Communauté du Pacifique, Nouméa, Nouvelle-Calédonie - 5 mars 2015
The Pe’a is the popular name of the traditional male tattoo of Samoa, which was originally called the malofie, a term used in the Samoan language chiefly vocabulary and ‘respect’ register (gagana fa’aaloalo).
The pe’a covers the body from waist to the knees. The tatau process for the pe’a is extremely painful, and undertaken by tufuga ta tatau (master tattooists), using handmade tools of bone, tusks, turtle shell and wood. The tufuga ta tatau are revered masters in Samoan society. In Samoan custom, a pe’a is only done the traditional way, with aspects of cultural ceremony and ritual, and have a strong meaning for the one who receive it.
The tufuga ta tatau works with one or two assistants, often apprentice tattooists, who stretch the skin and wipe the excess ink and generally support the tattooist in their work. The process takes place with the subject lying on mats on the floor with the tattooist and assistants beside them. The assistants to the tattooists are referred to as the solo, a Samoan word describing the act of wiping the blood off the skin. Family members of the person getting the tattoo are often in attendance at a respectful distance to provide words of encouragement, sometimes through song.
The pe’a can take less than a week to complete or in some cases, years. The ink colour is black. The tattoo starts on the back and finishes on the belly button. Overall, the design is symmetrical with a pattern consisting mainly of straight lines and larger blocks of dark cover, usually around the thighs. Some art experts have made a comparison between the distinctive Samoan tattoo patterns to other artforms including designs on tapa cloth and Lapita pottery.
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. 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 men’s tattoos. Nor was the tattooing of women as ritualised as that of the men.