More than 2,000 years ago, according to PBS online, the first Polynesian tattoo was inked into skin. Early tattoos were done with crude instruments and caused tremendous pain. In some societies, the art of tattooing is much the same today as when it began. In particular, Samoan tatau, which is the art of tattooing by hand, has remained unchanged.
Two of sisters named Taema and Tilafaiga are credited with first bringing the art tatau from Fiji to Samoa. In Fiji, the sisters were taught that only the women were to receive tattoos. This information “got reversed on their journey home,” and from this confusion emerged what became the Samoan tradition–men were tattooed while women bore children.
The Samoan master artist, or tufuga, are usually a male and apprentice for many years before his first tattoo. He spends years honing his skill, which is often passed down from father to son. The tufuga will spend hours, even days, practicing with his au in barkcloth or sand. The au is a comb-like tool, made of wood and a part of
a turtle shell which has sharpened boar’s teeth attached to it. The artist uses a mallet to hammer the comb’s teeth in, marking his design.
Rank and title are of utmost importance in Samoan society, and a person’s tattoos reflect their standing in the social hierarchy. Because the tatau process is extremely painful, a finished tattoo represents not only a person’s societal rank, but is a reminder of that person’s strength and ability to endure. Both the pain and the risk of infection are great, but if a person refuses tatau, he is seen as a coward. A person who can’t sit through an entire tattoo has to live with a mark of shame for the rest of his life.
In a Samoan’s life, the first tatau session occurs at the onset of puberty. The traditional tattoo for men, the pe’a, is an intricate design which extends from the knees to the middle of the man’s torso. Originally, this design represented a man’s dedication and pledge of loyalty to his extended family, or aiga. The process of tattooing lasts all day, for weeks, even months, at a time. The usual pe’a is supposed to be able to be completed in ten days, five actual days of tattooing and five days of rest in between. Because the process takes such a long time, the tufuga is often housed and fed by the family of the person being tattooed for the duration of the tattooing.
The healing process, unlike the tattooing, is sure to last for months. To heal completely takes a year or more. Women’s tattoos are done on the thighs, legs, or hands, and are usually of a smaller design. While men’s tattoos are typically comprised of larger, solid sections of ink, the women’s patterns are of a much more delicate, intricate design. The most honored tattoo that a female can receive is the lima. Lima is a special tattoo inked into the hands which is required to serve
kava, a narcotic drink served at ceremonies. The malu, a lacy web design, is done on the inside of women’s thighs and is flashed during the dancing of the siva.
Geometric patterns, utilizing lines, triangles, circles, and other polygons, are commonly used in Samoan tattoo design, as are simple pictographs depicting mankind, animals and birds, or other, man-made, objects. The geometric designs had multiple meanings, depending on these three factors: where the tattoo is placed on the body, what other designs are tied into it, and who the person is who is being tattooed. Typically, the master determines what designs would be suitable for each subject individually, and then explains the story of the design to that person.
This tradition, strongly rooted in Samoan society, has lasted thousands of years and may likely last a thousand more. For a Samoan, a tattoo is not just a pretty design but a badge of honor.