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Origin of the Samoan Tattoo
There are not many Polynesian words that have entered the English language, but perhaps the most widely used is tattoo. Exactly where and when the word "tattoo" originated is open to debate, but it is certain that it was a corruption of the polynesian word tatau, picked up by the early European sailors exploring the Southern Ocean.

The presence of "britches" upon Samoan males, was commented upon in many ships logs of the early explorers, and were sketched by many of the artists that were taken along on these voyages of discovery. Where the Samoans aquired this skill is not known, but there is a folk tale that explains that it was brought to Samoa by two Fijian women. Unfortunately during the course of their journey they made a mistake in the song they were singing. Rather than singing "Tattoo the women and not the men" they started singing "Tattoo the men and not the women". When they arrived in Samoa the first few villages they arrived at were not interested in their skill, but eventually a chief recognised their artistic abilities and they taught the villages their trade and showed them how to make the tools they needed.

There is another story which explains that originally tattoos were painted upon the skin, but a Samoan adventurer who travelled to the kingdom of the spirits learnt the art of true tattooing. He was treated very well by its inhabitants but they found his painted body decorations a pale immitation of their own tatoos. He learnt the art of tattooing, and when he returned to Samoa he introduced the use of hammers and sharpened bone or teeth for tattooing.

Traditional Samoan tattooing of the pe'a, body tattoo, is an ordeal that is not lightly undergone. It takes many weeks to complete, is very painful and used to be a necessary prerequisite to receiving a matai title; this however is no longer the case. Tattooing was also a very costly procedure, the tattooer receiving in the region of 700 fine mats as payment. It was not uncommon for half a dozen boys to be tattooed at the same time, requiring the services of four or more tattooers. It was not just the men who received tattoos, but the women too, although their designs are of a much lighter nature, resembling a filigree rather than having the large areas of solid dye which are frequently seen in mens tattoos. Nor was the tattooing of women as ritualised as that of them men

The whole process was highly ritualised with songs to be sung and tabus being placed on those that were undergoing the ordeal. Some of the first European visitors to Samoa commented upon the tattoos being of religious significance but this seems to have been disputed by anthropologists (both professional and amateur) who arrived later. It is interesting to note that most of the motifs of animal origin are animals which were considered to be sacred by different families.