My Thoughts and Notes on Samoan Tattoos - Pe’a and Malu

The two notable English loanwords of Samoan/Polynesian origins are taboo (tapu) and tattoo (tatau/tatu).  Now, on the latter.

Okay. I admit that I do have some like and dislike sentiments for tattoos.  I like the traditional pe'a ("full" body tattoo of the Samoan men). My Dad had a pe'a and I was there when he had it done, witnessing the whole feat.  However, I dislike (bordering on disgust) the trending accessories -  armband, sleeve, shoulder, full arm/hand, ankle tattoos, etc., - especially when done with the notion of complementing the pe'a.  The only two designs that traditionally complement the pe'a are the pute (tattoo around the bellybutton, although it's often considered part of the pe'a) and the punialo (navel tattoo) - the latter being optional for some.

I also like the malu (traditional tattoo above the knees to mid thigh for women) and its traditional significance.  But I despise the fact that, today, any woman who wants a malu can have it. The result is analogous to any item of value, that whenever it's duplicated, its value/worth depreciates and significance diminishes. The best example would be an expensive and valuable painting.  The more it's reproduced and copied, the lesser will be its value and worth. Or take the malu for example. When there's only one woman with a malu dancing as part of a social occasion/celebration, the scene is treasured, admired and valued. But when five or ten women all get up at the same time to flaunt and strut their malu stuff, then the scene becomes nondescript and a run-of-the-mill.

The direct link to this mass duplication of the pe'a and malu is their commercialization. The pair have fast become commodities and cash cows for the tattooists. In the past, these tufugas (artists) were also well off when they were paid with traditional forms of exchange (mats, fine mats, tapa cloths, etc.) and with some money as well. Today, they are almost exclusively paid with monies.  And considering the current commodity status of the pe'a as well as the mad rush of supplementary tattoos (mentioned above), the tufugas are better off than most employed Samoans. They also get to enjoy some fringe benefits such as travel.  It's not uncommon for these tufugas to spend time among expatriate communities in the USA, New Zealand, Australia and other countries carving (pun intended)  their niche and earning thousands through an unregulated profession.

The main reason the pe'a is considered an initiation, like most other rites of passage, is the excruciating pain involved in the traditional method and process. Therefore a pe'a is done incrementally and takes weeks if not months to complete.  Today, because of the tattoos' rising role as a source of income for the tattooists, modern forms of anesthesia and pain killers are used;  hence lessening the duration of the process. Apparently these new merchants are also catching up to the truth behind the axiom "time is money".  Conversely, the "no pain, no gain" axiom is the antithesis within the context of proper cultural and traditional symbolism.  In other words, if you didn't feel the real, unbearable, agonizing pain, because of the help of modern antidotes, then your pe'a has lost all the cultural and traditional essence and meaning.  It becomes more of just a rubber-stamped body art. Even the remedial and curative method is intolerable.  After a day's session, the men would walk out to the sea/lagoon and would soak the fresh skin lacerations in sea water (Ouch!) and then soothed afterwards with coconut oil.

Another significant part of getting a pe'a in the past, is the fact that it's an aiga (family) decision - not an individual's as it is today in most cases.  Today, anyone who wants and is able to afford the costs of getting a pe'a or malu can and will have one - just for the sake of having one; again with no real cultural or traditional significance.  The pe'a has also been a mark of a male who is agile, well versed and skilled in performing cultural roles and tasks such as food preparation, oration, and other manual labors in serving the matai and aiga.  This particular versatile male is called a soga'imiti.

Unfortunately there are those who wear the pe'a who cannot/will not stand the smoke and heat of the umu (Samoan oven), and would wear sandals to avoid stepping on a motumotu (burning tinder) and die (haha!!) or suffer some other malady; cannot climb a coconut tree, let alone an apple tree; cannot folafola a sua (orate traditional gifted foods/stuffs) or make a lafo (clear ground for planting taros and other tubers); and could only fish using a fagai'a (dynamite), etc. etc. These are just a few of the responsibilities that come with having a pe'a.  And so to those who belong to this pseudo-soga'imiti group, the elders would often say: "Se ua maimau le pe'a ia oe se" ("Pity, you really don't deserve that pe'a")...You see, that's why I don't have a pe'a...hahaaa...actually it's by choice that I don't have one. (Dearie told me that a pe'a would look really nice on me lol!) But as for the duties and responsibilities of a soga'imiti, I've "been there ‘n done ‘em all!" ...#kamaSamoamao'iasikama.  Ia ga!

Pe'a Notes:

Pula'u (pron. poolah~oo) An adult young man without a pe'a, often a taule'ale'a (non-titleholder) and especially a member of the ‘aumaga (group of taulele'a).  It's not, as claimed by others, any adult male without a pe'a.

Soga'imiti - A taule'ale'a with a pe'a, especially one that is active and skilled in performing manual tasks and labors in the everyday life of family and village.

Pe'amutu - An unfinished pe'a, or a male with one.  This is often regarded as a disgrace and dishonor.  Because of the severe unbearable pain, some - even the strongest men - were/are not able to finish their pe'a.  Pe'amutu however is not as common today, as in the past, because of the modern pain medicine and anesthesia.

Lama -  Ink/pigment.  The soot collected from burning the candle nut (later a kerosene lamp was used) is mixed with a solvent to get the lama.  This soot collection should be done during daytime - not at night due to superstition

Faoa le lama - This expression means "snatched ink/pigment".  Like most other traditions, tattooing has its own set of superstitions. When the lama (ink) is faoa, it is believed that the aitu (spirits) have snatched or stolen the ink and as a result, the pe'a will eventually fade, appear faint and discolored.   This is a result of the tattooed male having gone to some place, especially at night, alone without his partner (soa) or anyone else as a companion.

Soa - Soa is "partner". Traditionally, a group of men to be tattooed, should be of an even number. Therefore, each one will have a partner and will operate on a buddy system concept. Members of the group cannot go alone anywhere, they should always go in pairs, threes or more. The purpose has to do with superstition that links directly to the lama (ink). If one cannot go with his partner, a family member should accompany the tattooed individual. This practice is a precaution against the  "faoa le lama" misfortune and superstition.

Sama - A native lotion made from mixing lega (turmeric) with coconut oil.  Sama was used mostly by men as a type of body oil/cologne to smell nice and appear attractive to women especially during night time trysts (re: lyrics below).  Sama is yellowish in color (re: samasama for yellow).

Samaga [o le] Pe'a - This is the official completion of the whole process of having a group of men tattooed. During the ceremony an egg is cracked and the yolk (lega) is dripped on top of the head of each individual. This is followed by the samaga or applying the sama to the pe'a.
Note: The significance of the egg yolk (also called lega) may have something to do with its association (both in color and name) to the lega used in making the sama.

Lastly, here's a verse (with sama mentioned) of one of the popular oldies  that is often misinterpreted.

Incorrect (underlined words lines 3 & 4)
Ala maia malie lou finagalo
Lou vaita'ele ua le lava
E tausiusi o si a'u tama
E te o'o ai i au evaga

Ala maia malie lou finagalo  (Wake up, don't feel bad)
Lou vaita'ele ua le lava  (There's not enough water for your bath)
E tausiusi o si a'u sama  ([But] this sama of mine is translucent enough)
E te u'u ai i au evaga  (You can dab with it for your outings)

Everyday translation:
Gofo i luga e alu e ka'ele
A le lava vai la e i le kaloge
Ia vaai le lolo lale e ke u'u kapakapa ai
Ma e faamagogi ai i kou shumpa ea poo a....

Sounds like nothing's new under the sun...hahaa... kusa a pe le ka'ele ua le o sua le paipa, ae a magogi a i le fagu sausau le loomiki ia ua seki fo'i.... LOL!!!.

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