The pe'a can take less than a week to complete or in some cases, years. The tattoo starts on the back and finishes on the belly button.Overall, the design is symmetrical with a pattern consisting mainly of straight lines and larger blocks of dark cover, usually around the thighs.Some art experts have made a comparison between the distinctive Samoan tattoo patterns to other artforms including designs on tapa cloth and Lapita pottery.
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The tufuga ta tatau works with one or two assistants, often apprentice tattooists, who stretch the skin and wipe the excess ink and generally support the tattooist in their work.
The process takes place with the subject lying on mats on the floor with the tattooist and assistants beside them.
The assistants to the tattooists are referred to as the solo, a Samoan word describing the act of wiping the blood off the skin.
Family members of the person getting the tattoo are often in attendance at a respectful distance to provide words of encouragement, sometimes through song.
The word tattoo in the English language is believed to have originated from the Polynesian word tatau.
The tatau process for the pe'a is extremely painful, and undertaken by tufuga ta tatau (master tattooists), using a set of handmade tools pieces of bone, turtle shell and wood.
The tufuga ta tatau are revered masters in Samoan society.
In Samoan custom, a pe'a is only done the traditional way, with aspects of cultural ceremony and ritual, and have a strong meaning for the one who receive it.
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.