The Truth about the Samoan Tattoo (Tatau)
It seems like everybody’s got an opinion about the Samoan tattoo – who should be getting them, how they should be given, how they’re meant to be worn or displayed, etc. It’s understandable. While tattoos in general are very popular, Polynesia is often credited as the origin of this kind of body art, and as Samoans, we feel a certain obligation to the craft that is such a huge part of our cultural heritage.
A few years ago, I took an advanced Samoan language and culture class with the late Afioga Tofaeono Tanuvasa Tavale. If you ever come across a book that details aspects of the Fa’asamoa, chances are it was written by Tanuvasa. He was a prolific author with 8 matai titles of his own and decades of experience educating in this field, so his authority on the topic was largely unrivaled.
I loved sitting in his class, listening to his stories about old Samoa, absorbing his profound wisdom about the Fa’asamoa – but I was probably the least knowledgeable of all his students. I was the only one who would reply to him in English when he asked a question. Yes, I know. Shame on me.
But he was always very kind and patient. I found out later that his English was almost as flawless as his Samoan, and one day he even graciously allowed me to interview him (in English) outside of the classroom. I had so many questions, and with great enthusiasm he helped me to understand.
In my time with Tanuvasa, this is what I learned about the Samoan tattoo:
The origins of the Samoan tattoo
We call it ‘Tatau‘, and according to legend, it was brought to Samoa by two sisters.
The story is beautifully preserved in the traditional, chant-like song: O le Vi’i o le Tatau Samoa. Says the song (a loose translation):
This song, which continues on to talk about enduring the pain of a tattoo for the sake of pride in your culture, is a great way to begin learning about tatau, but Tanuvasa taught us that it only tells a very simple version of its true, often controversial origin story. (Like how Disney re-packages fairy-tales for children.)
The sisters in this story were actually demigods, Siamese twins named Taema and Tilafaiga. Because of the ‘Fiti’ reference, it’s commonly thought the tattoo was a gift to them from chiefs in Fiji.
Deep Samoan tradition, however, maintains that the tatau is purely Samoan, so Tanuvasa believes that the ‘Fiti’ referred to in the song is actually Fitiuta, which is a town on Ta’u, one of the Manu’a islands in what we now know as American Samoa.
I doubt that many would agree with this interpretation, but it makes sense to me because Manu’a is known in our history as the birthplace of Samoa’s first kings, the true origin of our Fa’asamoa.
So a ‘faisua’ is a giant clam. Its meat is apparently so amazingly delicious (says my mom, I’d love to try it!) that it’s considered a delicacy in Samoa.
In Tanuvasa’s version of this story, the faisua that distracted the swimming sisters was enchanted. It was a deliberate effort (by who? I don’t know) to prevent the twins from reaching their destination and sharing the art of tattoo. They nearly drowned diving for the faisua – which turned out to not even be a faisua – and when they finally resurfaced, their disorientation caused them to forget that it was women who were meant to be tattooed.
But the sisters carried on and brought the practice to a certain village in Samoa. They taught everything they knew to the ancestors of one family, and then for some reason (a complication of some sort) they also took the skill to another village and another family.
‘Tufuga‘ is our word for a person who is specially skilled in a particular trade. The most prominent tufuga of the tatau today can trace their genealogy back to one of these two original families – and I’m not going to tell you who they are or which village they’re from because I can’t remember, sorry. I’m sure this information is in one of Tanuvasa’s books, though. You should look it up .
The Samoan Tattoo for Men
pe’a malofie (see comments below) is what we call the traditional tattoo given to men. It begins at the waist and covers just about every bit of skin, right down to the knees, with intricate designs.
Because of a lot inaccurate information floating around, I grew up thinking that only matai (chiefs) receive the malofie, and that it carries great spiritual (almost occult even) significance – as if you’re suddenly a superhero when you get it, or you’d be cursed if you got the wrong kind of tattoo or something.
Corrections: The malofie is simply a bodily decoration, that’s all. But it is a piece of art so highly valued in our culture that to be allowed to receive one is a gift. Because of the pain involved, though, it is also considered a rite of passage into adulthood.
Young, untitled men in a village are called ‘tauleale’a‘. When they work hard and prove themselves honorable, they may find favour in the eyes of their elders, and might even be offered the opportunity to be tattooed.
In my experience though, it’s usually the young man who approaches his elders with the desire for a tattoo, and as long as the he hasn’t done anything horrible to make his family hate him, his request is usually approved with pride.
The only requirement now is that the young man find a ‘soa’, another worthy relative who will receive the tattoo at the same time as him. I’m not sure how the tradition of the soa came about, but I have heard that having a loved one with you through all that pain is often a great source of comfort, a real bonding experience. It’s kinda beautiful.
Once a tauleale’a receives a malofie, he is now known as a ‘sogaimiti‘. This word is often misused, especially amongst younger Samoans today. I hear a lot of them refer to the tattoo itself as a sogaimiti, but please be clear: the ink is the malofie. The man is the sogaimiti.
A Samoan Tattoo for Women
Contrary to the instructions in the legend, women DO get tattooed, actually. The malu is what we call the girl version of our body art, but the protocol surrounding the malu is completely different from that of the malofie.
So we’re all familiar with a taupou, yes? In family and village politics, the taupou title ranks almost as highly as the ali’i, or high chief. It’s a pretty big deal.
While all daughters of ali’i are referred to informally as taupou, a ‘real’ taupou must be officially appointed, her title bestowed upon her in the same kind of ceremony (a ‘saofa’i‘) as for a matai.
Each extended family will have at least one (official) taupou, but in a village, a family’s ranking determines how much authority each taupou has over village affairs. This means that being a taupou in your own family is one thing, but being the highest ranking taupou in the village is something else altogether.
This distinction is important because, according to Tanuvasa, back in the old days, only the highest ranking of taupou ever received a malu. We’re talking, not just a daughter of a high chief, but the daughter of the highest chief of a district, or the daughter of a king.
These taupou of high ranking were island celebrities and were called on to dance the taualuga at the most prominent events. In those not-so-Christian days, when a taupou danced, her skirt was always hiked up HIGH to show what she was working with, and apparently, pasty pale legs were not the deal. This is the reason, says Tanuvasa, that these ladies’ legs were decorated with the malu.
SO, traditionally, the malu was very rare. Only a few women ranked high enough to receive it – as opposed to how just about any young man could get a malofie – but it was still essentially decoration for the body, something used to enhance beauty. Like permanent make-up.
Time for a Part Two
So I’m just realizing how long this post is getting… and how much more I’ve got to report (i.e. how many of my questions poor Tanuvasa tolerated from me). I still have to cover:
- The Symbols and Patterns in a Samoan Tattoo
- Getting a Samoan Tattoo in the Old Days
- Getting a Samoan Tattoo Today
- Variations of the Samoan Tattoo
- Wearing a Samoan Tattoo with Respect and Pride
…and maybe one other heading. I think I’m going to save those for a second post.
In the meantime, if you have any questions or comments (or complaints or death threats) please let me know so I can address your concerns in Part Two.