According to legend, twin Samoan girls brought the sacred art of tattooing to their homeland more than 2,000 years ago. They sailed off to Fiji, where they got the basket of tools and learned the song of tatau (the Samoan word is most likely parent to our English one). On the long journey home, they mixed up the lyrics and instead of instructing the women to get tattooed, they instructed the men. The result is a division of pain that forever ends the gender war: Women must bear children/men must be tattooed, as one of the songs goes.
Eugene Ta’ase is the newest artist at Sacred Center Tattoo, a small studio in a strip mall on Eastern Avenue that specializes in Polynesian-style tattoos. Since Las Vegas is often nicknamed the “Ninth Island” because of the high number of Polynesian transplants, the shop has a steady business of locals and tourists. There’s a wall covered in Polynesian-style flash by shop owner Michael Fatutoa, a.k.a. “Samoan Mike” (who recently moved to Florida to start a second shop and raise his twin tattoo-loving daughters). Posters organize the traditional motifs by island, and there are also drawings of Polynesian patterns incorporated into modern designs of dolphins and flowers.
Ta’ase pulls out a photo of men covered in the traditional Pe’a—its geometric designs cover the lower body like a pair of tight capri pants. Ta’ase tells the history of Samoan tattooing in fits and starts. Details and Samoan words—mentioned in an aside or as a reference to something else—fly past and get mixed up in the arc of his own life story. He was born in California, raised in Samoa and lived in Hawaii before moving here two months ago. He first learned about the traditional designs and some of their meanings in fourth-grade art class. And he started tattooing at the insistence of his uncle, who was impressed by the Samoan motifs that he drew in his free time.
“Everyone had a tattoo back home, and everyone wanted one,” Ta’ase says of tattooing his uncle at home, a feat that paved an escape route from his $3.75-an-hour job at KFC. “But there are no professional tattoo shops back home. It was just a backyard kind of thing.”
Ta’ase’s own tattoos are not traditional. Meaning, that they were produced using a tattoo machine instead of the ritual tapping method involving a collection of traditional hand-sharpened boar-tooth combs, tools that are on display at the shop. Ta’ase wears a mix of Polynesian and bio-mechanical tattoos (think the Bionic Man with machinery exposed). Modern 3-D art mixes on his body with ancient Samoan spearhead patterns. He’s considering getting a Pe’a.
Samoan tattooists seem to be mostly free of the existential angst that plagues today’s traditionalists. It’s likely because they already survived an attack on their culture by European missionaries in the 1800s; today traditional Polynesian tattoos are in the midst of a renaissance. And they’re not worried so much about the mainstreaming of the tattoo industry because they’ve already watched their craft spread around the world. Samoans have often given eager visitors, such as members of the Peace Corps, specially designed armbands as souvenirs of their island trip.
“Non-Samoans are afraid that I’ll be offended if they ask for a Samoan-style tattoo,” Ta’ase says of his clientele. “But I’m not—If I see a non-Samoan wearing a tattoo, it makes me happy.”