Dorr Bothwell’s Tattoos

Self-Portrait with Tattoos by Dorr Bothwell (Samoa 1928). Water media. Private collection.
Dorr Bothwell’s Self-Portrait with Tattoos (Samoa 1928). Water media. Private collection.

Dorr Bothwell Journal (December, Wednesday 5, 1928)
Well its done!—Four hours of mild torture and I am tatooed “foasamoa”!! —Spent the morning restlessly awaiting the arrival of the “Tafuga” (lit. carpenter) —About 11 o’clock while Toaga + I were talking to Rita, sitting on the back porch of her house, a young Samoan suddenly appeared and announced the arrival of the Tafuga—His eyes nearly popped out of his head when they pointed me out as the intended victim. There was quite a wait while matts were spread on the porch (we decided to do it at Rita’s because it was cooler) + the young assistant ground down the lamp black—an old piece of tapa cloth was torn up + soaked in water to be used as rags to wipe of the blood. I dashed around + took a bath + then the Tafuga arrived—a tall, handsome hook nosed samoan with just the trace of a mustache, but carrying somewhat of a paunch however.

He used 3 hammers—each having different size of teeth, which he said were filled out of pigs teeth. These he held in his left hand while he beat them into the flesh with a stick about 20 ̋ long which he held in his right hand—about 8 taps to (no “taps” does not express the kind of blow—more like driving tacks home with a very light hammer) was needed to drive it in.

The first leg—my left was done by 2 o’clock—two hours + left me feeling pretty shaky—we came over to Tui’s + had breadfruit + pea soups—Then at 3:30 he started in again. This last leg was much worse!—They put the design back of the knee on first, then the pattern below the bend on the calf of the leg—Then the band at the top of the thighs + designs on the back.—Then the pattern on the outside of the knee + the outside of the leg—next the pattern on the inside + then the design on the knee cap + last the pattern up the front—Then the exquisite agony of putting the band all around the top of the thighs.

When he finished I was a tearful, quivering, jerking wreck—but they all sat around + sang + clapped + I had a siva, which took my mind off my troubles. After that I had a bath in the sami (sea with Ualegalu squeezing my legs—more agony + then a bath in the fresh water + then a nap. I went sound asleep + was called for supper — couldn’t eat much tho Took a short walk + now for bed.

I’m really very satisfied with the pattern—doesn’t show up so well at present as each part is surrounded by large bluish red bruises but it will soon be all right.