Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Pe'a Samoa (Samoan Tattoos)

I have had one of the most thrilling, exciting, unbelievable experiences in my entire life this past weekend. Before I write about this experience I would like to share a written piece by another PCV who has since returned home. As many of you know, Samoa is known among anthropologists as the first place in the world to tatoo the body. Here is what my friend, Mindy, had to say on the subject of the Samoan tatoo.

“A symbol of strength,
A mark of spiritual path,
A sign of unity among cultures,
Unity among friends,
A pact of commitment to family and community.

In Samoa, the representation of all of this is found in the tattoo. One of the most sacred, respected, and well preserved of Samoan traditions. A right of passage originally reserved only for high chiefs; only for those who had truly committed themselves to their families, their communities, and their own spiritual paths. They remain the most respected people in the community. The tattoo is no longer reserved only for high chiefs, but is shared with many, Samoans and Palagi (foreigner) alike; however it has not lost it symbolism or its strength.

Many men continue to receive the Pe’a , intricate woven patterns of symbolic ink extending from just below the knee to the stomach. Women receive the Malu, representations of centipedes, octopus, birds, and flying fox extending from the knee to the upper thigh. Many years ago, the full body tattoo was modified to
simple arm and leg bands, originally for the less brave, but respected Peace Corps Volunteers of Samoa. Hence, the “Pisi Koa” tattoos that today many Peace Corps Volunteers receive.

The ritual of the tattoo is a time of bonding and unity. Traditionally, for men receiving the Pe’a, (a three-week long process) it is a commitment from the entire family to care for and support him throughout and after the ritual. For females, on the other hand,
two women commit to undertake the process of getting the tattoo together. They are often alone with the tattoo artist and his assistants and it is a time of unity among them. The women become “tattoo partners” and it is the strongest sign of friendship. An unfinished tattoo remains one of the most significant signs of shame in Samoa today, and is almost always hidden.

In the beginning, there were only two tattooing families in Samoa, one on the island of Savai’i and one on the island of Upolu. They were (and are) two of the most respected families in the country. Although there are now other tattoo artists in Samoa, one family carries on their legend as the tattooing family of Samoa. The head of this family is Suluape, one of the most respected and well-known men in Samoa and all of Polynesia. He grew up in a small village, going to school and learning the art of tattooing from his father. He then worked for thirteen years as a teacher and then principal at a secondary school in Samoa, continuing to practice and perfect his art. He now travels the world attending conventions and spends his time teaching his own sons the art. He sterilizes
all of his equipment and follows world health precautions. However, he continues to practice the traditional manner of tattooing, which involves using Boar’s husks to hammer the ink into one’s skin.”

When I feel that I can suffiently and thouroughly explain my experience last Saturday, I will write a new post. Stay tuned. Pictures to be posted soon.