San Francisco Opera | Transformation in Song and Ink: How tattooing brought tenors Amitai and Pene Pati closer to home

Transformation in Song and Ink: How tattooing brought tenors Amitai and Pene Pati closer to home

The idea first crossed his mind when he was 7. It was hard not to notice the massive tattoos that his uncle and other family members wore, darkening the skin from their waist down to their knees.

He even knew a 12-year-old who had undergone the ceremony, inking symbols of Samoa permanently onto his skin. But Amitai Pati waited. He knew he would one day get the same tattoo. But first he needed to hear the calling.

That day finally arrived for Amitai earlier this year, when he underwent the days-long process to get a pe’a, a tattoo that’s more than a tattoo: For Samoan men like Amitai, it’s a transformation that marks them as men, standard-bearers of their culture wherever they go.

But to endure the excruciating pain that goes with the process, Amitai turned to two of the pillars in his life, music and family. He was joined by a figure who symbolizes both: his big brother and fellow opera singer Pene Pati.

The brothers, both tenors, make up two thirds of the classical music group SOL3 MIO and they’ve performed on stages around the world, having trained as resident artists at San Francisco Opera under the Adler Fellowship Program.

Pene, who headlines San Francisco Opera’s 2020 Rigoletto, was in the United States when he heard Amitai’s plan. Receiving a pe’a tattoo is an ordeal so powerful and so painful that it’s common for two men undergo theirs at the same time, in order to share the suffering.

But while a brother-in-law had initially proposed he and Amitai should complete their pe’a tattoos together, the brother-in-law had to withdraw: His business called him back to Samoa. While other family members would attend the ceremony as support, Amitai suddenly faced the prospect of getting designs carved into his skin alone.

“I said yes without thinking,” Amitai recalled with a chuckle. “I thought, ‘What better time than now?’”

Hearing news of his brother’s decision, Pati booked a ticket to Auckland, New Zealand, to join him. By the time Pene left New Zealand again, he too would be sporting new ink, having braved the traditional tattooing implements — a hammer and needle — alongside his little brother.

“I thought, ‘I have to fly home for this. It’s a journey I must be part of,’” Pene said.

The stakes were high. The slow etching, the tap-tap-tapping of ink into skin, famously feels like being sliced, bit by bit, with boxcutters. And quitting was not an option. To leave before the pe’a was complete would be to invite shame on your family, according to Samoan tradition.

“I had to knuckle down and think, ‘I’m not going to be one of those guys. Regardless of how much pain, I just have to get this done,’” said Amitai.

And then there was the question of their careers. Would the opera community be accepting of the brothers’ decisions to get large, prominent tattoos?

“I will not deny, when I was thinking of getting it, what rushed through my mind was that there is stigma,” said Pene. “I thought: How do I go to Paris and perform at the opera house with people thinking, ‘Hm, he’s got a tattoo on his leg?’”

Though tattooing is widespread in Pacific cultures — the word “tattoo,” in fact, comes from the Samaon “tatau” — centuries of colonialism led to a decline in many tattooing cultures. From New Zealand to Alaska, European social norms discouraged practices passed down across generations, like the moko kauae, the traditional face tattoo of Māori women.

As recently as last year, the Honolulu police force dropped its prohibition against visible tattoos, after facing criticism that the ban disrespected uhi, Hawaii’s native tattooing tradition. Air New Zealand faced similar criticism, also abandoning its policy barring visible tattoos in 2019.

But ultimately, the brothers decided they shouldn’t have to choose between their profession and their heritage: They could share both on the opera stage.

“I thought, ‘Well, if I do have to show my leg, then I’m showing me,’” Pati said. “I’ll be showing my actual culture on my leg. Why should I be ashamed of that?”

Amitai was the first to get tattooed, his being the bigger project. The first day, he remembers barely having time to think. He arrived at the West Auckland studio with his family, mentally preparing to welcome the pain. First came prayer. Then came nearly six hours of stabbing and ink.

But the second day was worse. “You think you’re used to the pain until you know you have to go back. That’s when your brain starts to play games with you,” he said. “As soon as I knew I was about to go in and go under the hammer and needle again, my brain would switch into something that was pure negativity.”

Even outside the tattooing studio, Amitai had to practice a strict regimen, dictated by tradition. Painkillers were banned. Haircuts, too. And everywhere he went, he had to have company, lest ill fortune befall him.

Seeing Amitai in agony left his big brother feeling helpless. “Honestly, it’s like watching him slowly being chipped away, no pun intended. Like he’s slowly dying away, and you can’t do anything about it,” Pene said. “Every day, I just tried to tell Amitai, ‘Come on, look, we’re close, we’re so close to the end,’ even though we weren’t. Those were tough times.”

But slowly, Amitai was transforming before his eyes. With two men stretching Amitai’s skin flat, the tattoo artist Li'aifaiva Malofie drew bands of patterns both new and ancient. Particularly important were the bands blossoming around his waist, representing the lineages of his father and his mother.

“It’s the most important part of the body, your center of gravity. That’s where your family sits, because they’re the ones who keep you grounded,” Amitai explained.

As thousand-year-old stories spread across his skin, Amitai’s family performed music to distract him. Some were songs specifically passed down for the tattooing ceremony. Others were tunes he’d worked on as part of SOL3 MIO, like Haitian song “Yellow Bird.” Even the tattoo artist was impressed: Despite his aching skin, Amitai never missed a note.

Following to the music became a spiritual experience for Amitai. “The only way I can describe it is, it felt like everybody in my family was there. Not just the people who were present at the time, but even my grandparents who are no longer with us. They were there too.”

Finally, after nearly a week, Amitai arrived at the final session: a marathon 13 hours of “constantly being hammered.”

He lay on his back, feeling cold as the last of the pe’a tattoo snaked around his right leg. It was like being dead, he said. At the end of the ceremony, his body was coated in coconut oil and turmeric, a golden spice sometimes used in Samoan funeral practices. It was one o’clock in the morning. An egg was cracked: Amitai was reborn a Soga’imiti, a man of respect and courage in Samoan life.

To commemorate the pain his younger brother had endured, Pene had the tattoo artist replicate a band emblazoned on Amitai’s lower chest onto his own thigh. Pene’s leg band took over three hours to complete — but it was nothing compared to the nearly 48 hours spent on Amitai’s pe’a tattoo.

“Undergoing the tattoo really gave me a newfound relationship with who I am and my heritage,” Pene said. “It’s like walking around with your flag around you.”

Now, months later, as the brothers quarantine themselves during the coronavirus pandemic on opposite sides of the world — Pene in Atlanta, Amitai in Auckland — they say the experience has brought them closer together. And rather than fearing what the opera world might think of their tattoos, they look forward to showing them off.

“I’m proud of my heritage, I’m proud of my culture, and I represent my family every time I go out and people see this tattoo. It’s something I don’t want to shy away from, something I don’t want to hide from the rest of the world. If anything, I want to expose it as much as possible,” Amitai said. “I feel like, for me, it’s my unique stamp on the opera stage.”

It’s that sense of pride they hope will speak to audiences around the world — and foster respect wherever they go.

Pene Pati appears this September as the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto and as part of San Francisco Opera’s Opening Night concert. That same month, Amitai Pati stars as Jupiter in Handel’s Semele with New Zealand Opera.

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