The Amazing History of Samoan Tattoos
The history of Samoan tattoos is unrivalled in depth and overall significance in terms of tattooing culture. It during was in the storied exploratory voyage of Captain Cook and his crew to the Polynesian Islands where the western world first encountered people with ink artistically etched onto the body, and where westerners first fell in love with this tradition. We reference Polynesian tattooing culture every time we even use the word. Tatau – the Samoan word for ‘to strike/ to mark’ – is where the term tattoo originates from.
Traditional Samoan tattooing is termed Pe’a. Tattooing in Samoan culture was extremely ritualistic – this was a fundamental rite of passage for adolescents moving into adulthood. A master tattooist steeped in this tradition is called a tufuga ta tatau, and this has always been considered a highly-respected position in society. Pe’a constitutes probably the most intense and indeed long-standing of all forms of tattooing. The ancient tattooing practice uses handmade tools to etch onto to the skin, such as pieces of animal bones, turtle shell and wood. Apprentices aid the master tattooist in stretching the skin as the tufuga ta tatau works through the elaborate and demanding work. The process can range from taking less than a week to sometimes years. Family members are generally in attendance and encourage the receiver with strong words, often melodiously-voiced through song. Traditional Samoan tattooing is centred on horizontal lines which feature on the body from the lower back down over the buttocks and further onto the knees. The written word wasn’t used in Polynesian culture, this was a predominantly oral society, but huge, elaborate tattoos were the only way people passed on stories in a physical, tangible form. Modern tattooing styles which reference Samoan tattooing have built on this tradition to bring in more geometric and figurative shapes.
While being adorned with a vast Pe’a tattoo greatly enhanced one’s social standing in the community, this didn’t connote royalty or warrior status per se. This was, perhaps more than anything, a symbol of an individual’s true acceptance into society: one had to seek a tattoo and this request be accepted by tribal elders who assessed his character.
For women, the tattooing practice was named Malu, and this focused more on dotwork detailing. Malu differed in social significance as well, as traditionally only females related to a major figure of royalty received Malu tattoos.
Back in older tribal times such tattoos could take over a year to heal, with coating the skin in salt water the primary means of avoiding infection – hardcore or what!
However you’re almost never going to encounter this approach to tattooing in western cultures today, though the rich history and tradition of Samoan tattooing still runs deep. While line tattoos are gaining in popularity and Samoan-influenced designs are certainly in vogue, non-Samoan people being tattooed in strict Pe’a conditions has historically been exceedingly rare. One interesting case is Erich Schultz, the last German governor of Samoa, who received a Pe’a tattoo in a very private ceremony before he departed back to Europe for good.
Rihanna received a lot of attention for getting a Polynesian-inspired hand tattoo using traditional uhi methods, in this case with a chisel and a mallet. She agreed to release footage of her in clear pain to showcase the rich history of Samoan tattooing and to give a nod to its foundational importance in tattooing culture, though she ultimately opted to modernise this design at a later stage.
Samoan tattooing and Polynesian tattooing forms are today undergoing a major resurgence, especially in Tonga. Due to the diligent work of scholars researching the field and those publicising the intriguing findings, more and more tattoo enthusiasts are travelling to Polynesian islands to appreciate this unique culture and deepen their understanding of tattooing.
Words: Evan Musgrave