- Title: Samoan siblings ink painful bond with their motherland
- Date: 14th August 2019
- Summary: SKIN BLEEDING AT SITE OF TATTOO
- Embargoed: 28th August 2019 11:06
- Keywords: Samoa tattoo mallet skin tradition ritual
- Location: APIA, SAMOA / WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND
- City: APIA, SAMOA / WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND
- Country: Samoa
- Topics: Art,Arts / Culture / Entertainment
- Reuters ID: LVA00JASBU91J
- Aspect Ratio: 16:9
- Story Text: EDIT CONTAINS GRAPHIC IMAGES AND NUDITY
Oliver Fagalilo takes a laboured breath, before tensing his body in preparation for a sharp steel comb, dipped in ink, to be driven into his broken skin.
Six hands keep him still, and his skin taut, as a Samoan artist completes a traditional tattoo that will end up covering well over half of Fagalilo's body.
It will take 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. Keep focused."
Now living in New Zealand, 39-year-old Fagalilo and his younger sister, 34-year-old Sharlene, have returned to the Samoan capital of Apia to receive their tattoos together, supported by their extended family.
Dating back centuries, the Samoan "tatau", where the word tattoo is said to originate from, is regarded as a rite of passage for many Samoans.
The male tattoo, or pe'a, starts at the torso, covers front and back, and finishes at the knees. The design is a series of straight lines, geometric shapes, and large blocks of black ink, in part, representing journeys undertaken by ancestors from South East Asia to Polynesia.
The process can be extremely painful and those who are unable to finish the tattoo are labelled a coward, said tattoo artist Li'aifva Imo Leni, one of only a few Samoans who practices the traditional 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 honour," he said.
Before stainless steel tools were introduced, the bones of pigs or in some cases, even human bones were used to carve the tattoo into skin.
Now, Leni uses a mallet to tap a stainless-steel comb into his subject's body.
Sitting cross-legged, he tattoos six days a week, from early morning and often well after the sun goes down.
As the recipient goes through the process, anyone watching inside the thatched hut - fale - must refrain from stretching or lying down to make themselves comfortable so that they share the discomfort of the recipient.
Once the daily session of tattooing is complete, Fagililo must take cold showers every two hours as the inked area is massaged with mild soap to remove surface impurities.
He must also stay out of direct sunlight and refrain for rigourous exercise or lifting heavy objects while the healing process takes place.
While her brother had a day of respite from the pain, it was Sharlene's turn to undergo tattooing.
Finer and more subtle in design, "malu", the Samoan word for the female-specific tattoo, goes from just below the knee to upper thigh area and buttocks.
"The patterns they'll be ... tattooing on, goes all the way back to your ancestors," said Sharlene Fagalilo, who now resides in the Australian city of Melbourne.
"It's a good feeling, you get to carry that with you everywhere you go."
(Production: Jill Gralow)
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