The Birthplace of the Tattoo

Traditionally it was done with a filed boars tusk, which has now been replaced with titanium needles fashioned in the same shape. The tools vary in size to produce the many intricate designs. As stated before it is an art handed down not only in skill, but also in name. Only two families in Samoa are permitted to obtain the title of a traditional tattooist. This fact means getting a tattoo, as a non-Samoan can be a difficult task.

After accumulating over 6 hours of work split between two separate sittings, I added my name to the long list of Peace Corps volunteers who have received a traditional tattoo in Samoa. Samoan tradition states, ”Women burden the birth of children, and the men feel the fire of the pe’a(full torso tattoo).” I can’t attest, but in the eyes of Samoan culture it is a comparable pain. I had planned to receive the tattoo at a much later date, but with the arrival of my parents this idea changed.

Our first night at the resort we stayed up late and spent time with the people in the room conjoining our own. We discovered the group of 6 had come from different countries for a tourism convention. Their guide was a man name Kerisi, who we could come to find, was in charge of the cultural village in Apia. Why is this important? The cultural village happens to be the location where Paulo Suluape Jr. and Peter Suluape perform their traditional Samoan tattooing. These two men are the biggest names in their profession. Kerisi told us to come down anytime and he would introduce us to these men. The universe was leading me on a direct path to get a tattoo.

The very next day we went to the cultural village. Being a man of his word he led us to Paulo. I didn’t want to enter his fale, as you must be wearing a lava lava, but Kerisi stated it would be okay. We sat for sometime watching Paulo perform his art craft. It is amazing how easy he makes it look. He will sit for hours at a time on the floor tapping away. It must be very tiring. After 20 minutes passed Paulo asked if we would also like to get tattoos. My father quickly answered yes for the two of us. At this moment I became extremely excited knowing I was finally going to receive a tattoo I have long waited for. We booked our time for Saturday and departed.

When the moment came I was writhed with nervous tension. I had experienced the pain of a tattoo before, but this was on an entirely different level. Fortunately, my father went first which eased my worry. He of course winced, but handled it with some ease. The only concern I had was the amount of time I would have to sustain the pain. When the moment came Paulo traced the pattern on my arm from memory. It was rather impressive. Then he asked me to lay in a fashion that placed my face on the mat and placed his work pillow upon my head. At first this was nice, as it was dark and no one could see my face. I remember lying on the mat concentrating on my breathing and listening to my friends and parents talk just out of site. After several hours the shoulder I was lying on began to ache.

Why is this bothersome? Well, every few seconds the tattooist will stop to allow two other men to wipe clean the area he is working on. This time for the person receiving the tattoo is what keeps them going, as it is a break from the pain. When my shoulder began to ache I was robbed of this solace. Furthermore, my parents had left for lunch and my friends had gone to temporarily watch a dance taking place on the other side of the village. It was at this exact moment I wanted to quit. The fale was eerily silent and I could smell cigarette smoke coming from the men working diligently above me. Just as I was about to say something Paulo asked me to sit up so I could be repositioned. “Thank you Jesus!” Immediately rang out in my mind. The rest of the session went smoothly.

A week passed and it came time for my final session. I arrived to find Paulo’s brother Peter working on a pe’a. I sat and watched quietly, while Paulo got ready. I was comforted by the fact that my friend Kerisi would be working on my crew to stretch my skin tight. Paulo had finished my arm, but not my chest. I was very happy with his work and was looking forward to the end product. I wasn’t nervous this time. I knew what the pain felt like, or at least I thought I did.

It didn’t take long into the tattoo to realize that the chest was going to be much more painful. Every poke and tap sent shocks of pain in all directions. At times it felt like he was playing the xylophone on my ribs. The worst of all was while he was working with the small needle on my collarbone. It felt as though he was pulsing all the way through me to the ground. Fortunately, this time music was playing in the background. When the pain was at its worst I would try to concentrate on the music. At times Paulo and his cronies serenaded me while they passed around a cigarette. It was a sight and experience to behold. When my tattoo was completed Paulo sat me up and said, “You know, you were stronger than I thought you would be.” I felt mighty proud at this moment, as he pointed to Kerisi and pointed out not even he dared to do it on his chest.

A year ago when I found out I would be coming to Samoa for the Peace Corps I remember talking to my cousin about the possibility of getting a tattoo. It was very interesting to find out from Paulo that Peace Corps volunteers are the sole reason Samoan tattooing became contemporary. Volunteers began arriving in Samoa during the 60’s. Many fell in love with the art, but didn’t want the large traditional tattoo, so would ask for something smaller. The artists developed new techniques and patterns, which would forever change the process. I am extremely happy to have joined this small fraternity of volunteers, but I am certain I would not like any more tattoos done in the traditional manner.