The history of tattooing is ancient and diverse and spreads across countless cultures the world over.
One notable place with a particularly rich tattoo tradition is Samoa.
For over 2,000 years, Samoans have practiced extensive tattooing, what they call pe’a, based on ancient designs that cover a large area of the body. The pe’a demonstrates a continuing connection to Samoan culture and represents a strong adherence to tribal tradition. The patterns used to create this dedicated body art incorporate geometric lines, dots, angles and motifs of animals believed by different families to be sacred.
But these designs aren’t arbitrary, nor are they purely aesthetic in nature. Depending on the tribe, these tattoos can denote social status and are often implemented as a rite of passage. This age old custom seems to be rising in popularity and is once again becoming culturally significant to young Samoans.
The origin of the word tattoo is up for debate, but it is tempting to assume that it’s likely a derivative of the Samoan 'tatau' mispronounced by early English-speaking sailors visiting the Polynesian islands. The word can mean “correct” or “workmanlike” and also refers to angular figures. Samoan tribal tattoos use only geometric motifs, unlike other Polynesian designs that include circular patterns.
The pe’a differs between men and women. The male tattoo is dense with ink, and the design typically starts in the mid-back area, continuing down the sides and thighs all the way to the knees. The female tattoo is lighter in both coverage and color and is usually more delicate, similar to a filigree pattern. These traditional Samoan tattoos are extremely painful and time-consuming, taking many weeks to complete with days in between for recuperation. There are even words for people who are untattooed (‘telenoa’ = naked) and designations for people who started one, but failed to finish (“pe’a mutu, which is affiliated with shame), either because it was too painful or due to financial reasons (even Old Old school tribal tattoo artists have to make a living!)
No tattoo machines with the pe’a. Instead, combs made of bone are dipped into soot-based ink and tapped into the skin with a small mallet during a ritualized process that requires many helpers.
There are different folk tales about how this tradition began. Some believe the story of two Fijian women bringing the practice to Samoa and teaching the Samoans how to make the appropriate tools and dyes needed to create these extensive designs. Another tale explains that patterns were originally painted on the skin.
I prefer the one about the Samoan explorer who was believed to have entered the kingdom of spirits, sporting painted designs all over his body. When he got there the spirits were kind to him but considered his painted body to be inferior to their own tattooed forms. Out of kindness, or perhaps sympathy, they taught him the art of tattooing and when he returned to his tribe, he shared his new found knowledge and showed his fellow men how to use the tools and dye to produce permanent designs.