The word Tattoo that is common today in the english language today comes Samoan word, "Tatau". The first Europeans to visit the Islands already inhabited by the Polynesians mispronounced tatau into tattoo. The Samoan tatau is very unique. Its origins stem back thousands of years with two sister who swam from Fiti (Fiji). Although European contact brought radical changes and influence to Polynesia the Samoans are the only Polynesians who continued to practice the tradition of that tatau since pre-european contact. The traditional men's tatau is the Pe'a and the traditional women's is the malu.
As beautiful as the Pe'a is one must know that it is a composition that has been developed over thousands of years, as a cultural tradition. Therefore the patterns and structure of the Pe'a goes beyond aesthetics.
To truly understand the meaning of the Pea one must understand the culture of the Samoan people that it embodies. The Pe'a cannot only be defined by its patterns (their names and meanings), by the person who wears it (sogaimiti) or by the artist who created it (tufuga ta tatau). To understand the Pe'a and its meaning is to understand all of these elements and how they all work together in Fa'a Samoa (the Samoan way).
The Pe'a was among many things a rite of passage for a man. The pain is so intense that some of those who wear it can remember no other pain greater than it. There have been rare cases of death from the massive blood loss. Worst than death for the Samoan male is the unfinished Pea. This is seen as cowardly and shames not only the man but his family as well. Samoan proverb "the work of the man - that while women shall bear children, men shall feel the fire of the tatau," - Faleomavaega Eni Hunkin "Navagating the Futre: A Samoan Perspective on U.S. Pacific Relations"
One must not only prepare themselves for pain because that is minute and temporary, it is the service to the family and matai that lifelong commitment for those who wear the Pe'a aka Malofie Samoa.
Historically, the Pe'a was reserved for only the chiefs. This is apart of the Pe'a that may have changed througout the 2,000 that it has been practiced in Samoa. It was resevered for the Matai at one time and then later grew into eligibility as apart of service to the 'Aiga (family) and the Matai (heads of family).
It was a great ceremony for the son of a chief to complete his tatau. Some of the untitled men ( Aumaga ) were not eligible to service the Matai (chiefs) until they had completed the Pe'a.\ewlayer..