Master of Ceremony
Christian Koch investigates the story behind the mystical Kava ceremony that kicks off The London Tattoo Convention.
Never let it be said that the London Tattoo Convention doesn’t know how to make a grand entrance. When ink enthusiasts from across the globe converge at Tobacco Dock on Friday 27 September, they’ll be treated to a custom that’s kicked off the world’s most exciting tattoo festival for the past 14 years: our annual kava ceremony. This ancient South Pacific ritual involves mildly narcotic brew kava, and will be conducted by native Samoan tattoo artist S'ua Fuiavailili Lawrence Ah Ching.
All very nice. But what’s kava got to do with tattoos, I hear you ask? Well, quite a lot, actually. The word ‘tattoo’ is believed to derive from the Samoan word ‘tatau’ – a portmanteau of ta (‘to strike’) and tau (‘attack’ or ‘war’). And the blackwork body-art popular everywhere right now? That’s thought to have originated from Polynesia too.
As for kava, it’s made from the powdered root of the kava kava (piper methysticum), a type of pepper-plant. It’s been guzzled at special occasions for centuries across the Pacific, from Hawaii to Vanuatu. Tongans like to drink it while watching the rugby; in Fiji you wouldn’t think about visiting a village without presenting a bundle of kava roots as a gift. In Samoa, where it’s known as ‘ava, it’s drunk at important gatherings, whether it’s coronating new chiefs or welcoming/saying goodbye to special visitors.
The guests that Lawrence will bless at the Convention’s ‘ava ceremony will be VIP hand-tap artists who have travelled from as far as Borneo and Japan. Traditionally, everybody sits cross-legged on the floor in a circular pattern, while prayers and speeches are given. Then, the kava’s served, usually in a polished coconut half called a <’tauau’>. Starting with the highest-ranking member of the visiting party first, they’ll lift the cup, say ’Manuia’ (‘cheers’), before passing it on.
For first-timers, kava doesn’t taste nice. It’s a bitter, milky liquid that leaves your mouth buzzing and your tongue numb. Many people compare it to drinking muddy water. But kava does have a mild, calming effect that may make users more relaxed and sociable. When Captain Cook discovered the psychoactive plant, he described it as a “strange, intoxicating pepper”. More recently, a US researcher told the <New York Times> kava was “kind of like a natural Xanax.” Indeed, one 2009 University of Queensland study found kava was effective in treating anxiety.
These stress-reducing properties could help explain why “island beer” has taken off in the west over the past decade. It’s available in some pharmacies in tablet form; in New York millennials flock to kava bars to sup kava tea and ‘kavatails’ that mask its bitter taste.
Fortunately, kava is no longer prepared in the traditional method, whereby boys would chew the roots and spit the mush into a coconut shell. The kava served at London Tattoo Convention will possibly be made in a food-processor, but that doesn’t make the ritual any less special.
“As a travelling artist, I’ve been blessed to share this part of my culture at tattoo conventions,” says Lawrence. “It draws a lot of attention and brings many people together to make connections in the world of tattooing.”
It’s a spectacle that you really can’t miss out on. All together now: Manuia!
The ‘ava ceremony will open this year’s London Tattoo Convention at 1pm on Friday 27 September 2019 and there will be a closing ceremony on Sunday 29th September.