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Maori man with full moko tattoo
Maori man with full moko tattoo
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Skin Stories: The Art and Culture of Polynesian Tattoo

Person receiving tattoo with traditional tools


 
The Beginning: Tatau in Samoa

Your necklace may break, the fau tree may burst, but my tattooing is indestructible. It is an everlasting gem that you will take into your grave.

Verse from a traditional tattoo artist's song
The legacy of Polynesian tattoo began over 2000 years ago and is as diverse as the people who wear them. Once widespread in Polynesian societies across the Pacific Ocean, the arrival of western missionaries in the 19th century forced this unique art form into decline. Despite the encroachment of Christian religious beliefs that vilified tattooing as unholy, many Polynesian tattoo artists maintained their vital link to their culture's history by preserving their unique craft for generations.

In Samoa, the tradition of applying tattoo, or tatau, by hand has been unbroken for over two thousand years. Tools and techniques have changed little. The skill is often passed from father to son, each tattoo artist, or tufuga, learning the craft over many years of serving as his father's apprentice. A young artist-in-training often spent hours, and sometimes days, tapping designs into sand or barkcloth using a special tattooing comb, or au. Honoring their tradition, Samoan tattoo artists made this tool from sharpened boar's teeth fastened together with a portion of the turtle shell and to a wooden handle.

The pain of traditional tattooing is extreme.
The pain of traditional tattooing is extreme.

Samoan society has long been defined by rank and title, with chiefs (ali'i) and their assistants, known as talking chiefs (tulafale), descending from notable families in the proper birth order. The tattooing ceremonies for young chiefs, typically conducted at the onset of puberty, were elaborate affairs and were a key part of their ascendance to a leadership role. The permanent marks left by the tattoo artists would forever celebrate their endurance and dedication to cultural traditions. The pain was extreme and the risk of death by infection was a great concern. But to shy away from tattooing was to risk being labeled a pala'ai or coward and reviled by the clan. Those who could not endure the pain and abandoned their tattooing were left incomplete, wearing their mark of shame throughout their life.

The pain was extreme and the risk of death by infection was a great concern. But to shy away from tattooing was to risk being labeled a coward.
There were few Samoan men who refused the traditional pe'a, an intricate tattoo that covered their body from mid-torso to the knees. The artist would use a mallet to tap the teeth of the ink-laden comb into the men's flesh, following only simple guide marks.

A tattooing session typically lasted until dusk or until the men could not longer stand the pain and would resume the following day, unless the inflamed skin needed a few days to heal. The entire process would often last almost three months. Afterwards, the men's family helped him celebrate, despite his pain, by throwing a party, and the tufuga smashed a water vessel at his feet, marking the end of the ordeal.

The healing process would take months. The tattooed skin would have to be washed in salt water and massaged to work out the impurities. Friends and family would assist the men, since even simple tasks like walking or sitting would irritate their inflamed skin and cause great pain. Within six months, the distinctive designs would begin to appear on their skin but it would take almost a year to completely heal.

Serving kava.
Serving kava.

Women too endured tattooing, but their patterns were typically smaller, most often on the thighs, legs or on their hands. Tattoos on the hands, called lima, were required to be able to serve kava, a narcotic drink made from the root of the kava shrub, during ceremonial occasions. Doing so was one of the greatest honors in Samoan culture.

Christian missionaries from the west attempted to purge tattooing among the Samoans, thinking it barbaric and inhumane. Many young Samoans resisted mission schools since they forbade them to wear tattoos. But over time attitudes relaxed toward this cultural tradition and tattooing began to reemerge in Samoan culture.

In many traditional pe'a, a boat sits atop the overall design. It symbolizes the ocean voyage that brought the original people to Samoa and carried their ancestors to lands beyond the horizon. As they sailed away from Samoa to distant shores, they took with them their long heritage of tattoo artistry.