Mike Tavioni

LOCAL LEGEND: Mike Tavioni

Cook Islands News story and photographs by Tara Carr

A legend in his own right. Local artist Mike Tavioni has dealt with the traditional arts all his life including carving, writing, composing, fabric painting, tattooing and oil painting. Carving commercially for the past twenty years, Tavioni has among his many achievements two rock carvings in place at the Punanga Nui in Avarua where he also has a craft stall called Local Art. The Punanga Nui is the local market place, begun at the time of the Maire Nui (Pacific Arts Festival) which was held in Rarotonga in 1994. Its recent development has been sponsored by the New Zealand Overseas Development Aid (NZODA) and Tavioni has been involved with the Punanga Nui project for some time. Part of the Punanga Nui complex includes an open air stage which was sponsored by a Chinese delegation who visited a few years ago. Included in the sponsorship were two rock carvings which are placed on both sides of the stage.


The two carved rocks at either side of the open stage at Punanga Nui in Avarua.

The rock on the left hand side of the stage represents a compass as each carving on the rock represents and points to the countries of New Zealand, Tonga, Hawaii, Rarotonga and the Easter Islands. The remaining space will be used for two more carvings which will symbolise and point to the islands of Nukuhiva and Austral — a five island group east of Mangaia.

Representing the island of New Zealand — Aotearoa.

The rock on the right hand side of the stage has various carvings. A traditional mermaid-like creature with a fish in the background was carved by Mike Tavioni’s brother Henry. Tavioni said that anyone is free to carve in the remaining space. An unusual sight on the traditional rock are words written in Chinese which translate into a deeper meaning of Kia Manuia — what was intended to do, was done well, said Tavioni.Statue carved by Mike Tavioni’s brother Henry.
Apart from carving, Tavioni took on the art of traditional tattooing in 1990 with Ben Nicholls. Tavioni commented that he did so because he felt sorry for the young people who were putting meaningless tattoos on themselves such as “Born To Lose” or “I Love Jane”. Tavioni and Nicholls offered more culturally significant traditional designs which held meaning that Cook Islanders could be proud of. Tavioni said he wanted to revive the use of traditional motifs of tattooing as an alternative.


His oil painting skills are on display at the University of the South Pacific (USP) Library where a painting of his niece Ake Tairi at the age of nine hangs

Recently Tavioni with wife Awhitia, who also carves, travelled to Maui, Hawai’i for the Celebration of the Canoes event. Each of the Pacific islands represented at the event had to build a vaka and Tavioni said that on Monday they had a piece of log and by the end of the week on Friday there was a vaka. Assisting with the vaka was James Mani a young apprentice who Tavioni has trained since he was thirteen.
James Mani — Cook Islands Canoe Carver James has been Mike Tavioni’s apprentice and right hand man for many years. He is a young and talented carver who recently moved to Melbourne, Australia. He also does shell, bone and tattoo work. The completed carved Cook Islands vaka Kehomiaala. Mike Tavioni and James Mani working on the vaka Kehomiaala.

MikeTavioni has a hut at Punanga Nui marketplace where wood and bone carvings can be purchased.