Logona "Koji" Sotoa: A hero is one who knows his culture and who’s strong enough to handle the pain of the tattooing.
“I’m from a well-known family, especially in American Samoa. My father was one of the descendants of the king of Samoa, a paramount chief. My father had a tattoo. I talked to him a lot of times, and he explained it to me. He had this tattoo because he’s from a high family, a royal family. His father before him had a tattoo also. His status was passed down to my father and to all the family.*
Logona “Koji” Sotoa looks thoughtful, speaks slowly, cautiously. Through his shady dining room, three generations of extended family pad back and forth, attending to lunch and phone calls. The youngest tug their parents into a noisy baseball game in the cul-de-sac. The 63-year-old Sotoa is stocky, with dark eyes; smooth, golden-brown skin; and a head of white hair as full as any teenager's. His T-shirt stretches tightly across thick shoulders. His colorfully printed wraparound lava lava and sandals are the only sensible things to wear on such a sweltering day in National City.
“During my father’s generation and before, the people who served the high chief — the princes and princesses — also must have tattoos. They looked out for his welfare. Something like an escort, a bodyguard. They looked out so nobody can touch the chief or say inflammatory things about him. Even while the chief is asleep, they have to watch out for him. They prepared food for him and serve it. And at the kava ceremony, where there’s a meeting of all the villages, no one can prepare or serve at this occasion unless thev have a tattoo. He makes sure nobody eats before the chief. Everybody has to watch him eat, then they dig in like rats." A momentary smile creases Sotoa’s face as he demonstrates. His heavy arms gather in a table full of imaginary food.
“And at the entertainments, you can’t dance with a princess if you don’t have a tattoo. The prince does the main dance, but all the dancers must be tattooed.
“And unless you were a hero, you could not get a tattoo. A hero is one who knows his culture and who’s strong enough to handle the pain of the tattooing, and one who is smart enough to do all the necessary tasks for the high chief, the talking chief.”
The U.S. Navy governed American Samoa from 1900 until 1951, when the territory was transferred to the U.S. Department of the Interior. The seven islands elect their governor, three district governors, and a legislature. Senators are hereditary tribal chiefs, who, with their advisors, still have traditional powers at the county and village level.
“I was bom and raised in American Samoa, and I left my island in 1959 to go to college, and I joined the Navy. I retired after 20 years, went to school, then went back to Samoa and met the governor there. He gave me the job of chief truant officer. I worked for seven and a half years, then retired from that in 1985.
“While 1 was back there, I saw many young men that I knew well, and they had tattoos. When we were growing up, my father didn’t want to say we should do what he did. He was smart. But he knew we were watching him, copying him, so I had the same feeling about the tradition and the tattoo.
“So in 1987, when I was 57 years old, I was visiting the island. One evening I went with my friend to the Western District. We looked up at a house, and there were a lot of people gathered together. My friend said, ‘That’s a tattoo place up there.’ I’d never seen it before, so we went over there, and there were two people getting tattoos.
“I watched him work and started asking the tattooer some questions, and then I just said, ‘I want one.’ And he said, ‘Well, take your shirt off.’ And I took my shirt off, I laid down, and he started. I'd had it in my mind for a long time that I’d like to have the tattoo. But when I came to the place, I did not expect to start right then!
“He took the small tool with the needles in it and the mallet and he started on my back, with the top band. This is the way tattooing has always been done. It was about 5:00 in the evening, and he stopped about 9:00 at night. The whole tattoo took seven days. I figured out it was five or six hours a day. Hammering those needles. It took another week or so until it was healed."
From the South Seas journals of Captain lames Cook and his crew (1768-1771): "The Colour they use is lamp black;...the instruments for pricking it under the skin is made of very thin flat pieces of [bone] or shell...one end is cut into sharp teeth and the other fasten’d to a handle; the teeth are diped into the black liquor and then drove by quick sharp blows struck upon the handle with a stick...so deep that every stroke is followed I with} a small quantity of blood."
“You’re in a lot of pain. You can’t walk. It’s uncomfortable to sit. You can hardly do anything. Getting a tattoo is very painful. When it’s finished, it takes about two weeks to heal so you start walking straight.
“In olden times, when you’re ready to have a tattoo and you start to do it, you have people line up — ladies and men — and they sing. They sing for you to make you cool down. But nowadays, it’s a radio. They play all kinds of songs you like to hear. I had lots of people watching me. They even feel sorry for you. They see this old man, and they try to help you.
“I was 57 years old. The guy who gave me my tattoo was younger than me. I was the oldest man he ever tattooed. People thought at that time, ‘I don’t think Sotoa’s going to make it. He’s too old to start.’ But there was no problem. Every time it hurt or felt painful, I just thought, ‘God, help me!’ I just asked God to give me strength."
The young people would not allow him to leave off as long as they could endure the strokes of the instrument, though they made cries and lamentations as if he were killing them. The girls were attended by female relatives, who held them while they struggled, encouraging them to cry out in order to alleviate their pain.... Young girls would often strike those who in pity urged them to suspend the operation.
“Once you begin the tattoo, you have no choice but to finish it. If you couldn’t do it, people would mock you, call you all kinds of names. ‘See that guy who tried to make a tattoo? He’s a coward. He’s not a Samoan.’ As long as the needles have started on your back, make sure they don’t quit. Do it. You have to do it until you get finished.
“They used to have only one tattooer for American Samoa and Western Samoa. And that guy, his experience was passed out to his followers, the ones who helped him, watched him. And these people copied from him when they do their own tattoos. They don’t sketch the patterns on your body. They do it directly. They follow your body.”
The patterns have traditional names and symbolic meanings. “The anchor,” the arches drawn from the lower back across the flanks, reminds a Samoan man that he is bound to his body, though his spirit is always free. A row of tilted Ws, “the bird,” represents the Samoans who set off to explore the unknown without fear. A thick, undulating band, “the centipede,” helps the wearer endure all pain, including the pain of the tattoo. A geometric cloud formation lets a man talk to the heavens. Men are tattooed across the lower back, sides, abdomen, and around both thighs to the knees. Women’s tattoos are on the outer thigh, from knee to hip.
“They start tattooing on the back and come around the side, and then the legs, and they end here.” Sotoa points to his navel and groin area. “There are people waiting to see when they do that part. It is the most painful and always the part they do last. You have to hold your breath and make your belly like a snare drum. It takes about 15 or 20 minutes, but the tattooer works fast to get it done. You have to have this. If people know you don't have this part, they’ll think you’re nothing.”
The design along the lower part of the belly is the resting place of the soul. The last pattern in the tattoo, hammered around the navel, is a figure that represents life and death and the endurance of the family.
“When the tattoo is finally done, you wait for a minute for the pain to go down, then you yell. You blast up. You’re finished! You feel like you want to break everything around. The tattoo is there and you’re happy. You feel a great connection to your family. It’s very traditional. When 1 had this, it changed my morale, my attitude. I was feeling high, you know? I was proud of myself. I like to show everybody. You’re the son of a very high man in Samoa. It’s respect for your culture.
“In 1987 the first Samoan nevirs came out to the world on CNN. It was about tattoos, and I was the one they showed displaying my tattoo. The very first day CNN started broadcasting.
“When I came back to San Diego, everyone was surprised. My wife was scared. She didn’t think I could do it because I was too old. But we went to all kinds of parties. If I knew there was a Samoan dance going to be held. I’d just go and take off my shirt and dance. I’m a very good dancer.
“When Christianity came to Samoa, in the 1800s, the people had no choice about tattoos. The tradition almost disappeared. If you have a tattoo, all the rights you have in the church, if you’re a deacon or a lay preacher, they are dropped. You can’t be a preacher anymore unless you reapply again, take another test.
Leviticus 19:28 Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves.
“I’m a deacon elder for the whole California district of the Samoan Congregational Church. I was not dropped from my position, but they gave me a warning.
“One of my brothers had a tattoo. He got his when he was about 40. He died two years ago; and sometime after he died, his son went to Western Samoa and got a tattoo. I don’t think his father told him to do it. But I think he feels he has to follow in his father's footsteps.
“I told my oldest son not to do this thing. It’s too painful. I’m enough to represent our family. I don’t know if they want to. When I die, I don’t know what they'll do. It’s very painful, but I’m very glad I did it."