It is above all a ritual of passage, a necessary step to pass from the status of man-in-becoming (passive, or force still to be modeled) to a whole man (active, or force integrated with the global force of the community). Without this necessary step that marks the body and transforms it, just as there is an intrinsic transformation of the body with the maturation of puberty (appearance and modification of the sexual organs and the hair, the voice, etc.) the man is not complete. In Samoa, this tradition is fully integrated, and probably without interruption for generations, so that tattoos are not experienced as a leisure, an aesthetic improvement, but a genuine ritual gesture bearing meaning. Consequently, the corporation of tattooists has a true social vocation comparable to that of a religious caste, since no man is “finished” without them, therefore can have no marriage or moral/societal authority.
One of the characteristics of the rituals of passage is the physical test: in the present case, one does not ask the candidate to run, jump, etc. The only surpassing of oneself that is required is that of enduring intense pain, a very long time. Tattoos, usually covering the middle of the back to the knees, are a long and slow process (from ten days to several weeks), and the material often used in craftsmanship: this tedious character (several weeks per tattoo) thus adds a prolonged endurance to the pain. The physical test is therefore more chronic than acute.
Every ritual has a multiple character. In the present case, the tattoo feeds on prayers (sometimes sound, sometimes silent) performed by the entourage assisting at each stage. Family and relatives also participate financially in the ceremony by hosting the group of tattoo artists (housed, fed, bleached and paid transportation).
Each ritual has its share of taboos (tabu = tapu) and obligations: in the present case, it is forbidden during the process and even upstream: to let grow the appendages (nails, hair, hair, beard / mustache), to be isolated from the rest of the group (meals on the sidelines), not to be alone at night, not to approach anyone of the opposite sex (a fortiori no sexual intercourse or masturbation): in short, nothing that sends blood characteristic of a weakness of the human body, loss of strength, sensitivity to, and/or attack by, the roaring spirits (aitu), which makes it unclean. The body must remain intact, entirely devoted to this ritual transformation.
The sacred character of the tattooing ceremony is amplified by the anointing ceremony that takes its place at the very end of the ritual. It is a kind of blessing, mutual recognition by the rest of the group of initiates (men-finished, adults). The tattoos are then presented in a very clearly visible way, exhibited, magnified during a dance with demonstrative vocation.
This ritual of passage is peculiar to the idea that man is not yet finished, not yet entered in the field of the adult society, until he has undergone an ultimate physical transformation, as long as he has not fully demonstrated his abilities: circumcision for some, survival test in the forest for others, marking of the body recalling its belonging to a clan and/or its acceptance by the ancestors.
The body tattoo is a way of permanently marking the body, with marks shared by a group, and, at the same time, it allows to test the resistance of the impetant to the pain; undoubtedly the age chosen for such a physical test is not chosen at random, and the younger ones could not bear such suffering.
The symbols chosen by the tattoo artists vary according to the islands, the clans, the families. They recall the epics of gods and Polynesian heroes, mainly centered on Samoa. The tattoos evolve as the subject’s life progresses, adding, amplifying, sometimes modifying certain tattoos as his life progresses, creating a sort of biography, an identity card on the surface, visible and legible to others (if initiated and knows the symbols): thus, only by crossing, men know where the other comes from, his family, his clan, his trade, his family situation , etc. The more tattooing the individual has, the more it belongs to the elite (because making a tattoo is expensive, so it is rich enough to have many, because it has done deserving and/or heroic actions for that the community grants him the right to new tattoos): generally customary chief or great warrior. Thus, tattooing should be considered a social landmark.
Beyond the simple terrestrial existence of the subject, when the deceased (whose body will be mummified and whose tattoos will not disappear but will be fixed by the cutaneous dryness) will be confronted with the gods, unable to speak anymore, it is the tattoos that will speak for him, as a summary of his life. Hence the importance of not forgetting the important stages of his existence and of not hesitating to praise the bravery and courage of the person who carries it perinde ac cadaver.
During the tattooing ceremony, the candidate is kept immobile by several members of his community (themselves tattooed): the goal is above all practical and pragmatic (that the requester does not move at the moment when the tattoo artist injects the pigments into the skin, tightens the skin to avoid the folds and irregularities of the tattoo, etc.), but it doubles as a ritual vocation (to form a body with those who have already passed from the mature side of man, that their strength gains the body in process of transformation, that the prayers said in a low voice are literally transmitted within the body of the impetant since these sacred words do not leave the body of the initiates through their mouths).
In the meantime, the women’s actions, which carry out a massage and a cleaning of the tattoo sites (blood must not be visible, all seepage is immediately cleansed, the skin is rubbed with hemostatic and healing herbs).
Before being tattooed, the man is not finished. It is a being in process of transformation, an indefinite thing, a wandering spirit: the tattoo fixes all this, frames it, makes man full (gives the individual his human status and, by force of consequently, fatal). There is a vocation of protection (hence the importance of making circumferential tattoos, which completely enclose the body envelope, as if man were covered by the skin of the gods, as well as scarifications from Africa the tattoo is literally “blessed by the gods” through the intermediary of the tattooist who only expresses himself physically and practically the divine will and the acceptance of this protection for life. The tattoo allows the mana (vital force) to remain inside the body, not to be stolen by wizards (spellcasters) and negative waves.
Tattoos are above all, on the mythological level, an artifice used by the gods to make themselves more desirable in the eyes of women and other goddesses. They would then have passed on this knowledge to the men so that they could make a comparable use of it: then, a sign of fidelity to the ancestral gods? or means of aesthetic improvement (under the disguise of a religious tradition and ritual?). Maybe both, eventually. But the religious context is real: as a proof all the efforts developed by the Protestant and Catholic missionaries as early as the 19th century to abolish (without success) this practice.
If the instruments have changed for mainly sanitary reasons (difficult to sterilize a shark tooth piercing the skin on multiple occasions…), the practice has resumed exponentially since the 1980s: young people (men and women) in addition to displaying their belonging to the Polynesian group, or even to their archipelago of origin (Marquises, Tuamotu, Society Islands, and, for what interests us: Samoa). A relative nationalistic feeling (identity claim) is therefore grafted to aesthetic and magico-religious vocations (the latter having fallen into disuse, except in small communities). But the Gods are still here, tracing the tattoos on the skin of men.
Philippe Charlier, MD, PhD, LittD, is a forensic practitioner and anthropologist. He works on representations of the human bodies, and rituals related to diseases and death. He loves words, and more.