APIA, SAMOA – Oliver Fagalilo takes a labored breath and tenses his body before a sharp steel comb, dipped in ink, is driven into his skin.
Six hands keep him still and his skin taut as a Samoan artist works on the traditional tattoo that will cover more than half of his body. It takes 35 hours over seven days to complete.
“Yeah, I’m going good, just trying to breathe, but it’s quite hard to breathe,” said Fagalilo, his uncle cradling his head. “Just trying to push through. Trying to focus.”
Dating back centuries, the Samoan tatau — from which the word “tattoo” is said to originate — is regarded as a rite of passage.
Now a resident of New Zealand, Fagalilo, 39, and his sister Sharlene, 34, live in Australia but have returned to the Samoan capital of Apia to get their tattoos together with the support of their extended family.
The male tattoo, or pe’a, starts at the torso, covers the front and back, and finishes at the knees. The design is a series of straight lines, geometric shapes and large blocks of black ink that partly represent the journeys of ancestors from Southeast Asia to Polynesia.
Finer and more subtle in design, the female tattoo, known as a malu in Samoan, extends from just below the knee to the upper thigh and buttocks.
Samoan tattooing can be very painful, and those who cannot finish are labeled cowards, said tattoo artist Li’aifva Imo Leni — among the few Samoans who still practice the art.
“It’s considered a huge shame upon your family, and that burden is carried through to your children, your children’s children, up until somebody in your family finishes the tattoo in your honor,” he said.
Before the stainless steel tools now used by artists, the bones of pigs or even human bones were used to carve the tattoo into skin.
During a recent tattooing in his thatched hut, Leni sat cross-legged and used a mallet to tap a stainless steel comb into his subject’s body. He usually tattoos six days a week, from early morning to well after the sunset.
Anyone watching Leni work must share in the subject’s discomfort, he said, and cannot stretch or lie down on the floor to make themselves comfortable.
“The patterns they will be … tattooing on goes all the way back to your ancestors,” said Sharlene Fagalilo, who lives in Melbourne.
“It’s a good feeling. You get to carry that with you everywhere you go,” she added.