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Details of the author’s tatau
Details of the author’s tatau

SocietyMay 18, 2024

Enduring the voyage of the tatau

Details of the author’s tatau
Details of the author’s tatau

After 33 years abroad, Loveni Enari recently returned to Aotearoa and Samoa in what a friend joked was an “existential crisis”. He learnt and re-learnt so much about his family, friends and both countries. Almost as an afterthought, he got a Samoan tatau. This is his story.

(Accompanying it are the verses of the Samoan tatau song.)

When the koso, the skin-spreader, slapped me hard on the chest and stood up, I realised it was finished. I had known the end was near but it surprised me when it happened. I was told to sit up and struggled to do so. My tufuga – tattooist – put out his arm and we hugged clumsily. He wiped away a tear and I realised how stressed he had been.

I turned to look at my aiga, my family, all faithfully sitting there, looking at me in expectation; it seemed they had morphed into one huge smile. I channelled my inner father and disappointed them with an, “It ain’t no thing,” chill coolness, just to be contrary.

My puke, my belly button, had just been ka’d, been hit, and with that last act, my pe’a, my tatau, my malofie, my traditional Samoan tattoo, had been completed. I was exhausted.

O le mafuaʻaga lenei ua iloa – this is the reason that’s known

O le ta ina o le tatau i Sāmoa – of why tatau are done in Samoa

O le malaga a teine e toalua – it was from the journey of two girls

Na feʻausi mai i Fiti i le vasaloloa – who swam from Fiji in the great moana

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The beginning.

You could say it started with a kiss – never thought that it’d come to this – in 2022 at the Sweatshop nightclub in Auckland. It was crowded and I wanted to get closer to this interesting, attractive woman but I wasn’t sure how, so I threw my scarf over her head, dived under it, and kissed her.

I’d like to say it was Lenny Kravitz-cool, but it wasn’t. It was the sort of move that may have been cool when you were a teen or in your early 20s. I was 57 at the time.

Later she showed me her malu – the traditional, Samoan tattoo for women. She had distracted me with it all night out of the corner of my eye. On her legs, I thought it one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen – so artistic, so sparing, yet so teasingly complete.

For the first time, it occurred to me that one day I might get my own tatau, my own notoriously painful, traditional, Samoan tattoo. Now at least I recognised the artistry involved, and was intrigued.

“Why dirty your legs,” my father used to say, mockingly, when asked about the tatau.

When my brother Fatu went to get his, he told our father. “We don’t do that,” replied Dad.

“We” meaning people/family like us: those descended from faifeau, pastors, missionaries. The colonised, religious types who did not believe in the unnecessary spilling of blood. There was also a snobbishness. “We” were scholarly, academic types who did not partake of “pagan practices”, as tattooing was labelled by the first missionaries in 1830. It was uncivilised and anti-religious.

As such, the traditions were killed off in Fiji and Tonga, but not in Samoa where people clandestinely continued the practice. Indeed, as late as the 1950s, soga’imiti, or men with tatau, sometimes danced naked at ceremonies, as they were deemed “already clothed” in the traditional clothes of the tatau. Can you imagine anything more pagan than that? Dancing naked in front of everyone. It was no wonder my scholarly father felt he and “his people” were firmly in the “no” camp.

Na la aumai ai o le ato au – they brought the basket of tattooing tools

Ma si a la pese e tutumau – and their song which lasts to this day

Fai mai e tata o fafine – they said women were tattooed

ʻAe le tata o tane – but not men

But not all of our aiga were with him. His aunty Nu’uausala, more religious than the Pope, strict leader of the Sunday School, the oldest soprano in the church choir, she had a malu. But she hid it.

“What about Nu’uausala?” Fatu had asked.

“How do you know about that?” replied my father, accusingly, as if someone had spilt the beans.

We knew because as she curled pandanus leaves with her short knife, during endless mat-weaving sessions, you would catch a glimpse of the fusi, the “belt” of the malu, just below her lavalava, at her knees. Just another never-discussed, family secret.

Then there was our Safune family, the rough and tough ones, on Samoa’s big island, Savai’i. My great uncle Lamese was the family patriarch and four of his sons had the tatau. There was no doubt where they stood on the issue – firmly with the pagans – and the naked, probably drunk, dancing.

O oe o le pele o Lamese. You are Lamese’s favourite. It was well known when I was a child.

He was a huge man. Six foot four, immense with a large, straight back. It is said his initials were tattooed onto the head of his penis. That’s how he rolled. He was funny, crazy, often violent, and I loved him to bits.

When we were children and it was time to leave Safune, this fearsome man would stand roadside to flag down the bus to the wharf in Salelologa, normally a chore for the youngest child. When the bus driver and passengers saw Lamese hailing the bus, they knew it was no trivial matter.

While they waited, he would look at us lovingly out of his always blood-shot eyes, hug each one close, and say, “O fa’alelei,” – “Go well,” – put us on the bus and peer carefully at the driver, “Vaai faalelei si a’u fagau e momoli lelei i le uafu faamolemole,” – “Please be careful as you take my children to the wharf,” – in his humblest, most polite manner. For him to lower his voice like this, instead of his usual booming self, would set alarm bells off. Be very, very careful or there would be consequences, was the message.

My beloved grandmother, Saoa’i, Lamese’s sister, was the other reason behind my tattoo. She died in a bus accident when I was seven years old. Those seven years with her were enough for me to realise that, like Lamese, she loved me profoundly, unconditionally.

When I visited her home in Nofoali’i, two holes would be punctured in a can of condensed milk, allowing a smoother flow into my mouth, and I had the run of the house and shop.

I would scramble over the shop shelves gathering lollies while her son, my uncle, would call out, “Saoa’i, Loveni is taking the sweets from the shop.”

“A’e, ku’u le kama,” she would call out in an exasperated tone. “A’e, leave the boy alone,” as if her son were stupid.

I could do no wrong in her and Lamese’s eyes.

Great uncle Lamese

Like her brother, my grandmother was notoriously tough and her strength legendary. Once, upon being awoken by a moe tolo, a sleep-crawler or pervert, she knocked him out cold with one uppercut.

How could I not love people like this with such huge, physical prowess, who melted into soft, warm fuzziness when confronted by me?

A o le ala na tata ai o tane – how men came to be tattooed

I na ua sese si a la pese – is when the women made a mistake with their song

Taunuʻu i gatai o Falealupo – they arrived beachside in Falealupo

ʻUa vaʻaia loa o le fai sua ua tele – and they saw a giant clam, which was huge

What do they have to do with my tatau? Well, these are the two people that came to mind when I tried to answer the question, “What is my why?” and, “Is my why strong enough to withstand the pain and avoid the shame of a pe’a muku (an unfinished one)?”

The previous week, while swimming in Savai’i, these huge personalities of my childhood had filled my mind, and an epiphany about the power of their love overcame me. Their spoiling of me had such an empowering effect on my personality. It instilled in me, who had accomplished nothing in life, a totally undeserved, bullet-proof confidence in myself. I didn’t need to do anything, it seemed, simply turn up, and love and praise would be showered upon me.

I felt the need to repay these two gruff, loving people, and the best way was to get a tatau, endure something painful, so tough that some don’t finish it. Show them, make them proud that I also could be tough like them.

So although it all started with one, gentle kiss in Auckland, that alone was not going to be enough to see me to the end of what everyone insisted is an intensely painful experience.

Would these two giants of my childhood be enough to see me through the pain, to be able to say, “keep tapping away at my body tufuga-man, dish out your punishment, I’ll drink it all up, as I have a higher calling, a spiritual escape clause, a safe place in the clouds of angels, where you can’t touch me, way above your mere, human tools of iron pain”? They were the why that gave it to me.

My Saoa’i, my Lamese – that should be enough – at least that’s what I thought.

So two days before I was due to leave the country, I informed my cousin Mailo, thinking it was too late at such short notice.

It was Sunday, but he made a call which lasted less than ten minutes and on payment of 500 tala on Monday I would be booked in to start on Tuesday at 9am.

Oh shit. What have I done? I thought.

“Have you asked for your family’s blessings?” asked Mailo.

Oh shit, again. I quickly informed them I was going to have a tatau starting in the next two days.

Two nights later, on the eve of the start, only my brothers had replied. I had parted on uncertain terms with my mother and she wasn’t replying.

A panic set in. I would be cursed, malaia in Samoan folklore, if she did not give me her blessing. Without her blessing, I feared I would not withstand the pain and would end up with a pe’a muku, a broken, unfinished tatau, a stain on my family pride forever more. I wrote to her again.

Late on the eve of the start, her message finally came. My sigh of relief was huge.

Sorted. Bring it on. Nothing can go wrong now. Nek minit? Cue emoji of rolling eyes.

Before heading to bed I took a lavalava off the line and boom, an intense pain in my finger. It was immediately red, swollen and a half centimetre thing was stuck in my finger. No problem, I thought, pulled it out, went to bed and promptly fell asleep. An hour later I awoke, knew something was wrong, felt my pulse and boom, again, an arrhythmia, an irregular heart beat.

Two years previously I’d had minor heart surgery to correct it, but now and then, I would have an episode. No worries, I thought, I had my antiarrhythmic pills and, uh-oh, my blood-thinner pills – which I couldn’t take. Its anticoagulant properties meant I would bleed out at the first tap of the needle tomorrow morning.

Totofu loa lea o fafine – together, the women decided 

Ma ua sui ai si a la pese – and their song was changed

Faimai e tata o tane – it said, men are tattooed

ʻAe le tata o fafine – but not women

I went to sleep again and awoke early in a panic.

The heartbeat was fine, but my brain was racing.

What idiot says yes to a tatau without considering his medical situation? I was supposed to take my pills daily, but did so only if I had an episode. Now, what would happen if I got an arrhythmia each time the tufuga’s au struck? I would not be able to take the blood-thinner and therefore ran a serious risk of a blood clot.

A blood clot to the brain – a stroke. To the heart – a heart attack.

Again, what idiot says yes to a tatau without taking his medical history into account? 

Only this bloody idiot.

There’s nothing for it, I thought. The intelligent thing to do is to contact the tufuga, tell him to keep the deposit but, sorry very much, I cannot go through with the process as the risk is too high. Sorry, but I hadn’t considered my heart problem. Of course everyone would understand that was the only intelligent option, I thought.

And then it struck me how it would play out among my relatives, friends and other bystanders to the car-crash that was unfolding.

“Did you hear about Loveni? He woke up in a panic on his first day of tattooing, rang the tattooist and chickened out! Hahahah!”

“He cancelled at the last minute. Hahaha, what a useless, pala’ai (scared) guy!”

I anticipated the laughter echoing over the social media airwaves as the story gathered strength and I knew perfectly well nobody would believe my side of the story.

Fuck, I thought. I can’t pull out now. This story will forever be associated with my name and my aiga. What an embarrassment! There was nothing for it. I had to go through with it. At least there’s something epic sounding about it. You know, “Hear about Loveni? Got a tattoo, had a blood clot, caused a heart attack and he died. Ha!”

As my dramatic cousin later said, “When you have a tattoo, you have to be prepared to die.” Well I was very literally prepared and resigned to that possibility – anything better than the shame of being labelled a coward.

As the saying goes, “E motu le ula, motu le fau, ae o le tatau, e te alu ma oe i le tu’ugamau.” – “The garland is broken and so is the fau (bark for binding, lashing) but the tatau, it will go with you to the grave.”

Silasila i si tama ua taʻatia – look at the boy lying there

O le tufuga lea ua amatalia – the tufuga has started

Talofa e ua tagi aue aue – poor thing, he’s crying, aue aue

Ua otiʻoti solo o le ʻautapulu tele – the sharp pain of the dark shading (of the tattoo) is huge

So bright and early Tuesday morning, I presented myself at the tufuga’s fale in Alafua.

If you’re going to have a tattoo, take it from me. Do a lot of yoga stretching beforehand. The pain from old rugby injuries and the impossible position my neck was forced into, with my cheek flat on the floor and a hard pillow pushing into my sternum, was nearly as bad as the pain of the au – the iron needles. It was very real.

But so was my constant imagery of adoring Saoa’i, stern Lamese, and her graceful hands and Samoan siva. They easily pulled me through on that first day, which finished too early for my liking. It was the va’a, the boat, on my back. I felt strong and wanted to continue but did not tell the tufuga as I was aware of his quick temper and did not want to annoy him.

The power of the au was in his hands and I had heard the stories of past clients suffering the consequences as the tattooist would raise his hands higher than usual before smashing the au into your skin.

On the second day, my tears flowed quietly when my cousin Tauiai from Saleapaga arrived to support me. I remembered how much he and his sister, Fetaia’i, had loved and looked after my brothers and I when we were children in Vaiala.

Another cry happened at 4am one morning, as I realised the whole process was also an offering to my departed father. Despite being against tattooing, I knew he would have attended at least one session, and it would have been enough to win him over. He would have been so proud to see me doing something he would never have attempted.

There were more emotional moments. When my long-time friend, brother in arms and current minister of police, Lefau Harry Schuster, turned up, I cried again. He’s always had my back. He took a few hours out of his busy schedule to shoot the breeze, joking in his usual charming way, and afterwards, before leaving, he gave the tufuga money. It was his way of honouring our friendship but, more intelligently, ensuring the tufuga treated me well. Make him happy and he’ll be gentle with me. His logic worked as the tufuga never jabbed me in the stomach again with the au as he had three times that day.

“Relax your body,” he had snapped at me. That was especially hard, not just because of the contortionist positions, but because each time tattooing was about to be renewed after the brief pause to re-ink, one of his koso (skin-spreaders), who was not tattooed, would roughly dump his hands on recently tattooed parts, causing my body to jump.

The other koso, who did have a tatau, was always gentle as he stretched my skin. The rough, untattooed one was the one who joked, after the first session, “You watch this one,” referring to me, “He won’t last three days. He’ll throw in the towel in less than two.” 

The next two days were the same, in that I felt strong and willing to take on more. On Friday, the fourth day, Señor Tufuga smashed my first hip and I whispered to myself, “Thank you very much,” when he indicated we were done.

Later, when sharing lunch paid for everyday by my cousin Helen Tuilagi with the tufuga and his family, he acknowledged my uncle Fa’alafitele Falefatu and offered him money from Le Fau’s visit.

My uncle, a constant, loving presence from the very first day, had plenty to spend the money on. He spoke quietly before returning it. Later, I thought, my opinion of you would not have suffered if you’d taken the money Uncle, but now you’ve rejected it, my opinion has risen.

It was him concentrating on doing the right thing for me and I felt it and appreciated it.

Every day after each session, I would head home to our boiling hot house and shower with one of my male “nephews” at least three times a day. One of them, Sefa, or my namesake, Loveni, each with powerful thumbs and fingers, was in the shower with me to massage and squeeze the liquid out of the tattoo.

The pain was very different to the sharpness of the au, but I saw stars there as well.

Sole, sole ia e loto tele – boy, boy, be brave

O le taʻaloga faʻatama tane – it’s a real man’s game

E ui lava ina tiga tele – though it may be very painful 

Ae mulimuli ane ua e fefete – later you will be swollen with pride

Then I’d eat and be knocked out. Tattoo, shower, massage, eat, rest and repeat, again and again and again. For nine sessions. The first eight were about four hours each, sometimes a little less, sometimes a little more. The last session was over eight hours long, and I was exhausted by the end of it. At least, that’s what the photos afterwards showed.

I had done it. “The first courageous decision you’ve taken in your life,” said one friend, which made me smile. As I said at the beginning, I wasn’t about to get all emotional about it, like many people apparently do. I wanted to keep it low-key. It ain’t no thang. 

“Did you not feel like chususu-ing,” asked one. “Didn’t you cry? I did,” exclaimed another. 

“How did you feel when they were completing your puke, your belly button, and that pillow is in the small of your back and your arms spread out like you’re crucified on the cross?” asked another.

On that last day, I’d had some food in between the two sessions. In that position at the end, when you’re supposed to be swelling your stomach to help spread the skin, the dominant feeling was that of my brekky being regurgitated into my mouth.

Mystical? Spiritual? Romantic? Eureka moment?

Ahem, leai fa’afetai. (No, thank you.) It was just OK, I’ve done it now. I was getting bored with all the different methods, memories, photographs I kept having to drag up to take my mind off the pain. I had run out of ideas and I was thankful. But I wasn’t about to do cartwheels.

Yes, I did have all the intense emotions people mentioned, but they came later.

O atunuʻu uma o le Pasefika – of all the countries in the Pacific

Ua sili Sāmoa le taʻutaʻua – Samoa is the most famous

ʻO le sogaimiti ua savalivali mai – a soga’imiti is walking towards us

Ua feʻilafi mai o na faʻaʻila – he’s glistening and shining

Before starting the whole business, I remembered feeling happy I would be joining a special club of people, some of whom were very dear to me. There was also the motivating thought of, If he can do it, I’ll have no problem.

Some people said that sometimes they felt no pain, or at other times they were willing the tattooist to hit them. I thought that a load of mumbo-jumbo myself, but in the end it rang true for me too.

Once, I got lost in a world of photos on my phone, one after the other after the other, and I felt my tufuga glancing over at me, wondering if I was asleep, so relaxed was I. Then, in the last few days, I resorted to one of my best pain-avoiding thoughts. It was a repetitive thank you, again and again, with each tap of the au, each perforation of my skin, willing him on with the knowledge that each hit was one less that I would have to endure on my journey to the completion.

I said to myself, “Fa’afetai fa’afetai, ua fia atoatoa lo’u tino, fa’afetai mo le fa’aatoatoa o lo’u tino, ua toeitiiti atoa lo’u tino, fa’afetai, fa’afetai…” – “Thank you, thank you, my body wants to be complete, thank you for making my body complete, my body is nearly complete, thank you, thank you…” over and again, like a mantra in meditation.

And that, baby, is that. Uma lava pisupo. My body is complete. I am fully clothed now in the true, traditional sense of the phrase. 

Before arriving in Samoa, my mother and I were not on the best of terms. After the tatau, any ill-feeling I had harboured towards her vanished. All gone. The tufuga had “ka’d” – smashed it – out of me. I felt totally cleansed and ready to restart a healthy relationship with her.

This has been a journey of love, especially for my cousin Mailo Fa’afetai, his wife Helen, and their loving children, but for many others of my aiga and close friends as well. That friend sent me a definition of a Samoan’s fa’asinomaga on the third day of my tatau. It was her mother’s, and spoke of a Samoan having roots like a tree. Each time these roots encountered other roots, a “va” – a space – was created between the two. How well that va is developed in our lives is basically our fa’asinomaga, based on our ancestors, our language and the different lands we are anchored to in Samoa. How well those roots are watered and the va cared for, is down to us as “good” Samoans.

As they say, you may not receive the blessings or fruits of that nourishment of the va, but your children or grandchildren will. I know this is so true of my own experiences in life, as I have been embraced, protected and loved all over the world by Samoans in a way which is so unique and so touching. This tatau has been a journey of my fa’asinomaga.

How I manifest this new spirit and attitude remains to be seen, but I am changed.

When people ask me if this is a rite of passage from boy to man, I say somehow it is, but not in the macho-man sense. Yes, the pain is real, but the voyage, and I intentionally put it on the sea with its troughs and crests of rolling waves, is more emotional and spiritual than physical.

I remember as a youngster, hearing stories of Samoans from New Zealand getting the tatau because it brought them closer to home; made them feel more Samoan. I looked down on those people for needing proof, and thought I would never have to “prove” I was Samoan.

I still feel the same, but there’s no denying it. After 33 years of living away from the Pacific – and my Samoan language, once so fluent as a youngster, now not nearly as strong – the realisation that, if I’m walking along some beach in Europe and a fellow Samoan sees me, there will be no doubt in their mind that it is a Samoan man they are looking at. And yes, a Samoan man who has endured the voyage of the tatau.

O asofaʻaifo, faʻamuliʻaliʻao – the downward beams of the fale, the base of the ali

Faʻaatualoa, selu faʻalaufao – the centipedes, the comb

O le sigano faʻapea faʻaulutao – the pandanus leaves and the spearhead

Ua ova i le vasa laolao – it’s all over the calm ocean.

This is Public Interest Journalism funded by NZ On Air.

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