The Truth about the Samoan Tattoo (Tatau) – Part III

At long last, I’m finally back with Part 3 of this series of posts about the Samoan tattoo.

If you haven’t already, please check out previous articles on this topic:

The Truth about the Samoan Tattoo
The Truth about the Samoan Tattoo – Part 2
Do I have to be Samoan to get a Samoan tattoo? [Bonus post]

tatauman

In those earlier posts, we looked at the origin legend of the Samoan tattoo, as expressed in an old Samoan chant.

We also talked about the symbols in the malofie/pe’a and malu tattoos, and we’ve got a passionate conversation still going (in the comments) about who should and shouldn’t be allowed to receive traditional Samoan ink.

While that discussion wages on, let’s turn our focus and have a look at how you would go about getting a traditional Samoan tattoo (tatau).

So you’ve got deep love for your Samoan heritage, a passion to learn our culture, and you’ve decided that you want to commit the rest of your life – i.e. your body – to the expression of your Samoan pride.

What do you do now?

The traditions of a Samoan tattoo

Back in the old days, a young man would approach his father (or strongest father figure) to express his interest in getting a pe’a tattoo.

Reference Number: PA1-o-469-67
Reference Number: PA1-o-469-67

This father would usually react with joy, especially if his son was a good boy – respectful, hardworking at school, diligent with his church, family and village responsibilities, etc.

This father would know that the honour of a malofie doesn’t come cheap, so he would ideally have the means – i.e. fine mats, siapo, livestock, crop, or other goods – ready to trade.

If this father was not as blessed with material wealth, he might counsel with the matai in his family, who are usually happy to contribute towards creating another soga’imiti in the village.

And then it’s time for the young man’s father to find a tufuga ta tatau, a master in the art of the traditional Samoan tattoo.

Le tufuga ta tatau

My late teacher of Samoan culture, Tanuvasa Tofaeono Tavale, said it’s always best to go to a tufuga in your family. A stranger might not care as much about the quality and symbolism in your tattoo, he reasoned.

If that’s not possible, find a tufuga who has a good understanding of your family lineage because this should reflect in the patterns of a pe’a tattoo.

Of course, you’ll also want to find a tattooist with the highest level of skill (that you can afford). They’ll be known by reputation.

inaction

So the young man’s father would ask around before choosing a suitable tattooist. They would talk, negotiate a price, make an agreement, and then the father would give the tufuga an intricately woven fine mat, rolled up tight and bound with a strip of fabric. This is called a fusita.

A fusita is like a down payment – a deposit so the craftsman can begin his work. It’s a promise that the full payment will come after the tattoo is completed.

These days, a lot of tufuga prefer the full payment up front and in the more contemporary currency of cash money.

We will still present him with fine mats and other measina (culturally valued treasures) like a siapo, tanoa ma le fue, etc. but these are only symbolic gifts to accompany the cash.

Preparation & Support

The young man now begins his tatau journey with prayer and instruction.

Receiving a traditional Samoan tatau is an emotional and spiritual rite of passage that can take anywhere from a few days to a year or more to complete.

The physical act of the administering a tatau – boring sharpened, serrated bone deep into a person’s skin – is also extremely painful and inherently dangerous, so this privilege comes with strict rules.

The tufuga will explain to the boy that from now till however long it takes to complete his pe’a, he cannot be left alone, he cannot drink or smoke, he must wash rinse his progressing tatau in the ocean, but never in direct sunlight, and many other rules.

It’s understandable that this young man might feel overwhelmed already at this stage of his journey, but he doesn’t have to face it alone.

He can count on the support of a proud village – who will pray for him, bring him food and drink, keep watch over him, tell stories and sing to to distract him from the pain – and he can also choose what we call a soa.

soa

A soa is someone – usually a sibling or cousin, male or female – who agrees to receive a pe’a or malu at the same time as this brave young man. The same tufuga will direct both their tattoos, which will happen in the same fale (house) so that they can encourage and cheer each other on through the pain.

Finally the day comes when the tufuga moves in to the young man’s home, armed with the tools of his trade and a small army of helpers.

It’s time to begin the tattoo.

Samoan Tattoo Ink

I love how they made tatau ink back in the old days.

So you know the Hawaiian kuikui nut tree? In Samoa we call that a lama, but I think its English name is candlenut.

lamanut

Anyway, the seeds of the lama tree have this woody shell that tufuga would collect and burn in a shallow pit.

Above the pit, they’d suspend a large flat rock to collect the soot from this lama fire, which they would then scrape into a container (e.g. a coconut shell), mix with a bit of water to form a paste, then cover and allow to cure for at least a year.

WARNING: Lama soot is extremely toxic, so this curing process is literally a matter of life and death. Just saying in case anyone decides to make this ink themselves. Please don’t use it unless you know what you’re doing and are absolutely sure it is safe.

A Painful Ordeal

I love the way the soga’imiti over at hankefamily.net describes the pain of receiving a Samoan tatau.

“Because the handle of the instrument is struck with some force, the little teeth at its end are usually driven right through all layers of skin into whatever is underneath… the pain involved in applying the tattoo may be a lot greater than by using western-style machines, which only scratch open the skin’s surface.”

I asked my good friend Lina to describe how the pain of receiving her malu compared to that of bearing children. She says:

“With that first tap came the sensation of my skin splitting open… The pain factor? OFF THE CHART, WOMAN! I’d give birth any day!”

No wonder the pe’a tattoo, which is a lot more detailed and dense than the malu, is applied in stages. This young man’s body would need time in between sessions to rest and recover (if only a little bit) from the ordeal.

A Time to Celebrate

And then one day, at long last, the tatau is finally complete.

It’s a time for much celebration in the village. The boy they know and love has endured this journey with dignity and is now a man. A soga’imiti.

As a final act of release, the tufuga cracks an egg on the young mans head, rubbing it in with a little coconut oil. The village presents this tufuga with more gifts (which usually include a bit more money). And then it’s time for the party.

They celebrate with a huge feast, complete with music and drink, and their newest soga’imiti – still sore, but happy and relieved – honours them with a solo dance to show off his intricately decorated legs and torso… a symbol, seared into his skin for the rest of his life, of his love for his family and his Samoan heritage.

The Samoan Tattoo Today

Today, traditions around the Samoan tatau are generally the same, but with several significant differences.

These include: you don’t have to be in Samoa anymore to get a malofie, the young man can go directly to a tufuga (rather than through his father/family) now, and young women who want a malu don’t have to have a title or a father with a high title these days.

Not everyone agrees with all the changes, but it’s important to remember that even back in the old days, traditions around the Samoan tatau varied according to family and village.

My teacher Tanvasa first started documenting our culture when he was an itinerant teacher in Samoa back in the 1950s and ’60s. His work took him into just about every village in both Samoas, where he made note of little differences in the way that we practice our Fa’asamoa.

For example, Samoan chiefs are always men – except in one or two families. The ali’i title is always higher ranking than the tulafale title – except in one or two villages, due to historical events.

If you continue to study the art of the Samoan tattoo, you’ll discover that protocol and ideals will differ from one Samoan to another.

samoanman

One school of thought is that you have to KNOW and fully understand the Samoan way of life – even to the point where you can give elaborate Samoan speeches (lauga) or list your ancestors back to Adam (or thereabouts) – before you’re allowed to receive a pe’a.

After his own extensive research, Tanuvasa concluded that, actually, you don’t have to know everything. You just have to be willing to learn and progress within our culture, and in fact… sometimes it’s not possible to learn if you don’t already have a pe’a.

Today we continue to debate the ‘correct’ traditions regarding the Samoan tattoo.

  • Can we get one if we’re not Samoan by blood?
  • Is it okay to apply a full pe’a or malu a modern tattoo gun rather than traditional au?
  • Should ladies with malu be wearing short shorts in public?
  • Can a tattoo artist who is NOT Samoan give someone a full traditional tatau?
  • Should just anybody be allowed to call themselves a tufuga?

I don’t know the answers to these questions.

Because we’re talking about the culture of a variety of different villages and families – one that is always evolving, especially as more and more of us live outside of our homeland – those answers might not even exist anymore.

I can only describe for you the most common and socially acceptable practices amongst Samoans (as I’ve done in this series of posts about our Tatau) and then offer you my own, personal opinions about how things should be.

I’ve said it a hundred times and I’ll say again now for good measure:

Culture is about people.

If you want to identify with a people, even if they’re your own family or village, you have to respect the views of those who were there before you and be sensitive to the beliefs of those who surround you today.

On that note, let us continue to discuss and deliberate and come to our own conclusions regarding the Truth about the Samoan Tattoo.

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Known offline as Lillian (Lils, Lei'a) Arp, Hamo Geek Girl is just learning what it means to be Samoan. When she's not here, she's over at Manaui: Savour Oceania mostly talking about her other favourite topic: Food!

20 thoughts on “The Truth about the Samoan Tattoo (Tatau) – Part III

  1. is it wrong as a person, who is part Polynesian to hate it when white people or other races get a pe’a or malu and have no idea the meaning behind it. even if they do understand. is it wrong? personally it feels like colonization, people from another world come and take what is ours away from us. hope i didn’t offend anyone.

    1. Many of the tufaga of various ages has told me that there are no guide lines or rules that says a non samoan can’t wear a Fai malu or Pe’a. If they can endure the journey and live righteously then why not. A legendary Sulu’ape said we can use a white mans clothes, smoke a white mans cigarettes and other things of their culture, so why can’t we share ours. These tataus were gifts to us in the first place. In the days of tui manu’a the tongan chiefs would come to Samoa and get what was their version of the pe’a. The band that a lot of Samoans wear today started all from European travelers who wanted to get a Tatau but couldn’t bare the journey of a full pe’a or malu so they just took a piece and it was allowed even back then. the reality of our tatau is that only a small percentage of our entire samoan community is really keeping the practice going. And it seems the younger generations are the one willing to keep it alive. If we only keep our culture to ourselves and not share it with the world then surely it will fade. The fa’asamoa is strong in our people and sometimes our people don’t always have to have the same blood. So ask yourself the question how much in our everyday lives do we use,own or associate with things from someone else’s culture. We Samoans are strong christians indeed but Christianity came from a culture far from our lands. We all live on one earth and coming together in today’s times are gonna be crucial soon. Tofa soifua and I hope you read this with an open fatu.

    2. Uso, Thank you, I don’t mind sharing my culture. I love people taking a interest. but i think there’s a thin line between being interested and disrespected. My great uncle ( the second full blood in my line) and I went to a tattoo convention in California , there was a women who had a pe’a tattooed, but a non- Samoan. I just feel that if are going to get the tatau, take the journey. But no she got it cause it’s cool.. does that not bother you? i only have the opinion of my family members.
      I respect your comment.

    3. Hmm I do see what you mean. And you are correct there’s a fine line. In my personal opinion after receiving my full pe’a I do believe it should not be a fashion statement and I’m all for if they want to be apart of our culture there are right ways and wrong ways of doing so. I personally rather see a female wearing a malu but like in the Tatau origin story it was the women who got the pe’a and not the men. I would say the way our culture is today that we should strive to keep it within our modern standards to maintain traditions rather then change them. I agree with you completely in this case. And what it falls to are the tufugas who chose to ka these individuals.

  2. So my dad is Samoan, but he was given up for adoption and raised by a Mexican Couple. We’re trying to get back to our roots, but we have no family. I want a tatau to represent our ancestry. I want to learn more about Samoa and Samoan culture, but I have no clue where to start.

  3. hi! i love this article. all the information and history behind the tatau is truly amazing. You have helped me gain a deeper knowlege of my own cultures history and a greater understanding of the tatau. Thank you!
    i am almost 20 and have been wanting to get a samoan tattoo since i was very young. i am a half samoan (my mother was born in apia, but my dad is american) i grew up spending my whole childhood learning about the culture from my mothers side of the family and bonding with the relatives on her side. the teachings of respect and honoring your elders and ancestors is something i wish everyone could learn. I would like a samoan tattoo that truly tells my story, and have personal family meaning. not just some ink slapped on because it looks cool. i want it to honor my ancestors passed and be an ongoing story of me and my families lives.
    The long debate and question i have had since i was younger is, is it acceptable for me being white(even though i am half samoan by blood) to have the honor of a samoan tattoo? Because i have my fathers skin not my mothers, i am interested to know what full samoans think of me having it? And if they think it is disrespectful or wrong of me to have it.?
    Thank you! -Ethan

  4. Thank you for these posts and tapping into that well of elder knowledge to further inform us of our history. It’s important to document and share this, because if we don’t write it, who else will? Plus I feel this is a great way to spark dialogue.

    I’ve always felt a slight cringe about people outside of Samoan culture getting the malofie or malu. I feel even more conflicted when it’s a person outside of Samoan ancestry giving these sacred markings. Taking into account Samoa’s history with colonization, I feel it’s no different when Non-Samoans get a pe’a/malofie/malu. Our island nation has a traumatic history with folks just prancing in and taking what they want, deeming certain practices “not ok” and “ok” because they refuse to look at a different perspective, and inevitably changing the context of a lot of our ways of life.

    It’s like when people visit Hawai’i and think it’s all paradise and a great getaway. However, Native Hawaiians have the highest homeless and unemployment rates in their own damn land. Hawai’i’s past with being colonized and illegally annexed is a huge factor in their current state of affairs. How is it that the tourism industry owned by Non-Native Hawaiians are getting richer and the Native people are getting poorer and pushed off of their own land?

    What I’m getting at, is that folks want to pick and choose what they think is “pretty” or “desireable” about Samoan culture, but what about the rest of our existence? I’m not saying you have to be ride or die for Samoa if you get a pe’a, etc., but I think one should definitely question what their connection to our history is and if you’re just perpetuating more disempowerment in our community by getting these tattoos. Especially if you’re not of Samoan ancestry, you’re basically taking something that’s practiced in a certain context and redefining this context once you place it on your body. How does that act, not have remnants of colonization written all over it?

    Obviously I don’t share the same sentiment as your late professor, Tanuvasa, but these are just my personal thoughts on the issue. I thank you for shedding light on this man’s work.

  5. hi! Thank you so much for all the information in these 3 posts. I’m not Samoan and had a tattoo done in the style of a tradition Samoan tattau. I met my artist at a convention and after talking for a bit, he offered his time. The main reason for me to get a tattau is that while I travelled the world (did the full 360), Samoa was the most magical place I visited. From the moment I landed, I didn’t feel at home, I was home. I wanted to have one done on one of the islands but it wasn’t meant to be. After I left Samoa, I felt that there was nothing in the world I could not achieve and it has inspired me to take some chances and enjoy life a lot more. Until, almost to the day, 3 years later I stumbled on my artist. He drew to shape on my leg and after the thumbs from my mom and I, he went to work. I found it a lot less painful than a machine made one, apart from the thicker outer lines. The only thing I ‘regret’ is not asking more about the designs. Do you know where I could find a overview of some sort of the different designs and meanings?
    fa’afetai, Lucia

  6. I really loved this explanation of the Samoan tattoo’s. Well I myself have grown up learning about the traditions and customs of Samoa, although I’m not full blooded Samoan i still respect their ways of life. i think one thing you’ve missed out about the malu’s, is that it’s not for show. like everyday I literally see girls walk around showing off their malu’s, as if it was traditionally meant to be showed off. Again as a half-caste with a malu myself, I find it quite offensive and I’m sure I’m not the only one out their who is offended about this. My Grandfather who was also not a full blooded Samoan was the high chief in the district/village, my mother is the taupou of the village. The reason being for me getting this tattoo was because my Dad [a newly appointed high chief] was getting his done. Again as a person who loves history, it’s quite sad seeing something so traditional being taken advantage of and now getting a malu is like a new fashion trend. Sorry for ranting off, but thank you so much for this explanation, I loved it so much. I truly hope that the other girls who read this, will learn something from it.
    Again sorry for the rant, and have a good day

  7. Manuia le aso!!
    I stumbled upon this read and found it intriguingly on point at so many levels! I am Sogaimiti Ka by Su’a Pika Sulu’ape. My family line traces directly to Ta’u, Manua also were I grew up for a few years of my young life. My grandfather the late Moeiulugaluititi Matagiese was the Orator of our village. My story of my Malofie is a common one that I see a lot more with the Tama of my generation. Where our grandfathers and fathers gave us their blessings to complete it for our aiga. A lot without a Soa because we we spiritually believe our Soa is our past on grand father. I can tautala fa’aSamoa but not fluently. Everyday I strive learn and understand more and more of my culture from doing Ava ceremony’s with our malofie group to just being around my Samoan family and asking them to only tautala to my in Samoan. I encourage all Samoans to not be afraid to complete a malofie for small reasons such as not knowing your culture completely. Because everyday you live is a day to learn something. Little by little at your own pace because it will be completed. My malofie thought patients not only with life but with myself, my relationships and our world. Our culture beautiful and should be shown off to the world for generations to come but if our own people are afraid to represent their culture then how can it live on. We practice our culture because only our elders will truly know every detail about it but that is why we learn. When I walk around in my ie lavalava with my malofie showing at the knees I know my grandfather and ancestors before me smile down. My opinion if your family gives you their blessings and the Tufuga agrees then they will be the judge and that is enough for me because the rest of my life will be spent trying to perfect my knowledge of the Fa’asamoa.

  8. Hi My grandmother received malu when she was a young girl of approx. 20 years of age. Would have been early 1900s. My great great grandfather was the chief of Apia Apia. We weren’t bought up with the island way and I am wanting to know if I can find out more about my grandmothers malu and what the patterns were that she received. Hope you can help

    1. Hi Amy. Do you have any images of her malu? I would only be able to give you a general idea about what the symbols refer to, but because many of the designs will be specific to your grandmother’s family and to the tufuga who did her malu, you’ll probably have more luck approaching the elders in your family (or descendants of the tufuga). Still, I’d be happy to have a look if you’ve got an image somewhere.

    2. Hi I don’t have any images of my grandmothers malu, which is very say as I was hoping to get some of her designs on me. Is there any other avenue I can take to try and find out what her designs were? Thank you Amy Lane

  9. Thank you for your informative articles thus far. I am currently on the road to getting my malofie. As I am about to attain this distinct honour, in all manners of the word, I realised I wanted and needed to know more about the whole journey pre and post the ordeal. Although I am Samoan and immersed in our culture and traditions, the whole story on being a sogaimiti and what it entails to be this person were lost to me. My grandfather was the last person I’d seen wearing the malofie in our family on both sides. So for me to it was hard to find anyone I was comfortable with to ask questions about in this topic I am passionate about. So for the last ten or so years on and off, I’ve tried to do some research for me on this topic.
    I am very gratified to you for your very in depth discussion as well as laying to rest some doubts I had about the whole process and some perceptions I’ve had from ill informed people of our “village”.
    I will look into the Hanke family post as well.
    Faafetai lava.

    1. Hi Helge

      Thank you for your comments.All the best with your journey towards receiving a malofie. It’s really nice to see you taking things seriously and taking the time to learn more about our traditions surrounding tatau.

      I manuia.

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