David DeMarco is laying on the floor of A-Town Tattoo in Garden Grove.
Si’i Liufau, the owner, is sitting beside him cross-legged in a sarong-like skirt. Two other men flank DeMarco’s sides, stretching his skin. Liufau is dipping the tip of a wooden instrument in black ink and methodically tapping it into Demarco’s skin.
DeMarco is getting his pe’a. He’s on his ninth session and is about two-thirds done.
The pe’a is a traditional Samoan tattoo – or “tatau” – and is a rite of passage for men of the Samoan Islands.
It goes from the mid-back all the way down to the knees – covering much of the body in blocks of black ink and complex linear designs.
It’s incredibly painful, and expensive: Demarco will have dropped about $4,000 by the end.
Recalling his first sitting, he said: “The first strike, when he hit me, I thought to myself, 'Ah, I’m in for it.' It definitely did not feel like anything I’ve felt before in my life. It’s consistent pain. It doesn’t numb or dull away.”
A-Town is one of the only places in the United States where you can get a traditional Samoan tatau: done by hand with traditional tools instead of modern tattoo machines.
“In the U.S., you can probably count the number of hand tattooers who have been given the right to be a hand tattooist – you can probably count it on one hand,” said Takahiro Kitamura, a tattoo artist and author who recently curated an exhibit on Samoan tatau at the Japanese American National Museum. “It’s an extremely rare privilege.”
The honor to do tatau is given to a tattoo artist by one of Samoa’s ruling tattoo families. One of the most well-known families is the Sulu’ape, who gave their blessing to Liufau last year.
He now carries their name as his, as an official member of their family.
“This is something that’s been able to be a blessing in my life and helped me understand the connections I have myself, being an American Samoan, with the Samoan culture,” said Liufau, who is half Samoan. He has a pe’a himself with western-style tattoos.
Despite the cost and the pain, people who bear the pe’a – or the female version called the malu – say it’s worth it.
“I have to get it before I die, that’s how I felt,” said Tiffany Niumata, 30, who had Liufau finish hers.
She cries remembering her blessing ceremony, which happens when it’s finished.
“(My brothers) were really proud of me,” she said. “They were saying like, ‘We respect you so much.’ It makes me so emotional.”
The malu is simpler than the pe’a. It’s done as a sign of respect because women already experience pain with childbirth.
“I would probably give birth a million times than to get it again,” said Marie Tautua, 30, who also finished hers with Liufau. “It’s my identity. It’s who I am. I think it’s something all women should do in my culture.”
Liufau, and others like him, are keeping a part of Samoan culture alive for the roughly 500,000 Samoans outside of the islands, Kitamura says.
“For those people, how do they connect with their culture? How do they do those rituals?” he said. “I think Si’i is filling an important cultural void.”
And that brings us back to DeMarco, a special education teacher from Garden Grove.
He’s not Samoan. He’s Mexican and Italian.
“People outside my immediate friends and family don’t really get it,” he said. “They say you’re not Samoan…you’re pretending to be Samoan.”
He grew up with close Samoan friends. He wants to get it out of respect for the culture. And he wasn't sure he wanted to get the pe'a until an incident three years ago that pushed him over the edge:
He was walking across the street at about 1:35 a.m. in Newport Beach when he was hit by a taxi. He was in a coma for two weeks, in the hospital for two months and has had 25 surgeries since. Scars cover his body.
“Surviving that accident, and all the other things that happened in my life, it came to a point and I said, ‘It’s now or never’,” he said.
It’s up to the tattooist to determine if the person is fit for tatau. Liufau saw DeMarco was.
"I really felt like it something he had earned,” Liufau said. “He really understood the meaning and depth of it. The task in front of him – it’s not just physical (but) it’s emotional at times and it’s financial. It’s a hardship on your life until you finish it."