I’ve attended private Catholic schools my entire life, where many parents have conservative values, such as no tattoos or multiple piercings, and many children obey their parents’ rules regarding these sorts of things. Naturally, in elementary school no one in my grade had a tattoo and I don’t recall anyone having more than the traditional single ear piercing, but once I started at my all-girls high school, I began to notice more and more girls with multiple ear piercings. While most stores require a parent or guardian’s consent if the customer is a minor, getting your ears pierced seemed to be a rite of passage for many teenage girls. By the time I graduated high school, tattoos were the next big thing that many girls were getting.
I remember the first time a girl in my grade (of only 125 students – I went to a small school) got a tattoo. She happened to be a friend of a friend, so I quickly learned about the sparrow that was recently tattooed onto her shoulder. When asked if the tattoo had any symbolism or significance, she didn’t really say much, just that she liked the design. I remember feeling confused and asking myself why someone would get something permanently engraved into their skin just because it ‘looked pretty.’ A couple of months later, a good friend of mine got a tattoo on her eighteenth birthday, when she was legally considered an adult. Just like the other girl, my friend didn’t seem to have any specific reasoning for the phoenix she had tattooed on her ankle. Similar to the ear piercing fad, it seemed like more and more people were getting tattoos merely as a rite of passage rather than expressing any symbolic meaning.
As we learn in Wendt’s “Tatauing the Post-Colonial Body,” Samoans have a long and rich history of tatau. Unlike the girls that I knew who got seemingly meaningless tattoos just because they legally could without their parent’s consent, every Samoan tatau has a specific meaning that is significant to their culture. The word ‘tatau’ itself has five, if not more, meanings. Wendt states, “The tatau and malu are not just beautiful decorations, they are scripts-texts-testimonies to do with relationships, order, form, and so on” (403). Tatauing is a way of life for Samoan people and “…gives [the body] shape, form, identity, symmetry, puts it through the pain to be endured to prepare for life, and recognizes its growing maturity and ability to serve the community” (Wendt 400-401). The pain that is endured is a significant part of the tatauing process and without it the tatau would lose its significance. The pain that the Samoan endures is a symbol to his or her community that he or she is willing and committed to serve.
We learn in Wendt’s “The Cross of Soot” that not all tattoos have to be traditional Samoan tataus to be significant. Samasoni, a young man, had an eagle that “…shimmied up and down as if in flight” (Wendt 14) when he flexed his arm and does not seem to hold any significant meaning to him. Unlike Samasoni, the boy finds significance in his unfinished star tattoo when he proudly states to his mother that Jesus left him his cross tattoo. Although the tattoo isn’t complex like the Samoan tatau and malu, the boy finds religious significance in his tattoo, marking his transition from youth to maturity.