According to legend and song the art form of tatau, was brought to Samoa by two sisters who swam from Fiji to Samoa. They were bringing with them the tools required to tattoo whilst singing the instructions of; “tattoo the women and not the men”. The lyrics changed when one of the sisters dived to retrieve a beautiful shell. Upon resurfacing they tried to recall the lyrics but ended up changing the instructions to “tattoo the men and not the women”.
Unlike many other Pacific nations the arrival of missionaries did not have much influence on the tattooing practice. In Samoa for nearly 200 years the art form of tatau has been performed by members of two ‘aiga (extended family) which are the Sā Tulou’ena and the Sā Su’a. Since the early 20th century many of the tufuga tatatau (tattooists) or tufuga (for short), have been descendents from the two ‘aiga and the skills of tatau have been passed down from generation to generation specifically from father to son.
The pe’a is the male tattoo which is a compactly rendered set of markings that start on a man’s lower back, which then extends around his waist, fully covers his lower body down to his knee and is finished by a small group of motifs by the navel. Each motif and design that is incorporated into the pe’a has its own significant meaning to the wearer’s past as well as their future.
The marks that make the pe’a are made from the tool kit of the tufuga which is made up of traditional tools as despite the availability of electric tattooing machines, doing it in a non traditional manner would take away the beauty and the meaning. The tool kit is comprised of several small hand held tools as well as a selection of accessories; these are all delicately crafted for meticulousness. The basic tool kit is made up of a set of tattoo combs called ‘au, a short wooden rod/mallet called a sausau, a mortar and pestle as well as a palette for mixing the pigment. The sausau is used to strike the au in order for the pigment to be transferred from the comb and into the skin.
Image A gives a close look at the visual designs that are usually found on the pe’a. The lausae (tapulu tele) is the name given to the thick tattoo which extends across the whole front thigh and the tapulu tele is in reference to the fact that tapulu is the name for the thick dark patches of tattooing. The ulu manu is the term for the inner thigh which is literally translated as head of a bird; it not only signifies a cunning and decisive animal but it also represents the wearer’s problem solving abilities. The fusi is literally a belt or strap which begins at the top of the inner thigh and then runs across the whole thigh. It is a symbol of a warrior looking for an adventure as well as issuing a challenge to all.
On the lower back of the wearer the va’a is placed, this aspect of the tattoo represents a canoe, which stretches across the back with the spearhead on the end extending around onto the side towards the man’s chest. This symbol is important because the wearer of the pe’a is to his immediate family the va’a. The pula laiti is the symbol for the flying fox which represents caring and looking after, in the pe’a the pula laiti’s three corners are made up by the three main parts of a village of which the recipient must look after; the matai (chiefs), the tama’ita’i (women) and the aumaga (young men). The aso laiti which is in two sections of the pe’a represents the genealogy of both the mother and the father’s family, these also include the…