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Michaela and I were despondent from cancellations and because we were collecting data on day two of multiple sleeves (a full arm tattoo) at one studio. Meaning, we were collecting additional saliva samples from individuals we’d already got them from because they were getting big tats that took multiple sessions, so we were collecting pre- and post-tattoo data from day two and didn’t have anyone else we could collect new data from. We hadn’t really worked out what to do with additional data like that. In my previous study, I’d averaged additional samples in and found the additional data didn’t make much difference. We were likely wasting our time, in other words. So I volunteered to drive to the village of Ottoville, out past the Cost U Less, and pick up a family in town for a family reunion who wanted to get their afakasi son (half-Samoan—a distinction I make because Samoans make it, though it both does and does not seem to matter) tattooed and that needed a ride to get there. On the way, I stopped at the Family Mart to find this supposed Tongan.
He supposedly worked in the cargo boxes, which are the shipping boxes that goods come in. Every Chinese and Korean grocer has them lined up in front of their stores. I’m not really sure why. Do they simply have stuff dropped off in them and trade them out, keeping them there for additional storage? I’ve never thought to ask. I also didn’t know people worked in them. But I stopped at Family Mart, didn’t see anyone around the boxes or any doors to knock on, walked around inside first, didn’t see any likely candidates, then went back outside to the car and saw a guy who could have been my Tongan coming out of the box. He had hair clipped short, looked Polynesian possibly but not necessarily Samoan (wasn’t big enough), and his arms were covered with tattoos (though not Samoan tattoos). He was coming out of one of the boxes carrying goods to restock shelves inside.
He had a dour appearance when I approached him. I asked if he was Tomesi or Ollie (names changed for confidentiality) and he said no. I asked him if he knew Tomesi or Ollie, and he shook his head no. I told him I am a researcher studying tattooing and referenced an article in the Samoa News and radio and TV interviews we had just done about our research to give my story credibility. So far, everyone we had encountered had heard or read one of these, because there are limited media outlets on island. Puzzled, I asked him if he was a tattoo artist, and he said yes. So I gave him my phone number, got his name and phone number, and asked if I could call him to talk to him about our study. He said yes, we arranged a time, and I left to finish my errand, elated by my success in the face of our flagging sampling. I had found the Tongan tattoo artist Niko had told me about, but his name was Chilo, not Ollie or Tomesi, and he had no Polynesian tattoos that I could see. However, even the tattoo experts often have tattoos they’ve collected elsewhere in their youths. I saw so many eagles, for instance. Granted, an eagle is on the American Samoa flag carrying a Samoan war club and fly-whisk, but there are no eagles in American Samoa. It represents the U.S. And Pago Pago. Though this is no different than U.S. teams being represented by Tigers. Fagaitua are the Vikings, for instance.
I had promised to call Chilo at a time that evening. The idea that one show up on time to a meeting is a Euroamerican convention or what you do for work and church, not necessarily other situations. So I had the best of intentions of calling him later, but we were spent after our day of resampling the same person and decided to treat ourselves and our foul moods to a movie and dinner out with our friend David to cheer ourselves up. I didn’t notice until the next day that I’d received a phone call during dinner from an unknown number. Now in the mainland, I’m so phone phobic, I’d never call someone back who called me that I didn’t know and who didn’t leave a message, but people can’t leave messages on my cheap American Samoa Telecommunications Authority flip-phone, and who would be calling me? Only someone interested in or related to the research. So I called back, and it was this guy I met in the cargo box. That never happens. Chilo actually called me. We couldn’t believe it. So I arranged for us to meet with him in Pago after he got off work Monday, where he would take us to his house to talk and so we could find it for collecting tattoo data later.
And here we were, sitting anxiously in our car, wondering if Chilo were some type of Tongan criminal, a killer preying on stupid palagi scientists who’d taken no safeguards. Since this is a true story that I am writing for an anthropology class and to describe fieldwork—and lest I reify any stereotypes, I’ll hazard a few spoilers—he was neither Tongan, I don’t think, nor, to my knowledge, had he any malevolent intent. This was all our imaginations, but stay tuned, because it was still weird.
We finally voiced our mutual discomfort at sitting in an isolated parking lot behind a building in the dark in Pago and moved the car to a spot in front on the main road. There we sat a while longer. We called Chilo to check on his progress, and he told us he was on the way, almost there. Half an hour later, we called him again, and he was just leaving work…I finally gave him 15 minutes before I was going to leave. When 15 minutes was up, Michaela told me I should call him to tell we were leaving, but I just wanted to bail. Reluctantly, I did call him, and he asked where we were, saying he was in the parking lot and couldn’t find us. This freaked me out. How did he get by? I didn’t want him coming to get in the car or to come to the car window, so I got out to find him. He had come through from the back, and I met him back at the gate, out of Michaela’s sight. But he was nowhere as threatening in person as he had become in my mind’s eye, so I brought him over to the car to introduce to her. Fortunately, he also no longer wanted us to go to his house. Their pastor and his family were there, he said. It might seem odd that a church event was going on at his house, and he was in a dark parking lot with us talking tattoo, but it makes perfect sense in Samoa. We sat at a picnic table in the back of the plaza to talk. This was in a well-lighted area, and as we sat there, some Coast Guard palagis we knew happened by in their uniforms and chatted with us, which gave us additional relief.
The story Chilo told us was exciting and incredible. He wasn’t Tongan at all, as I mentioned, but from Western Samoa. He had his own tattoo studio and business on the side, doing tattoos with electric gun and hand tap. He said he had been trained by a Sulu’ape. We explained our project in the slow manner that we do, because English is not the first language of many Samoans, using simple words, repeating certain things, focusing on the cultural elements, ensuring him that we were looking for partners in this study, not simply participants. We shared a copy of the informed consent, which outlined the study in simple terms, in English and Samoan. At one point, Chilo started crying, which was both surprising and touching. He said God had sent us to help him and his business, and he was grateful and happy to participate.
The Samoan Islands are 99% Christian. The missionaries did their work well there. Though sometimes being Christian is a means to a social end, the structure of Christianity mapped well onto the village-based authoritarian structure that included top-down morality, and it flourished there. American Samoa is emblematic of anthropologist Rich Sosis’ “3Bs” model of religious commitment signaling. You can observe religious commitment via behavior, badges, and bans. People go to church all the time, wear elaborate clothing, and observe a hefty load of religious taboos. But conspicuously missing among these Bs, Sosis notes, is belief. It’s not necessary to demonstrate commitment, though it often develops simply by following through other three signs, as a way to minimize cognitive dissonance. Many Samoans are cynical about religion, but they are still Christian. I don’t know Chilo’s religious values, but his statement that God had sent us to him came as no surprise.
What did surprise us is that he said he would be doing a malu this week. It was like we’d bought the Willy Wonka chocolate bar with the golden ticket. A malu is the female counterpart to the pe’a. These are the special midriff and thigh tattoos that only Samoans are supposed to get and symbolize one’s commitment to village, matai (chief), and aiga (family). Malu means to hold together, and the symbols that characterize the malu include crosshatches, like the ties that bind the house together. They represent the importance of the Samoan woman in binding the family and village together. But tattooing is primarily a male domain, so, though we had seen several men getting pe’a, which has similar significance, we had yet to see a woman getting a malu. And Chilo wanted us to part of this tattoo experience. He would have us wear gloves and a gown and be in the inner circle of the tattooing with his stretchers. And he wanted us to take photos. The family would be OK with it, he assured us, and we would not be in the way because the family would be in the room outside.
All of this was very exciting but also quite odd. First, all the tattoo artists on Tutuila know each other, as it is a small place. For that matter, most of the tattoo artists in the entire South Pacific seem to know each other, and no one knew this guy. Second, when we asked about hand tap artists, all the same names came up, regardless of who we talked to. Becoming a hand tap artist is no small thing, as it requires an intensive apprenticeship, and there are a limited number of people with whom one can apprentice, especially in the Samoas. If one is a Su’a and/or a Sulu’ape, one is known because one has started as a stretcher for years and been conferred a title with the tools and permission to tattoo. Sulu’ape is the family name and title granted by that family of master tattooists for completing a certain degree of apprenticeship, and Su’a is a higher title.
According to historian Telei’ai Fanaea Christian Ausage, author of Laei a Samoa, a book about Samoan tattooing, Sasu’a is one of the ancient tattooing guilds and once associated with a specific family. The title is now roughly passed down by or within families, with whom the Sulu’ape family are associated. There is some tension and controversy now about the legitimacy of Sulu’ape as a family name versus a title and what it means and the linkage of the Sulu’ape to the Su’a guild, but as outsiders, these appear to be largely political and economic distinctions. The Sulu’apes have clearly cornered the market on hand tapping, and someone in their family has trained absolutely everyone else conducting hand tapping who is working today. We met Peter Sulu’ape in Honolulu and Paul Sulu’ape in Samoa and interviewed Chris Ausage about the hand tap artists working today. No one mentioned Chilo, we couldn’t find his Facebook page, even though he wrote down the title of it for us, and he didn’t seem connected to any of these tattoo networks.
Furthermore, the idea that Chilo would be a trained Su’a and have his studio set up to keep family out seemed anathema to our experiences of the tap tap tatau experience in the open air fale (or house). At Soul Signature Tattoo in Honolulu, the Polynesian tattoo shop where we met Su’a Peter Sulu’ape, there were several Samoans who had come from Georgia, North Carolina, and Alaska to get pe’a, malu, and other tattoos. Su’a Peter and Sulu’ape Aisea Toetu’u conducted hand tapping in a back room, away from their standard U.S. tattoo parlor set up; but whereas families and friends sat at a distance in the waiting area while tattooing occurred up front, consistent with parlors around the country, family and friends were welcome and encouraged to gather round the person getting tattooed in the back, provided they wore an ie lavalava (the Samoan version of a sarong, worn regularly by females and males and expected in ritual and formal settings). And despite the distance, there were a few family members who seemed to have traveled just to be there while their family members received the pe’a and malu.
In Samoa and American Samoa, family participates as skin stretchers at the tattooing in the fale of the Samoa Cultural Center, where we met Paul Sulu’ape and saw him working. Su’a Wilson Fitaou’s sons worked as stretchers in his fale or when he travels to the homes of others for the hand tapping we saw in American Samoa. Family and friends gather around, hold the hands of the person being tattooing, console and fan them, and massage their muscles to prevent stiffness or break up the bruising caused by the hammering of the tap tap. In no case were family kept separate from those being tattooed in our experiences to that point.
To be continued…
This narrative derives from field notes from the Inking of Immunity and Pepe, Aiga, and Tina Health Study (PATHS) in American Samoa.