Chris Solomona.
Chris Solomona. Shirley Sinclair

Samoan tattoos badges of honour

TAP, tap, tap, tap, tap. Pause.

Wipe. Brace.

Tap, tap, tap.

The unmistakable wood-on-wood sound stops momentarily as white-gloved hands use a cloth to wipe away excess ink and blood.

This is old-school tattooing - tattooing the way the art began and has always been done in Samoa - and no needle is involved.

The deep-blue of the ink is "hammered" into the smooth tanned skin of the young woman.

She is undertaking the ritual in full view of the public inside an open hut at the Samoa Tourism Authority's cultural village at the 2011 Teuila Festival in the capital, Apia, on Upolu Island.

We ask if we can take photos and after a moment's discussion, the white-haired tattooist agrees. As he expertly works in lines and dots on the back of her knee and upper leg, she grimaces but remains silent.

Her favourite tunes coming through the iPod earphones go some way to soothing the pain that is a constant.

The rhythmic tap, tap, tap forms a pattern that in itself must be comforting to a degree.

But every now and then, the young woman hides her face in her hand, away from the inquisitive eyes, as if sleeping.

The pain must be almost unbearable, but still no tears fill her eyes.

Many Samoan women choose to have the malu, or female tattoo, which may cover an area from the hips to the knees.

The three men attending to the tattoo are respectful, almost reverent. We soon realise the ritual involves much more than mere artistic endeavour.

Traditions and protocols must be followed.

One member of our group is asked to remove her hat before sitting down. Another is directed to sit only on mats on the floor rather than the bare concrete of the hut to watch the process that has changed little over the past 2000 years.

The word "tattoo" is believed to have originated from the Samoan word "tatau". Christian missionaries who arrived in Samoa in 1830 tried to outlaw the practice but the matais or chiefs refused.

Each tattoo artist, or tufuga, spends years learning the craft, which often is passed down over generations as father teaches son.

Wearing the white T-shirts and red lavalavas (sarongs) of Samoa's famous Sulu'ape Tatau, the men on duty in the tattooing hut also protect the privacy of their charges.

They cover up the "private parts" of the young male only metres away on the other side of the hut who is undergoing another session on his journey towards a full body tattoo or pe'a, as it is known in Samoa.

In this session, the master tattooist is working on the man's hip and pelvic area. We are fascinated and our gaze remains transfixed on these two human canvases for more than 20 minutes.

A day earlier, we had met Samoa Scenic Tours' Chris Solomona - our guide on a day trip to peaceful Manono Island, who proudly and openly spoke about his full-body tattoo. The artwork took one-and-a-half months to complete in 12 sessions lasting five to six hours each.

He tells us that while an inked artwork is an initiation for a young Samoan man, he must think long and hard before committing to the full waist-to-knee tattoo.

Chris describes the pain involved in fulfilling the full-body tattoo process as a real psychological journey - "the ultimate mental and physical challenge of my life".

To commit to the pe'a takes great courage. But to start the process and not finish it would bring disgrace upon the family, he assures us.

Chris said that when he had called his mother to tell her what he was about to do, she warned him of the consequences of failing to fulfil the task and told him: "Do not come home until it is finished."

The full-body tattoo cost Chris about $3000 and he has since added a "sleeve" to the mix.

He said that while tattoos where common to Pacific Islanders, Samoans used only geometric designs incorporating tools, weapons and distinctive roof of the fale.

The "badge of honour" is a life-long reminder to Samoans of who they are and their proud heritage.

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