You know, they’ll look silly when you’re older. You won’t look right in a wedding dress. No one will want to hire you. People will think you’re a scumbag. You’re so good looking, why ruin your body?
Chances are you’ve heard more than a couple of these if you have tattoos. Maybe your square-ass parents just don’t understand you or your significant other can’t stand the sight of them – to them I would say, kindly go fuck yourself. Tattoos have been a part of my heritage for centuries and I intend to school you in the history of body art.
I am Samoan, my ancestors come from a small island in the Pacific Ocean called Samoa. The people of Polynesia are proud people who literally carry their pride on their backs. Way, way back in the day, tattooing was an honor and a privilege – it was a stamp of status. In fact, the art of Tatau (where the name comes from) still continues to this day.
Tattooing ceremonies last for days and the technique itself is sacred. Every tap, every line and every shape created is a detailed story, unique to the wearer. Each line is blessed with prayer and praise, songs are sung to encourage the person being tattooed to stay strong – you are not allowed to show pain.
Traditional method of Tatau
Traditionally, tattooing is conducted by a highly revered artist whose only job is to tattoo. The artist has apprentices and the art is done using sharp tools that look like little combs made from teeth or bone affixed to a long stick, placed on the skin and tapped repeatedly until micro-abrasions form and the skin can soak up the ink.
Picture a modern day tattoo machine with a row of 12 tiny needles that puncture the skin 50 to 3,000 times per minute, making it easy for the artist to control their hand and finish a tattoo in just an hour. Now imagine that same tattoo gun has thicker needles and no motor so the artist has to repeatedly stab you with it for almost a week to complete your tattoo – how badly do you want that butterfly? Even if you sit through it I bet you wouldn’t be able to resist writhing or screaming in agony, shaming yourself and your family.
Male with Pe’a
These traditional tribal tattoos were and still are a right of passage and only the bravest, strongest, most fearless people attempt the ordeal. Men are intricately tattooed from their waist to their knees (called a Pe’a) while women tattoo their thighs with a much more simple design (called Malu).
Female with Malu
Giving up halfway through a tattoo because of the pain is a mark of great shame and is looked down upon. In fact, back in the day if you had no tattoos at all, you were considered naked.
Woman and man show off their tattoos
This artwork helped people proclaim their pride, identify other tribes and of course, attract mates. Polynesians were master navigators who frequented other islands, bringing new skills and trades along with them, each island began to develope their own styles and techniques. In New Zealand the men tattoo their entire faces while women tattoo their lips and chins. Ancient Hawaiians also tattooed themselves as did the Fijians, Tongans and Filipinos – they still do today.
Maori of New Zealand with Ta Moko
So – I take pride in all of my tattoos. I think I look damn good and I cherish my artwork. I have endured much pain for the ink I wear and I feel closer to my tribal roots when I am sitting under the needle. Tattoos to me represent strength, courage and fearlessness – not criminality or low self worth. All of my tattoos have reasons and memories attached to them. No, they’re not traditional by any means, however, they tell my story. I don’t care what other people do with their bodies as long as they respect me and mine.
Thanks for reading,
Until next time