The Decision to Ink
Let’s talk about every parent’s most unfounded fear… Tattoos.
Let me know if this sounds familiar: “if you get a tattoo and ruin your body-” blah blah blah, “you’ll never get a job-” blah blah blah. We are finally adults (yay we made it) but our parents still don’t want us to ink up and besmirch our ‘oh-so-pure’ skin.
Many parents seem to be all too happy for their offspring to spend their nights raving, their days hungover, and any time left in between in general confusion about their life choices. #justapartofgrowingup am I right? BUT don’t be fooled kids, tattoos will ruin your life. I mean let’s face it, who doesn’t get the irrepressible need to join a chain gang or opt out of uni for a life as a… how can I put this delicately… ‘lady of the evening’, after that needle hits their skin?
However it’s not just Gen X to be blamed for this mentality. Having several tattoos myself, I can say I have met many Gen Y’s who will tell you that the decision to ink is no longer hip. Tattooing has become ‘too mainstream’ in the eyes of a society where to be in the minority, is to be cool. So we may yet see the grand return to ‘clean skin’, but before we get there, let’s consider an alternative view on what it means to get inked.
Last year my family moved to the South Pacific island of Upolu, Samoa for work. My current status as a uni student unfortunately, meant that I couldn't say sayonara to winter weather and submit to a life of beachside margaritas, and tanning oil just yet, so instead I would spend my holidays there.
Now we all know tattoos are big in the South Pacific, from the Maori tā moko to the various Polynesian designs found on Fijians, Tongans, and Hawaiians. What I wonder though is how much we really understand about their process and their meaning in contemporary society?
Whilst on my first trip to Samoa I spent a day with my mum at the local cultural show that is held every Thursday in Apia. It is run by local village members completely free of charge in an attempt to share the customs and culture of Samoan life with foreigners or Palagis. The entire show was truly a great experience but what stood out for me was the attitudes towards tattoos and process of tattooing.
Our guide Chris had the traditional men’s tattoo popularly known as the pe’a, an intricate pair of inked on shorts which stretches from the waist to the knees. The pe’a is counter part to the traditional womens’ tattoo the malu, which covers the thighs ending just below the knees. Chris described the long and painful process of receiving the pe’a which uses the traditional mallet and tattoo comb, taking far longer than the high-tech needles you’ll find in Sydney. The tattoo had to be completed over a number of long sessions and even the aftercare was brutal, no warm soapy water and a slick of bepanthen for them. Chris detailed his experience of being taken out into the salty ocean water and having the tattooed skin squeezed to avoid any infection. To think I thought swimming with a paper cut was bad.
So not only was the tattooing process painful and time consuming, but one’s entire village would become concerned for them if they chose to undergo it. This was due to the fact that once you started the tattoo it absolutely has to be finished, if uncompleted it becomes a shameful mark against the individual and their village.
So why the hell would anyone want it done you ask? Well I’ll tell you why. The pe’a and the malu are hallmarks of manhood and womanhood in Samoan culture, as well as representing one’s pride in their heritage. By receiving the tattoo you become part of a long line of tradition that has connected your people for generations. It is about identity, respect, community and responsibility as those who wear the tattoos are expected to be trustworthy members of their village who can be looked to for the handling of important tasks.
In Samoa being a tattoo artist is not a casual career choice but rather a right and responsibility passed down to the sons of only a couple of Samoan families who preserve the sacred knowledge of tatau. Therefore, in Samoa, one’s tattoo does not only say something about them, but about the artist as well. Each time somebody is tattooed a collaborative process of meaning making takes place in which both the artist and the individual honour their culture.
Only a five hour flight away from Sydney, we find another world with a different take on what it means to have a tattoo. There is no pride in ‘clean skin’ here because there is nothing ‘dirty’ about having some ink. In fact Samoans appreciate all tattooing and take great interest in those adorned by tatau, happy for anyone to share in the practice. “Your tattoo is beautiful”, one local woman told me, “you should get a Samoan one.”
So while what is currently cool or trendy may change over time, I think it is important for us all to take a step back and really think about what tattoos mean and consider how we talk about them. Would you tell a proud Samoan man adorned with the pe’a that he has ‘ruined’ his body? Or that he will never get a job while he has that ink? I don’t think so.
Sure you might argue that it’s okay if it is done out of tradition and totally different if it’s just a personal choice. But what do you really know about the decision to ink if you haven’t made it? Samoan tattooing culture taught me that anyone has the right to explore meaning making through tattooing and to be proud of it.
So if you still can’t see how the decision to ink might be positive and meaningful, maybe you should heed some very old advice, because people who don’t have anything nice to say probably shouldn’t be saying anything at all.
By Kayla Rain Williams