This month, Cinema Asian America on Xfinity On Demand presents Emiko Omori’s ground-breaking exploration of tattoo art and culture, “Skin Stories.” Traveling through the Pacific from Samoa to New Zealand to Hawaii to North America, “Skin Stories” examines tattoo as an ancient form that traces back more than 2,000 years, and a rite of passage for Polynesians. Featuring traditional tattooing ceremonies, compelling interviews, and a breathtaking collection of tattoo body art, Skin Stories traces the roots of tattoo, highlighting individual stories and the evolution of cultural traditions in the Pacific. Skin Stories is available to view for free, through a partnership with Pacific Islanders in Communications.
Omori, a San Francisco-based filmmaker and cinematographer (with a few tattoos of her own) discussed the making of “Skin Stories.”
Tattoo art is not a new subject for you; your 1980 documentary “Tattoo City” looked at Japanese full-body tattooing, and your 2010 film “”Ed Hardy: Tattoo The World” is a profile of this now well-known artist. Can you talk about your personal interest/relationship with tattoos, and how this has become a decades-long exploration as a filmmaker?
EO: Thinking back to the late 70s when I made “Tattoo City” tattoos were not on my radar. No way, let alone full body ones. Yikes! But when I met Hardy, he turned me on to this astounding Japanese stuff that had so influenced him. Seeing them in the flesh is absolutely captivating – the ultimate moving images. Art on living flesh. What a turn on. And mystical. Looking at photos in tattoo shops, what struck me was the way tattooed people were photographed: a lot of missing heads and other body parts. The photographer, usually the tattooist, was only interested in the work and not the aesthetics of the body’s relationship to it. That’s what motivated me to make “Tattoo City”, a love letter to the art. Most of my friends didn’t know that I had a full body Japanese style tattoo until they saw the film. It’s me getting my dragon tattoo from Hardy. Hardy said that you learn a lot about your friends by the way they react. And he’s so right. If you don’t like my tattoo, shove off. It did blow the minds of all my friends. It still blows me away. I can’t believe that I actually got one. I didn’t tell my parents for the longest time. They were nonplussed. Here’s an analogy: it’s like losing your virginity, you’re different but the same.
Hardy had tattooed a man with a very beautiful Japanese asymmetrical tattoo running down the left side of his torso and crossing over to his right leg. For “Tattoo City” I had him perform a strip tease to Randy Newman’s “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” And yes, he stripped all the way. You had to see the piece in its entirety to appreciate its graceful and spectacular composition. I was a bit of a feminist, too. Let’s look at a naked man. There were naked women in “Tattoo City”, but a man — that restricted my markets. I made that choice anyway. Unfortunately “Tattoo City” is no longer available.
What drew you to making a documentary about the cultures of tattoo in the Pacific Islands? What effect did this have on your understanding of the art and practice?
EO: Skin Stories was a commissioned piece by Pacific Islanders in Communication. Did I luck out or what? Traveling to exotic places, hanging out with Samoans and Maoris. Having a large tattoo done by Ed Hardy gave me a lot of traction. I think that comes through. Those folks opened their hearts. What surprised me was how politically subversive native tattoos are in the Pacific Islands – reclaiming identity. How beautiful. Didn’t want to be too preachy, but it was a common theme. Back then, having a large tattoo made you an outsider, a low life. When I began the project, I had no intention of ever, ever getting another tattoo (it is painful). I got caught in the tattoo mojo. I have a stunning wrist tattoo from Gordon Hatfield, the Maori carver/tattooer. It’s a beautiful design of a sting ray and a hammerhead shark.
Part of what is remarkable about your filmmaking career is the range of subjects you’ve made films about. Tattoo art, Japanese American internment, the history of the vibrator, and the French filmmaker Chris Marker; how would you describe the line that runs through your body of work? What draws you to a story or subject?
EO: Good question…how would I describe the line that runs through my body of work…well “Tattoo City” and “Rabbit in the Moon” (Japanese American incarceration) are autobiographical, two are homages to my mentors Chris Marker and Ed Hardy, the vibrator one “Passion and Power: The Technology of Orgasm” just had to be made. Who invented vibrators and for what reason is a terrific unknown story. Every person should see it.
What are you working on now?
EO: Just completing the editing of a charming musical called “MU”. I am also in the proposal stage on a film about police brutality.