The beginning of the famous Polynesian tattoo could be traced back around 2000 years ago. Not surprisingly, it was as diverse as the people who wore them.
In Samoa, tatau is the tradition of applying tattoo by hand – a part of their rich culture that remains unbroken for more than two thousand years now. Unlike with the rest of the world, the tools they use and the techniques they apply have changed very little.
Like the true legacy that it is, the skill of tattooing is something passed from father to son. The tufuga, or young tattoo artist learns his craft over the span of years as his father’s very own apprentice. Tufugas taps designs into sand or bark-cloth for hours or even days
Like most of the old societies, Samoans’ own society had been defined both by title and rank. Both their ali’I and tulafale descended from families of noble descent and within the proper birth order. Among their most elaborate affairs and a big part of one’s ascend towards a leadership role is the sacred tattooing ceremony for a young chief.
Of course as the pain caused by tattooing was really extreme ( to the point that some got sick and some even died) it was seen as a sign of both dedication and endurance of a true leader. Only the cowards shy away from tataus, and those who could not take the pain and left mid-session were left incomplete, with their mark of shame out in the open for the world to see. This is probably why you’d almost never see a Samoan that is tatau-free.
A tattooing session for the traditional pe’a usually lasted until dusk or at least until the one getting a tatau couldn’t stand the pain any longer. The tatau could be completed the following day. After the tatau is finished, the family usually held a small celebration to mark the end of what could be a month-long ordeal.
Samoan women too had tattoos, although the designs were significantly smaller and are mostly on their thighs, legs, and hands.
Missionaries from the west tried for years to purge tattooing from Samoans declaring the tradition to be both inhumane and simply barbaric. Many Samoan youngsters do not want to go to mission schools because tattoos were forbidden in those schools. But as you know, not even the most conservative of missionaries can stop something that is meant to happen. Over time, the attitudes relax a bit and the tattoos had found themselves rising again in Samoan culture.