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Anthropologist investigates health effects of tatau

Can traditional Samoan tatau help ward off diseases? 

An American anthropologist has spent the last month finding out, as part of ongoing research on the effects of traditional tattooing on the immune system. 

Anthropologist, Christopher Lynn, chose to study Samoa because the country has the oldest continual form of traditional tattooing and it remains unchanged by missionaries and colonial governments. 

Speaking to the Samoa Observer, Dr. Lynn said his project is called “Inking of Immunity”. 

For this year's component of the study he worked exclusively with the Sulu’ape family at the Samoa Cultural Arts Village in Apia.

The 48-year-old said that the research came about because despite the rising popularity of tattooing in the US and Europe, research has so far only considered its negative biological impact. 

“Across the world, traditional societies have reported their tattoos cure illnesses or protect people from sickness and enemies and I wanted to test this," he said. 

“I wanted to tested this based on a suggestion proposed years ago by tattoo historian Lyle Tuttle that says since tattoos are wounds they cause the production of antibodies that actually do offer some protection. 

“In my first two studies, I found some support for this. [The] amount of tattooing was positively associated with enhanced immune response to getting a new tattoo. But correlation doesn’t imply causation, so I didn’t know if healthy people like to collect tattoos or if tattooing actually benefits health."

Dr. Lynn said that Su’a Sulu’ape Petelo Alaiva’a is arguably the most important Samoan tattooist in the world, and he and his brothers have done more to preserve Samoan tattooing than anyone else.

“For this multiple-year project about Samoan tattooing it will be done mostly working with the Sulu’ape family," he said. 

“While in Samoa, we travelled to Matafaa, where Su’a grew up and his father is buried to conduct interviews and collect film footage. For the biological side of the research, I worked in the Samoan Cultural Arts Village all month. 

“The methods I used were a survey about tattoo experience (hours spent being tattooed previously, proportion of body tattooed, where the tattoos are, how long ago they were received) and other demographic factors. 

"We collect weight, height, and hand grip strength for some basis health measures, and then I collect a saliva sample at the beginning of each tattoo session and a second one an hour later.”

The research compared changes in three biological markers (immunoglobulin A, cortisol, and C-reactive protein) to gauge how the immune system, stress levels and inflammation changed after a subject was tattooed. 

“I could also examine the impact of tattooing with hand tools as compared to electric tools," he said. 

"Hand tools are the more common historical way to tattoo. Electric tattooing is relatively new, and, especially with innovations these past few decades, the much less painful form.”

Dr. Lynn is collaborating with filmmaker Adam Booher on a documentary about the endurance of Samoan tattooing and the role Samoan tufuga (tattooist) have played in helping revitalise tattooing in other Pacific cultures. 

“It’s very important to recognise and celebrate that as a means of protecting the integrity of the culture and also important to recognise that it is an example of the interaction of cultural and biology par excellence and a unique opportunity to understand how the immune system adjusts to extreme stress," he said. 

“I should note that I learned all this about Samoa when fellow anthropologist Dr. Michaela Howells from the University of North Carolina Wilmington invited me to American Samoa in 2016 to collaborate on a study of the cultural response to Zika virus."

Dr. Lynn left Samoa at the end of July after spending most of the month engaged in his research. He plans to return next year to work with the Tulou’ena guild and follow up on study subjects. 

Dr. Lynn has a PhD in Anthropology from the University at Albany and is currently an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Alabama.

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