The Mark of the Jandal

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Skin Mastication with a Side Order of Ink

Last Friday, Andrew and Mari were going to get traditional Samoan Tattoos (tatau). Being the cultural voyeur that I am, I decided to tag along. The last final was on Wednesday, Thursday was a holiday, so taking Friday off wasn't a problem. I think their tattoos turned out really well. I took lots of pictures (340+ MB), and I'm uploading them as I type this. To read their accounts you can check out their respective webspaces: Andrew and Mari.

I uploaded the pictures to my computer at Joes. No fancy photo albums, just the raw images, or a 320 Meg zip file of all the images if one prefers. The images are about 3Mb each. Be polite to Joe and Brandon, my webhosts.

The village where Suluape, the tattoo artist (tufuga ta tatau), lives is Faleasiu. Faleasiu is between Apia and the airport --- closer to the air port. We took a taxi from our flats to the Peace Corps office. I wasn't quite sure why were were going to the office, but after enquiring of Andrew I found out that the Peace Corps will have a driver drop us off. Evidentially this is part of the "cultural exchange" thing we are here to partake of. It was a rainy day, and the driver knew the village but not the house. We veered off of the main road on to a rocky dirt road. About a quarter mile inland we found the house, and after a couple stops to find out our specific destination, we arrived at Suluape's home.

As we were walking up I noticed three people surrounding an individual. I assumed it was an person, though I only saw a leg protruding at first. It became obvious fairly quickly that the man getting the tattoo was getting a pe'a. This is a traditional tattoo that Samoan males get to signify that they are ready to be responsible for and are committed to the well being of the family. The pe'a begins around the middle of the lower back and extends downward to just above the knees. It is done in stages from ten days to a few weeks. This gives the recipient time to relax and recover.

Aside: Tatau

Traditional Samoan tattoo are applied using sharpened bone or animal teeth that have been shaped into something resembling a small comb. These combs (of varying width depending on the level of detail required) are attached to the end of a stick and the stick is tapped with another stick to force the comb into the skin. This page (Samoan Sensation) provides much detail in Samoan tattoos in general and the pe'a in particular.

A part of me felt as though I was intruding, and then there was that part of me that was fascinated by the whole process. The gentleman receiving the pe'a was on day six, and hoped to finish by next Wednesday. We arrived as they were working on his right inner thigh by the groin area. He was amazingly relaxed through the whole process. I began talking to someone named Fiti, who seemed to be more of an observer. Fiti explained that the person "under the comb" was his brother. His immediate family was from American Samoa and the tattoo artist was his uncle.

Aside: Territories and Commonwealths

Since I was a small child I've know about the lands under US control such as Guam, Puerto Rico, etc. However, I never really knew what that meant, and I paid attention in my 9th grade civic class which I'm sure Mrs. Bailey will attest to. I've picked up bits and pieces over the years, and I've looked for a explicit definition of the relationship between the US and these places, but I've never really figured it out.

For example, in Puerto Rico, some federal benefits are received: some Medicare/Medicade and social security can benefits can be had by residence. While federal income taxes are not applied, other taxes are. Benefits for the US include the ability to establish military bases in these places. Citizens of these lands can carry US passports, so they can more easily travel and find employment within the US.

So that's my vague, incoherent, "The Territories and Commonwealths of the US" in a nutshell. From my grokking, I've more or less concluded that that these territories lie in limbo between "state hood" and "independent countries".

Not mentioned above, however, one of the mutual benefits of the US and the people of American Samoa is the ability to join the US military -- this provides a good paying job, as well as the educational benefits that can be few and far between for people in developing countries. Fiti has been studying history in Hawai'i. While he was planning to graduate in 2004, his Army Reserve unit was activated, "Uncle Sam Called" he commented with a welcoming smile. After spending some time in Iraq he came back and finished school this last semester.

His brother called him well into the pe'a process. Normally when this is done, someone will be with the person receiving the pe'a to provide emotional support or the other person will get the pe'a as well. Just finished with school in Hawai'i, Fiti took the next plane to Samoa to be supportive of the process. He had gone back and forth about getting the pe'a with his brother but decided against it. He felt that dropping everything to be here at this point in time was the least that he could do --- this is indicative of the strong sense of family found here in Samoa. From talking with Fiti, I developed an appreciation for his ability to balance the more traditional aspects of Samoan life and culture with the demands of the outside as he straddles the interface between the two.


  • John,

    Here are some Peace Corps / Samoa blogs that I have found. If you know of any others that I have missed please let me know. Thanks!

    -Mike Sheppard
    RPCV / The Gambia


    By Blogger Mike Sheppard, at 3:00 AM  

  • very useful article. I would love to follow you on twitter.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:18 PM  

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