The word "tattoo" derives from the Samoan word tatau (tah-tow-oo) and is an ancient art form that has been an unbroken tradition in Samoa for over 2000 years.
Prior to the arrival of Christian missionaries, all Samoan men received a pe'a (peh-ah) around the onset of puberty, and it was worn as an indication of the young mans strength, dedication and willingness to undertake specific duties of responsibility within his community.
After the arrival of Christianity the wearing of the pe'a was reserved to men of rank and title, such as Chiefs, their sons and those who had the important responsibility of assisting them. It was a compromise between the missionaries who felt that tattooing was an abomination and the Samoan Chiefs who wanted to preserve this ancient cultural practice.
Receiving the Pe'a
Receiving the pe'a, a tattoo that covers 65% of a man's body from waist to below the knee, is an incredibly spiritual process for the subject. It involves much preparation if he is to come through the ordeal with a completed tattoo, for if he were unable to complete this gruelling ritual he would wear his unfinished pe'a for the rest of his life, testament to his failure and the cause of great shame.
There are five distinct stages involved in receiving the pe'a.
The first stage involves the back and small of the back. The tufuga
(tah-foong-ah) who is the master tattoo artist, determines the point of where the tattoo begins, ensuring that it is visible above the waist, or essentially, above the traditional lava lava (sarong) worn in Samoa.The design is then outlined and filled in from above the waist and then down to the anus.
The second stage involves tattooing the lower back and buttocks and includes the scrotum and penis, which is without doubt incredibly painful. The design applied during this stage is a series of lines and the amount depends on the recipients rank within the community.
Next an area of solid tattooing is applied to the thighs and additional designs added down to the knee.
Stage four involves completing the thighs up to the inner groin as well as the inner thigh from the anus to the knee.
The final stage is the tattooing of the abdomen and navel followed by the removal of the taboo which was placed on the recipient at the beginning of the ritual tattooing.
The five stages of tattooing are conducted over many days and weeks, with periods of healing in between when the wounds are washed with salt water to avoid infection, but the complete healing process can take up to a year.