Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Samoan Tattooing

The art of tattooing has long existed in Samoa. The word tattoo itself is derived from the Polynesian word tatau. Dutch explorers who reached Manua island in 1722 noted that the Samoans wore "artfully woven silk tights or knee breeches". The explorers clearly didn't get close enough to the individuals to recognise that they were not wearing breeches, but were sporting the traditional pe'a tattoo, which stretches from the waist down to the knees.

Deciding to have the pe'a is a mammoth undertaking by any individual. Something in the order of 60-65% of the body is tattooed over as short a period of time as the recipient can handle (six or seven days’ work over a span of about two weeks is typical). After the tattoo is finished there follows a long period of recuperation; six months to a year is a normal kind of time frame. More often than not people are unable to work for much of this time to let their body rest. Because of this, the significant upfront cost and the social implications, any person wishing to have the pe'a must first seek permission from all their family.

A week ago my friends and I visited Su'a Petelo Suluape in the village of Falesiu. Suluape is considered as the leading tattoo artist in Samoa and is well known worldwide for his traditional tattoo work. He and his brother (sadly killed last year in New Zealand) have travelled the world showcasing their work and promoting the tattoo traditions of Samoa. When we arrived there was a man who had flown out from Los Angeles to have his pe'a done by Suluape. They were finishing up their sixth day of work and the tattoo was almost complete. It looked amazing, but the pain and distress on the man's face as he slowly moved to the edge of the fale to rest gave sharp indication of exactly how serious and challenging a process it is. His wife was flying out this week to take him back home and look after him over the coming months.

Whilst not there for the pe'a, two of us did have Suluape tattoo our legs in the traditional Samoan fashion. The only creative control we had over the process was in determining how big the tattoo should be (ie. we shaved as much, or as little, hair off our legs to provide the "canvas"). The rest was in Suluape's hands.

Suluape uses the traditional implements and techniques to do his work. He uses a mallet to strike a variety of combs with extremely sharp teeth to push the ink into the skin. The mallet is known as the sausau and the combs have different names. The autapulu is a wide comb used to fill in large dark areas of the tattoo. The ausogi'aso tele is used for making thick lines, the ausogi'aso laititi for thin lines. The aumogo is a small comb used for making a variety of small marks. For our tattoos, Suluape did not need the autapulu (thank goodness!). Suluape's combs seemed to be fashioned from some kind of glass or plastic. Traditionally the combs were carved from a boar's tusk.

Did it hurt? Oh yes. It took about one hour for the work to be completed and it was an hour spent grinding teeth, clenching fists and practicing lots of meditative breathing techniques. It was particularly painful when Suluape was working on the skin directly above my shin bone. I’m extremely happy with the result however and consider it to be well worth the pain (although what we experienced is clearly nothing compared to what the man having the pe’a must be feeling).

The history and art of Samoan tattoo is fascinating and I’ve barely scratched the surface of the topic. The process of having the pe’a is highly complex, full of taboos, customs and demands on the tattooist, recipient and the recipient’s family. It’s well worth another post, which I’ll try and get around to soon, but in the meantime, if you’re interested, I suggest reading this introduction to the pe’a and traditional Samoan tattooing.

The first photo is taken from last year's Samoan Tourism Authority calendar. It's a great example of the pe'a. The second shows Suluape striking the aumogo with the sausau to create small lines of my friend's tattoo. The third image shows my (swollen) leg the morning after having it done. Since then my leg and foot have swollen up well beyond normal size and I've had a small amount of infection to deal with. As of today though, the swelling is almost entirely gone and the course of antibiotics I'm taking is having its effect in dealing with the infection.


Incontinentia Buttocks said...

i hope he autoclaved his tools :P

jt said...

I'm happy to report that he did autoclave his tools. I heard and saw it in operation twice during our visit.

Mind you, it still didn't stop me from getting a nasty infection. Then again, going out dancing about four hours later probably wasn't the smartest thing I've ever done either. Oh well.

Anonymous said...

It was certainly interesting for me to read the post. Thank you for it. I like such themes and everything connected to them. I definitely want to read a bit more soon.

Anonymous said...

Don't stop posting such stories. I like to read articles like this. Just add more pics :)