The Pe'a is the popular name of the traditional male tattoo of Samoa, which was originally called the malofie, a term used in the Samoan language chiefly vocabulary and 'respect' register (gagana fa'aaloalo).
The pe'a covers the body from waist to the anus and then to knees. The word tattoo in the English language is believed to have originated from the Polynesian word tatau.
The tatau process for the pe'a is extremely painful, and undertaken by tufuga ta tatau (master tattooists), using handmade tools of bone, tusks, turtle shell and wood. The tufuga ta tatau are revered masters in Samoan society. In Samoan custom, a pe'a is only done the traditional way, with aspects of cultural ceremony and ritual, and have a strong meaning for the one who receive it. The tufuga ta tatau works with one or two assistants, often apprentice tattooists, who stretch the skin and wipe the excess ink and generally support the tattooist in their work. The process takes place with the subject lying on mats on the floor with the tattooist and assistants beside them. The assistants to the tattooists are referred to as the solo, a Samoan word describing the act of wiping the blood off the skin. Family members of the person getting the tattoo are often in attendance at a respectful distance to provide words of encouragement, sometimes through song. The pe'a can take less than a week to complete or in some cases, years.
The ink colour is black. The tattoo starts on the back and finishes on the belly button. Overall, the design is symmetrical with a pattern consisting mainly of straight lines and larger blocks of dark cover, usually around the thighs. Some art experts have made a comparison between the distinctive Samoan tattoo patterns to other artforms including designs on tapa cloth and Lapita pottery.
Traditional Samoan tattooing of the pe'a, body tattoo, is an ordeal that is not lightly undergone. It takes many weeks to complete, is very painful and used to be a necessary prerequisite to receiving a matai title; this however is no longer the case. Tattooing was also a very costly procedure, the tattooer receiving in the region of 700 fine mats as payment. It was not uncommon for half a dozen boys to be tattooed at the same time, requiring the services of four or more tattooers. It was not just the men who received tattoos, but the women too, although their designs are of a much lighter nature, resembling a filigree rather than having the large areas of solid dye which are frequently seen in men's tattoos. Nor was the tattooing of women as ritualised as that of the men.
Better known by its Hawaiian name, "kukui," the oily kernel of the husked candlenut, known in Samoan as "tuitui" or "lama," is burned and the black soot collected is used as the color base for the traditional ink used in Samoan tattooing. The modern tufuga artists utilize commercially produced inks that comply with international tattoo regulations and local health safety codes.
Samoan males with a pe'a are called soga'imiti and are respected for their courage. Untattooed Samoan males are colloquially referred to as telefua or telenoa, literally "naked." Those who begin the tattooing ordeal but do not complete it due to the pain, or more rarely the inability to adequately pay the tattooist, are called pe'a mutu, a mark of shame. The traditional female tattoo in Samoa is the malu. In Samoan society, the pe'a and the malu are viewed with cultural pride and identity as well as a hallmark of manhood and womanhood.
Tatau is an ancient Polynesian artform which is associated with the rites of passage for men. Pe'a is also the Samoan word for the flying fox (fruit bat, Pteropus samoensis), and there are many Polynesian myths, proverbs and legends associated with this winged creature. One legend from the island of Savai'i is about Nafanua, Samoa's goddess of war, rescued by flying foxes when she was stranded on an inhospitable island.
In Samoan mythology the origin of the tatau in Samoa is told in a myth about twin sisters Tilafaiga and Taema who swam from Fiji to Samoa with a basket of tattoo tools. As they swam they sang a song which said only women get tattooed. But as they neared the village of Falealupo on the island of Savai'i, they saw a clam underwater and dived down to get it. When they emerged, their song had changed, the lyrics now saying that only men get the tattoo and not women. This song is known in Samoa as the Pese o le Pe'a or Pese o le Tatau.
The word tatau has many meanings in Samoa. Tā means to strike, and in the case of tattooing, the tap tap sound of the tattooist's wooden tools. Tau means to reach an end, a conclusion, as well as war or battle. Tatau also means rightness or balance. It also means to wring moisture from something, like wet cloth, or in the case of the pe'a process, the ink from the skin. Tata means to strike repeatedly or perform a rhythm. For example, tātā le ukulele means 'play the ukulele.'
The tools of the tufuga ta tatau comprise a set of serrated bone combs (au), which were lashed to small tortoise shell fragments which were in turn lashed to a short wooden handle; a tapping mallet (sausau) for driving the combs into the skin; coconut shell cups ("ipuniu") to mix and store the tattooing ink ("lama") made from burnt candlenut soot; and lengths of tapa cloth ("solo") used to wipe blood and clean tools. The tools are traditionally stored in a cylindrical wooden container called "tunuma" which are lined with tapa cloth and designed to hold the 'au vertically with the delicate combs facing the center of the cylinder to prevent damage. The "sausau" mallet was shaped from a length of hardwood approximately as long as the forearm and about the diameter of the thumb. Various sizes of "au" combs were painstakingly fashioned by filing sections of boar tusk with tiny abrasive files knapped from volcanic flint, chert, and/or basalt rock. The smallest combs, used to make dots ("tala"), are aptly called 'au fa'atala, or 'au mono. Single lines of varying widths were tapped with various sizes of 'au sogi, while the solid blocks of tattooing were accomplished with the 'au tapulu.
The prestigious role of master tattooist (tufuga ta tatau) has been maintained through hereditary titles within two Samoan clans, the Sa Su'a (matai) family from Savai'i and the Sa Tulou'ena (matai) family of Upolu. In ancient times the tufuga ta tatau were elevated to high social status, wealth, and legendary prestige due to their crucial roles in Samoan society. It is known that Samoan tufuga also performed tattooing for Tongan and Fijian paramount chiefly families. The late Sua Sulu'ape Paulo II was a well known tufuga ta tatau whose life and work features in the photography of New Zealander Mark Adams. His brother Su'a Suluape Petelo who lives and carries out Samoan tattooing at Faleasi'u village in Upolu, is one of the most respected master tattooists today. Tufuga ta tatau from these ʻaiga (families), were designated in their youth and underwent extensive apprenticeships in the role of solo and tattooist assistants for many years, under their elder tufuga.
The traditional art of tattoo in Samoa was suppressed with the arrival of English missionaries and Christianity in the 1830s. However, it was perpetuated throughout the colonial era and was continually practiced in its intact form into the modern age. This was not the case, however, in the other Polynesian islands, and the master tattooists of the Su'a Sulu'ape family have been instrumental in the revival of traditional tattooing in French Polynesia, Tonga, New Zealand, the Cook Islands, and Hawai'i, where a new generation of Pacific tattooists have learned the Samoan techniques and protocols.
An early documentation of the pe'a on film is seen in Moana, directed by American Robert J. Flaherty and filmed in Safune on the island of Savai'i. The film shows the young hero Moana undergoing a tattoo for his pe'a. The pe'a also figures centrally in the 2007 film The Tattooist, as well as in documentaries.
It is extremely rare for non-Samoans to receive the pe'a or the malu. Tongan nobility of the Tu'i Kanokupolu dynasty established the practice of pe'a tattooing among Tongan aristocracy in the pre-contact era. There are stories of Tongan royalty, Tu'i Tonga Fatafehi Fakauakimanuka and King George Tupou I of Tonga, traveling to Samoa to undergo the ritual under Samoan tufuga ta tatau. European beachcombers and runaway sailors were the first non-Polynesians to receive the pe'a during the early 1800s; among the earliest non-Polynesians to receive the pe'a was an American named Mickey Knight, as well as a handful of European convicts of ill-repute. During the colonial era when Samoa fell under German rule, several Europeans underwent the pe'a ritual, including Englishman Arthur Pink, Erich Schultz (the last German governor of Samoa), and a number of German colonial officials. In more recent times other non-Samoan men have become soga'imiti, including Noel Messer, Rene Persoons and artist Tony Fomison, (1939–1990), one of New Zealand's foremost painters, who received a pe'a in 1979. It is also known that several women, such as Karina Persoons, received a pe'a from tufuga Su'a Sulu'ape Petelo.
It is known that the last verse was written in modern times, as it does not match the orthography of the first verses. Oral tradition maintains that this song is derived from a pre-colonial chant.
O le mafuaaga lenei ua iloa
O le taaga o le tatau i Samoa
O le malaga a teine to'alua
Na feausi mai Fiti le vasa loloa
Na la aumai ai o le atoau
ma sia la pese e tutumau
Fai mai e tata o fafine
Ae le tata o tane
A o le ala ua tata ai tane
Ina ua sese sia la pese
Taunuu i gatai o Falealupo
Ua vaaia loa o se faisua ua tele
Totofu loa lava o fafine
Ma ua sui ai sia la pese
Fai mai e tata o tane
Ae le tata o fafine
Talofa i si tama ua taatia
O le tufuga lea ua amatalia
Talofa ua tagi aueue
Ua oti'otisolo le au tapulutele
Sole Sole, ai loto tele
O le taaloga a tama tane
E ui lava ina tiga tele
Ae mulimuli ana ua a fefete
O atu motu uma o le Pasefika
Ua sili Samoa le ta'taua
O le soga'imiti ua savalivali mai
Ua fepulafi mai ana faaila
Aso faaifo, faamulialiao
Faaatualoa, selu faalaufao
O le sigano faapea faaulutao
Ua ova i le vasalaolao
This is the known origin
Of the tattooing of the tatau in Samoa
A journey by two maidens
Who swam from Fiji across the open sea
They brought the tattooing kit
And recited their unchanging chant
That said women were to be tattooed
But men were not to be tattooed
Thus the reason why men are now tattooed
Is because of the confusion of the maidens' chant
Arriving at the coast of Falealupo
They spotted a giant clam
As the maidens dived
Their chant was reversed
To say that men were to be tattooed
And not women
Pity the youth now lying
While the tufuga starts
Alas he is crying loudly
As the tattooing tool cuts all over
Young fellow, young fellow, be brave
This is the sport of male heirs
Despite the enormous pain
Afterwards you will swell with pride
Of all the countries in the Pacific
Samoa is the most famous
The sogaimiti walking towards you
With his fa'aila glistening
Curved lines, motifs like ali
Like centipedes, combs like wild bananas
Like sigano and spearheads
The greatest in the whole world!
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