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 mens tattoos. Nor was the tattooing of women as ritualised as that of the men.
In theory it should be possible to complete a pe’a in 10 days; 5 sessions with a day in between each to let the inflamation subside, and on the tenth day, the removal of the taboo which has been placed on the person being tattooed. However this is never the case because the pain and the damage to the skin is too great.
In the first session the height to which the tattoo will rise is decided (Ano le Tua), this is always such that the top of the design will show above the lavalava. Then the va’a, pula tama and pula tele are outlined and the design filled in.
The aso fa’aifo run all the way round from the back to the groin and the ivitu runs down between the buttocks to the anus. The aso fa’aifo are completed around to the abdomen and the ‘asolaititi are finished. Next to be added are the saemutu, which vary in number depending upon social status. A matai will have four an orator three and anyone else would have two. It appears that this distinction is not strictly adhered to today. Below the saemutu it is possible to find a wide range of devices, although traditionally there were meant to be two thin lines ‘aso e lua. Beneath these another band the ‘aso taliitu is added, which goes all around the top of the thigh. Where it meets the ‘ivimutu at the anus it is called tafaufile, where it covers the perineum it is called tasele, where it covers the scrotum it is called tafumiti and the area over the penis is called tafito. Needless to say this is very painful.
The lausae, an area of solid tattooing, is added to the thighs beneath the aso e lua.
The fourth session is the tatooing of the ulumanu, from the center of the thigh up to the inner groin. In addition the fusi is added, this being a ribbon extending from the perineum and widening to the width of a hand behind the knees.
The final sessions invloves the tatooing of the abdomen and the navel, the area that covers the navel being called the pute, and is apparently the most painful part of the whole process.
During the who of the process the tattooer, tufuga is assisted by upto six helpers all of whom wish to become masters themselves. One will be responsible for the mixing of the dyes, another is responsible for wiping away the blood, another for dipping the instruments into the dye and receiving instruments that have been used, another cleans and sharpens the teeth of the combs and another will hold the skin tight.
Young women would sit around the person being tattoo, holding them down to stop them moving to much and thus damaging the tattoo, and massaging the head. In addition they will sing a song to try and keep him occupied and keep his mind from the pain in case he starts to complain or cry, which was considered disgraceful behaviour and unfitting for a man.
Source: Samoan Sensation