most tatau fit a few nature motifs, as demonstrated by the Tatau Awards' guide to tatau, but unless you're a character on a cable drama, don't expect to uncover a dead body that has ties to your new shoulder tat.
Tatau looks like it might constantly be in danger of slipping to the "scary natives" trope, but I sincerely hope I'm wrong. In the BBC America description of the show, everyone involved promises that the show "is based on real Maori mythology" and will employ Polynesian actors.
Still, thrillers set in "exotic" locales isn't a genre that's dying for another entry — at least in my opinion. But BBC America has been able to turn it out before, and as an Orphan Black believer (for real, bring on allllll the clones), I have trust in the BBC America development team to hopefully make this a twist on a familiar trope not just another example of... a familiar trope.
What makes me hope that the show won't just be a parade of stereotypes is that Kyle and Layton start off in the pilot as kind of clueless tourists, the types who would get highly meaningful symbols tattooed on their body without a second thought. According to BBC America, as the rest of the season unfolds the duo will become more involved in the local Cook Island culture and basically realize that they don't know anything about it. So yeah, I'd call that promising.
Image: Kirsty Griffin/BBC America