Do I have to be Samoan to get a Samoan tattoo?

I’m still working on the the final of my 3-part series about the Samoan Tattoo (Tatau) – everything I learned from personal research and from my teacher of Samoan culture, the late Afioga Tofaeono Tanuvasa Tavale.

The previous two parts are here:

Thank you so much to everyone who read, shared and commented on those posts. Before I complete part III, I just wanted to briefly(?) address one of the most common questions we’ve received about the Samoan Tattoo:

Do I have to be Samoan to get a Samoan tattoo?

Please note that in this case, I can only answer with an (educated, thoroughly-pondered) opinion.

The quick answer:

It’s not difficult to find a tattooist who will take your money for a bit of Samoan looking skin art. It’s your body. Do what you want.

Just be prepared for some side glances or head-to-toe scanning, accompanied by sighs and solemn head shakes, from real Samoans who hold our culture – and the art we produce to express our identity – dear to our hearts.

Photo of a photo: The Auckland War Memorial Museum

The not so quick answer:

Only two tatau forms are considered truly traditional. These are the malofie (known commonly as the pe’a) for men and the malu for women.

peaBoth these tatau cover a person’s thighs, with the pe’a reaching up over a man’s hips to his waistline. They are administered by skilled tradesmen (tufuga) in the art of tatau, using handmade tools called ‘au ta, in a painful procedure that lasts hours for the malu and up to several months for the malofie.

Both these tatau have deep cultural significance. What does that mean?

It means the patterns and symbols used tell a story about Samoan people, our traditions and our family histories.

It means that a man with a malofie (a soga’imiti) has certain responsibilities in his family or village that un-tattooed men don’t. It means that a soga’imiti has a higher social status in his community than others, and is given more opportunities to learn correct protocol, history, oratory skills and other intricacies of the Fa’asamoa.

In the traditional Samoan village, every young man is expected and encouraged to receive a pe’a as part of his natural progression from boy to village laborer to student of the matai (chiefs) to family leader.

The context for the women’s tatau is not the same, but it still carries a lot of cultural weight. In the old days, only daughters of very high ranking chiefs – especially those who were bestowed a taupou title and danced regularly for village and family events – received a malu.

malu

Today, the malu is a symbol of beauty, grace, strength and commitment to the values of a ‘good’ Samoan woman. The malu is sexy! But in that regal and virtuous way where sex is sacred, reserved for the sheets (not displayed on the streets).

If you are NOT Samoan, knowing now what I’ve just told you about these traditional tatau, why would you even want to get a malu or malofie?

Without the ties to our culture and family protocol, they would mean nothing to you but a long ordeal of pain for a little bit of body art. Unless you fully adopt our way of life, you’d be like the singer Madonna with the crucifix – making a mockery of a symbol that Catholics consider sacred.

A Compromise

Another branch of Samoan body art has become a lot more prominent in the last few decades. Based on old photos, I can only guess that these forms of tatau have been around for a while, but most likely only as decoration because they are never mentioned in any of our traditions about culturally significant tattoos.

Samoa_women_tatoo_1940

I mean that you’d never hear a matai or an expert on Samoan culture refer to a Samoan style armband or sleeve or ankle tattoo as having any connection to the social structures in our families or villages.

In fact, my teacher Tanuvasa, didn’t think much of them at all. He believed the only [Samoans] who get those are too cowardly to endure the pain of the the malu or the pe’a. (I have the recording of him saying that, in case you want to hear it from the source.)

Tanuvasa reminded me that when our people dance in big groups for lively celebrations, we often wrap our wrists, upper arms and ankles in the long leaves of our ti trees. Our armband (taulima), anklet, sleeve, etc. tattoos are suggestive of those wrappings, so this tatau practice is similar to the recent trend of tattooing your ring finger instead of wearing a wedding band.

The good news is that while these tatau are only decorative, they’re often very beautiful. Modern tattooists are able to capture the essence of Samoa in these skillful creations, using the patterns found in our malu and malofie, as well as in our siapo and elei (fabric art) and our carvings.

Image from Tatau Awards, 2013

To me, this is the kind of tattoo you get when you want to express your love for Samoa and admiration for our culture, but don’t necessarily have the means or the family ties to fully commit to the Samoan identity.

This is the kind of Samoan tattoo you get when you’re not Samoan… or when you’re proud of your Samoan heritage but have no intention of serving in a village, being responsible for your extended family or studying our traditions under the tutelage of a high matai.

The Story-time Conclusion

I read a short story / essay ages ago for school. I tried to find it again, but I can’t remember a lot of its details, or who wrote it. Maybe you’ll recognize it and let me know.

Anyway, it’s written from the perspective of a Caucasian lady who was traveling through a poor, third world country either in Africa or Asia. She fell in love with this place, especially with its people, and she wanted to take home a souvenir.

As was usual in this part of the world, she came across a table set up by the side of the road that displayed little home made trinkets for sale. This lady looked through them for the perfect reminder of her time in this country. Then she noticed that the young girl behind the table was wearing a gorgeous, traditional jade (I think) bracelet. Set against her dark skin, it caught the sunlight and shimmered magically, and this lady knew she had to have it.

After only a little persuasion and some money, the girl happily gave this lady the bracelet… and the lady continued on her way, excited about her beautiful new purchase. She slipped it onto her own wrist, and then something happened.

She couldn’t understand it at first, but somehow, the bracelet didn’t look the same anymore. It didn’t sparkle the way it did before. It looked lifeless and bland now.

It took a little while before she realized that much of the beauty in this piece of jewelry came from its setting against the skin of its previous owner. As an expression of that girl’s culture, it was a part of her style and identity… and was never going to look quite the same on anyone else.

The Moral of the Story is…

Do you have to be Samoan to get a Samoan tattoo?

No.

Should you be?

You tell me.

The following two tabs change content below.
avatar
Known off-line as Lillian 'Lei'a' Arp, HGG is just a geek girl learning how to be Samoan. You can also find her at Cup Tea talking about her other most favorite topic in the world: food!

7 thoughts on “Do I have to be Samoan to get a Samoan tattoo?

  • avatar
    August 22, 2014 at 11:39 am
    Permalink

    Do you have more links book names or resources i could look into I am only half Samoan but i hang on to that half as it is the only thing i have left of my mother and i would love to honor my mother and our culture by getting my malu but i feel i would be doing no honor if i did not edjucate myself first.

    Thank you,
    Lindsey Dahl

    Reply
  • avatar
    July 14, 2014 at 4:04 am
    Permalink

    Thank you so much for a very well written article! I agree with pretty much everything you write regarding the tatau. But I still feel compelled to write some of my own thoughts as I find this topic to be very interesting. While I see no sense in discussing the historical meaning of the tatau, as Tanuvasa is a very reliable source, I think it’s worth noting that cultures (and cultural practices) change and/or evolve over time. And that includes the tatau, which is now worn by many Samoans overseas who will most likely never serve in a village or study the traditions “under the tutelage of a high matai.” What was once primarily connected to traditional village life and one’s proof of commitment and service to others, is now often a sign of national and cultural pride and identity.
    Many Samoan men and women who get a traditional tatau today gets it because it connects them to their Samoan roots in a way that a sleeve tattoo may not, at least not to some. The process of getting, and the practice of displaying, a malofie or a malu, during a siva or parade, can be an entirely different experience than getting a sleeve, for instance.

    And then there’s the case of who is Samoan enough to get a tatau. Is it more “appropriate” for a full-blooded Samoan who have never set foot in Samoa and doesn’t speak a word of the language, to get a tatau than for a palagi Pisikoa who speak almost fluent Samoan but who isn’t Samoan by blood? I guess to each their own, right?

    I think you put it beautifully when you wrote: “Unless you fully adopt our way of life, you’d be like the singer Madonna with the crucifix – making a mockery of a symbol that Catholics consider sacred.” The tatau is sacred, and if you’re a palagi and claim to love the Samoan culture, you should be humble and treat it with respect. That is not to say that everyone who isn’t Samoan by blood are disrespectful if they get a tatau, because we can’t possibly know their life story and the reason they got a tatau just by looking at the color of their skin. But I think it’s essential to be true to yourself and not get carried away because the malofie and the malu are so beautiful when you see them on someone else (probably Samoans). You should ask yourself if this is truly who you are. Does your “Samoanness” defines you more than anything else? Does anyone else think of you like this, or is it all up in your head? If you have a few thousand tala to spend on a tatau for yourself, why don’t you use them to help your aiga and community? These are burning questions that I think every palagi should be asking him/herself before deciding to get a traditional Samoan tatau.

    Some time ago I came across a blog article that summed it up nicely. It was written by an American girl who was in the Peace Corps and lived in Samoa for about two-three years. She wrote about her tattoo and if she had ever considered getting a malu and why she decided not to (she had a small part of the malu tattooed on her thigh). She said that it wasn’t because any of her Samoan friends thought that it would be inappropriate, but because she didn’t see herself as fully Samoan. She didn’t embrace and love everything about Samoa. Yes, Samoa was a big part of her and she loved some of it, but she didn’t think it fully identified her. Still, quite a few American girls who have been in the Peace Corps in Samoa have got a malu, and I guess that’s fine too.

    My point is, it’s futile to discuss whether or not you should be Samoan to get a tatau because it’s hard to define who is Samoan. For instance, if a palagi can become a Samoan citizen, marry a Samoan and start a family with him/her, why would it be inappropriate for that person to get a traditional tatau? Even if he/she doesn’t live in a village and live strictly according to the fa’asamoa. A malofie or malu doesn’t make you more Samoan. Neither does it make you any less Samoan if you don’t have one.

    And what about the pride of being practically the only country in the Pacific to keep the tradition of tattooing alive during the period of the missionaries? If a person is so committed that (s)he wants to spend a small fortune and endure endless hours of intense physical pain just to get a tattoo that is only visible when you wear a short skirt/shorts, or a hitched up lavalava, or if you don’t wear anything above the waist, isn’t that a sign that this person loves the Samoan tatau? Then again, that doesn’t always make it appropriate…

    Reply
    • avatar
      July 17, 2014 at 7:15 pm
      Permalink

      Thank you Lagi. Very nicely said. My research (and questions) about the tatau did focus more on its origins and traditions, but you are absolutely right that culture evolves. Especially with Samoans spread out across the world like we are, it’s not always possible to follow some of the protocols associated with receiving a traditional tattoo. I just hope that knowing the history behind our tatau, understanding what it still means to many of our elders, will encourage a little more reverence in the decision process about whether or not to get one.

      I love that you addressed the definition of ‘a Samoan’ because that’s something I intentionally left out of my post. Just as I would hate for my own ‘Samoan-ness’ to be dictated by someone else’s set of criteria, I prefer to allow others to question and define their own identity. I simply shared my opinion about whether or not a person who doesn’t identify as Samoan should receive a tatau.

      No, a malu or malofie doesn’t make you more Samoan -- of course not. It IS an expression, though, of identity and love for your culture. As I always say, culture is about people, and identifying as part of ‘A People’ means respecting existing traditions and widely shared viewpoints about the things we claim (communal) ownership of. This post was really just a plea to those considering a Samoan tatau to do a little soul searching first.

      Thank you again, though, for your comments. You’ve given me a lot to think about…

  • avatar
    July 7, 2014 at 9:14 am
    Permalink

    Well, I am pretty sure that there are a lot of people out there are being labled by your teacher Tanuvasa cowardly and are offended by his remarks for having armbands, anklebands and all other types of Samoan tattoo. I hope he is still alive to read this. Just to re-educate Mr. Tanuvasa on his remarks, Samoan people get other types of samoan symbolized tattoos is because they are not qualified to get the soga’imiti due to samoan traditions. Its not because they are cowards. It’s just for identity reasons, they want other people to know that Samoa exists and proud to talk about Samoa. I could recall that it wasn’t too long ago that so many American people has never heard of Samoa. All they know was Samolia. Thats why this generation and society are so much in hatered because of uneducated remarks like that. There is a saying “THINK BEFORE YOU TALK” so please, use it and teach it to others. Thank You
    Fa’amolemole ia muamua mafaufau toto’a lelei i ‘upu ole a lafo ma ona fa’aiuga ae le’i lafoina leaga e le matagofie i le fa’afofoga fo’i a le to’atele o nisi tagata o le atunu’u. Ia alofa le Atua ma foa’i ia Tanuvavsa le mafaufau lelei male poto ina ia iloa ai tautala e pei o saunoaga a tu’a ua mavae e le vevesi ai tagata. Fa’afetai.

    Reply
    • avatar
      July 7, 2014 at 10:25 am
      Permalink

      Thank you for your thoughts, Ola. Tanuvasa passed away early last year, but he -- just as you and I are -- was entitled to his opinion. In his case, though, his opinion was based on decades of research, study, teaching and book-writing, so I judged it to be of a different kind of value than others’. It might help, though, to understand the context in which he expressed this thought. I was interviewing him. It was an in-depth conversation where I was asking him how he felt about certain matters, and he was answering honestly. I truly appreciate that from someone of his learning and status. If you missed it in my article, Tanuvasa was very educated (thank you) about the origins of the armband, anklet, etc. tattoos.

      Although I mention his opinion, I followed it with my own -- that non-traditional Samoan tattoos can be beautiful. They are often given by very skillful tattooists, and I recommend them for people of any culture who want to express their love for Samoa. I read somewhere that the sleeve tattoo was made popular by American soldiers who wanted to take a souvenir of Samoa back home with them. That’s great. For the purpose of expressing your connection to Samoa, these kinds of tattoo should be worn with pride.

      But since you are in ‘re-education’ mode, maybe you will allow a couple of corrections from me. You don’t GET a soga’imiti. This is not a tattoo. Soga’imiti is a man who has a pe’a / malofie. And in the Samoan culture, every young man who wants a pe’a can get one. He just has to have his parents or an elder in his family arrange it with the tufuga. He doesn’t have to be a matai or live in the village, he just has to love his culture and want to learn more. For the malu, these days any woman can get it done. It’s a symbol and a reminder of the values of a tama’ita’i Samoa… so I don’t understand your reference to not being qualified for the pe’a due to Samoan traditions. The only barriers I can see to getting a full pe’a or malu is access to a tufuga (and they work all over the world now) or lack of knowledge about how to get one (which I hope my articles here are helping to clear up).

      I probably could have made it clearer in my post, but Tanuvasa’s point was that if you’re Samoan and want to get a tattoo to express your love for our culture, why not go all the way and get the traditional tattoos? If you ask around, I know he’s not the only elder or matai who feels the same way.

  • avatar
    July 6, 2014 at 2:11 am
    Permalink

    Thoroughly enjoyed this article and learned about our tatau, its cultural meaning and significance. Thanks for educating those of us who are illiterate in our Fa’asamoa.

    Reply
    • avatar
      July 7, 2014 at 10:44 am
      Permalink

      Thank you Judy … I’m still learning, too :)

What are you thoughts?