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 is what we know

of how the art of tattoo came to Samoa

Two women (sisters)

swam across the deep ocean from Fiti

They carried a basket with them

(filled with tatau equipment)

and repeatedly chanted the song:

‘Only women receive tattoos, not men’

The reason men receive tattoos today

is that their song was sung incorrectly

They arrived to the coast of Falealupo

and encountered a huge faisua

They dove into the water for it

and when they surfaced again

they began singing that it is men who receive tattoos

and not women

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.

faisua 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 especially 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

malofie

The 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 of 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 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

malu

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.

Ia manuia.

==

The Truth about the Samoan Tattoo – Part 2

The following two tabs change content below.
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!

114 thoughts on “The Truth about the Samoan Tattoo (Tatau)

  1. This is entirely too interesting and I have so many questions. My father just became an Ali’i in Western Samoa and I am his youngest daughter.

  2. Tattoos for males. Man has been adorning his pores and skin for the reason that daybreak of the cave dweller, and tattoos for males have had a complete spectrum of objective and which means.

  3. In Fiji and especially on Viti Levu, women also wore vulvic tattoos under their liku or skirt. Here tradition dictated that only women, not men, could wear tattoos (vei-qia) and the designs were created by skilled female artists who have been described as hereditary priestesses. According to a local chief (mbuli) writing at the turn of the 20th century, the women who performed the painful rite were specifically referred to as Lewa vuku, or wise women.
    One was a kind of healer and her counterpart was the Lewa dau batia or expert tattooer.The rite was performed in the secret recesses of the forest, and young women were usually tattooed after they had reached puberty and before they were married. The ancestors were invoked to help guide the ceremony, making visible a genealogy of design and descent. The mbuli said:

    Vulvic and buttock tattooing, Fiji, 1870s. In Fiji, tattooing is only performed by and for women, and is chiefly confined to the parts of the body which are covered by the liku or grass skirt. Charles Wilkes, writing around 1840, stated: The women believe that to be tattooed is a passport to the other world, where it prevents them from being persecuted by their own sex, numbers of whom, by command of the gods, would meet them, if not tattooed, and, armed with sharp shells, would chase them continually through the lower regions. So strong is this superstition, that when girls have died before being tattooed, their friends have painted the semblance of it upon them, in order to deceive the priest, and thus escape the anger of the gods.

    Vulvic and buttock tattooing, Fiji, 1870s. In Fiji, tattooing is only performed by and for women, and is chiefly confined to the parts of the body which are covered by the liku or grass skirt. Charles Wilkes, writing around 1840, stated: The women believe that to be tattooed is a passport to the other world, where it prevents them from being persecuted by their own sex, numbers of whom, by command of the gods, would meet them, if not tattooed, and, armed with sharp shells, would chase them continually through the lower regions. So strong is this superstition, that when girls have died before being tattooed, their friends have painted the semblance of it upon them, in order to deceive the priest, and thus escape the anger of the gods.
    .
    Tattooing was the revered and beautiful ornamentation of the women to which great weight was attached to both by men and women, and it was performed in the following manner.

    The woman to be tattooed must fast for a clear twelve hours, from daylight till eve, and the night before she must fish for freshwater prawns from dark till dawn, and must search for and procure three lemon thorns to be affixed to pieces of reed stems as handles [for the tattoo instrument].

    Then she had to lie on her back before the old woman who concocted in a coco-nut shell the liquid used for the staining. This ancient dame blessed the liquid and prayed to the spirits of the dead to soften the skin of the girl so that the operation should not pain her too much. Then the tattooing commenced, the sacred part [vulva] being the first to be done. The pain which it caused was called the extraction of the spear. When this had been done, which was the part that gave much pain, the girl was soothed into a heavy sleep, and then the operator pushed on with her work. The pattern traced was like that painted on native cloth, A Nairukuruku.

    The girls intended husband had to present [the wise women] with a club, as an earnest or preliminary payment, then he had to feed the operators and provide a feast on the fourth day after the conclusion of operation. By then the skin on the body would have healed. That day was called the shedding of the scales. Then all the women would gather together to witness the falling off of the scales, and it used to rouse the envy of the young girls to see the beautiful pattern. It made them want to be tattooed.

    It was also done for the sake of the womans husband, [so] that when he went to sleep with her¦and undid her liku (grass dress) [he] might see the beautiful tracery. For that reason the womens lips were also tattooed [so] that her husband might desire to kiss them.

    Interestingly, when Vitian navigators were sailing home from trading expeditions to the east, they always desired a westward gale as they were uncommon. In their attempt to invoke the Spirit of the Land Breeze,” they produced the following chant:

    Come, come, O Spirit, From the ladies of the west;

    O ladies with the black mouths [tattoos], Give us a fair wind.

    Of course, there were other tattoo forms and tools used in Fiji and all of the designs were compulsory. As one missionary wrote, the Creator God Degei, who was a deified chief and also the snake god, punished untattooed women in the afterlife, presumably because they had not shed their scales as his daughter did, the first Fijian woman to do so. In fact, women were still tattooed frequently in a cave below the Nakauvadra Mountains of Viti Levu as late as the 1880s, where it is said that Adi Vilaiwasa, the daughter of Degei, received her markings.

    In the Lau Islands of Fiji, girls were inked on their buttocks, face, vulva and fingers with an adze-like instrument pointed with a sharks tooth or fish bone dipped into a sooty black pigment of candlenut. The operation was performed in a special taboo hut which the men called the black bottom. According to tradition, old women plied their clients skin in three or four installments covering a period of a year or more. It was said that if the girl accepted lovers during the course of her tattoo initiation, the pain would increase. When it was over, her fingers and the corners of her mouth were tattooed to show that she was marriageable.

    In other regions of Fiji a comb-like instrument consisting of four or five finely chiseled teeth set into a bone and fixed to a light handle six inches long was dipped into a pigment of charcoal and candlenut oil. The pattern to be tattooed was stenciled on the body of the girl and the delicate lines were driven into the skin with the blackened rake. As one 19th century writer commented: The command of the god affects but one part of the body, and the fingers are only marked to excite the admiration of the Chief, who sees them in the act of presenting his food. The spots at the corners of the mouth notify, on some islands, that the woman has borne children, but oftener are for the concealment of the wrinkles of age.”

    German naturalist and artist Theodor Kleinschmidt added still more ethnographic observations and illustrations of Fijian tattoo customs as he encountered them on Viti

    A line of tattooing typically starts at one wrist and runs up the arm to cross the chest above the breasts to the upper shoulder, and from there runs down the length of the other arm. There are generally two lines of tattooing on the back, these converging downwards from either shoulder like the seams of a jacket towards the spine and the tattooing which encompasses the haunches. Other tattoos may take the form of little stars on the cheeks, legs or hands, depending on taste. The tool is a blade of turtle shell or of chicken or other bone, or some lemon thorns, fastened to a light stick in the form of a miniature size. In addition to puncture tattooing of this sort, rows of ornamental cicatrices are often cut into the flesh of the breast, back and upper arms. Men are only exceptionally tattooed, and then not elaborately.

  4. First things first, I’m SO glad I found this post I must thank you so much!

    I’m graduating in Visual Arts (in Brazil) and needed some information about tattooing over there. You gave me the whole lot and more!
    And I like the way you write (mind me, it’s getting rare to find good writers with good content on the subject at first shot).
    I’m still not up to part 2 but sure it will suit my research as well. 🙂

    I’m not much of a “hey you nice post” person but I felt like I had to. Thanks again from the other side of the world for sharing so much. It means a lot.

    and #foratemer etc haha

  5. seriously, to those who don’t agree with the “tatau and malu” you are simply saying that you don’t agree with culture and tradition, just cause you don’t know the true importance of the tradition or you can’t handle a little sharp pain to the skin that does not give you the right to criticize or judge our cultural beliefs…
    I am happy with these traditions and its taught us samoans the value of respect…
    THANKYOU DINA OUT

  6. Lol at how some people are against this article when obviously the person writing this article is a proud Samoan themself to even want to study about our culture! But welldone to whoever wrote this article this really answered some of my questions aswell so thankyou 🙂

    1. What?? Who’s against this article?? loll …

      I know there’s been recent talk on FB about tatau (that references this article) but as far as I’ve seen, the debate has been about tatau in general -- how ethical the practice is, etc. -- and not really about my interview with Tanuvasa… Unless I’m missing something…?

      In any case, we’re all entitled to our opinions, right? Let the conversations continue! 🙂

      Thank you for stopping by and for your kind words.

    2. Please correct the attitude. The pe’a and or malofie are of the same. The terms are use in certain situation of event and ceremonial at the time and what cultral matai status title level. In the old Samoa, pe’a is for the ali’i matai. Also it not just art as mentioned. Every details of the pe’a has a significant meaning to it. So please do diligents before you print.

    3. Tolufale, whose attitude are you trying to correct? lol Please read the entire article (all 3 parts) plus the comments I was referring to when I changed the word pe’a to malofie before passing judgement on what’s been written here. You’re saying the exact same things I’ve said in this series. But thank you for your comment, anyway.

  7. Hi, I am a high school student currently studying the art of Tatau and whether it being adopted into western societies has lessened its meaning and significance. To help deepen my understanding on this topic and to gain valid and credible information I need to conduct primary research methods in order to gain different cultural views (of Samoan background and/or other) on the topic of Tatau and its significance to the Samoan community. Therefore, I ask that you spare a few, quick minutes to answer my questionnaire (link below) to assist my research. All responses will be greatly appreciated and it is only a few questions so it will not take up too much of your time. Thank you again for taking the questionnaire and it is all conducted anonymously.

    http://goo.gl/forms/NEHT0E0ogD

    Thank you again, it is truly appreciated.

  8. Thank you for sharing. Awesome articles like this make me so proud. I received my malofie this year for my 50th birthday as a gift from my children. The tufuga was Suá Popo and all through the process he was explaining to me the taua and the history. (you have confirmed this) Sleeping on the floor, not shaving, not being alone and other rules while going through the process made it feel deep in tradition and meaningful. For about 30years I had wanted to ‘represent’ but malofie was forbidden because of our religious beliefs. It’s articles like this that stimulate ‘new’ thinking in a person and now I get to wear the laei Samoa for the rest of my life – what an honour.

  9. I am afakasi and only just learning about the Samoan culture. Do women have to be married to receive a malu? I’ve heard the term “married into her malu alone” what does that mean?

  10. I love the samoan body art and the language also the people. But I do have one question do samoan men date outside of their race or do the prefer the own because I have read they disapprove of dating outside their own.

    1. No ive never heard of a think like that myself been a samoan man and have the malofie myself. My partner is australian and some of my cousin are married to Chinese tongans kwis and African women i dont see anything wrong with it.

    2. Samoans are humans like the rest of the world. We date who we want, regardless of who disapproves lol…

    3. I think that most Samoan men are born outside of Samoa and are the minority. It’d be highly difficult to find a Samoan woman in some areas. I myself married a mixed Japanese Filipino girl and I’m in Hawaii. Lots of Samoans here, but there are still more mixed people. But I was never raised or told by my elders ever that marrying non-Samoan was ever a tradition in our aiga

    4. Samoans now can choose to marry anyone whom they feel comfortable with and love. Most have also married to other ethnic people. However, having said this, from my own experience, many Samoan men sometimes eventually leave their wives of ethnic background because their wives are too independent and do not want their husbands’ family to be in their lives etc etc. This also depends on how a Samoan man values his family. Thus, if you know as a woman of another race that the Samoan man you love is a kind of man that loves his Samoan family very much and would do everything that his family back home would want him to do, then you better show that same love to his family as well as he’s got responsibilities to his family to fulfil. Otherwise, you better think twice before you are committed to him, as you will also be expected to be part of your man’s responsibilities to his family.

  11. The original familys to receive the ato au is the Su’a family from upolu lefaga and Tulou’ena from savai’i

    1. Thank you so much John. I knew Su’a was one, but couldn’t remember the other one. Excellent.

    2. Hey thankyou for writing this article i recently got my malofie from su’a popo the second and he told me the same story about the fiji thing its actually from fiti uta the same as the story you heard from tanuvasa.

    3. Yes our family the SU’A family are the original tattooists whom the girls stopped by at our house and passed on the ato’au in Gagaifo, in Lefaga many moons ago. Actually the other family is the Lia’ifaiva or the Lavea family in Safotu, Savai’i. There is a faalupega or adressing of these families -- Le falelua ole Aiga Malofie. Some people claim that the Suluape family are the original whereas in fact they are not, they were only gifted the atoau, and also the title SU’A when ever they practised the art. Hope this helps 😊

  12. Why do you sound so mad for?

    Your slaves comment? Everyone had to start from somewhere right? At least they can look back at what has been to how far they have come.. Even with little minded people such as yourself who are so negative about one countries growth.

  13. I have a Samoan tribal tattoo on my chest, shoulder and goes to a half sleeve. I have no idea what it means and I really would like to find out. Does anyone know how I could find out?

    1. Samoa is not a tribal society. They are one family one people. Fiji is a tribal society. They are multi tribal people having different dialect and their own individual culture depending of what part of the country. So to say that you have a Samoan tribal tattoo is not accurate.

    2. What u have is just a fancy pattern…if it’s not where it should be…it’s just a pattern carries no cultural value or significance. Sorry to be harsh but when you take the Tatau and make a sleeve out of it, that’s does not make you a Samoa…it just makes you look ignorant and depicts your lack of respect for the Tatau and faa Samoa.

    3. It’s just a pattern with some familiar Samoan motifs and designs tattooed by the Samoan tattooists on many men nowadays. I don’t think people who are wearing those are being disrespectful of our Samoan tatau and the faasamoa. It’s just another way of showcasing part of our culture to the world.

    4. To “Kevin” :

      That’s very disrespectful for you to get a samoan tribal tattoo and not know the meaning and significance behind it. It’s more than just a “trendy tribal” tatoo. Maybe you should do some research yourself and understand what it means. I agree with the comment made by Nuu.

  14. Samoans don’t have a culture. Every year it’s something new. Weather it’s regarding their tattoos that they steal designs from Fijians and Tongans. Their whole culture is fake and have stories that praise Samoa. Yall were slaves for the longest so let’s not forget.

    1. How would you know what culture is! telling bye your comment you have no idea just another one trick pony trying to bring others down im not sure who you are but i got a good idea what you are so suck it up princess and read a book!

    2. Excuse me my country is a proud country you know nothing about our history we are proud culture and for you to call us fake I think you need to brush up on your history before you start calling samoa fake if you heard that this change and that change whatever the case maybe it’s not true I am a proud samoa I know my history if you can’t say anything nice don’t say anything at all thank you

    3. What a very uneducated comment, please think before making erronous arrogant comments.

    4. I am a Samoan from Samoa and i feel sorry for Brian. It seems like you have no idea of what are talking about brother. Obviously you have not been educated properly about Samoa and where we are from. For your information my friend Samoa is the birthplace of Polynesian Culture and the birthplace of most Polynesian islands around the Pacific such as Hawaii, Cook Islands, New Zealand no offence to my Polynesian brothers and sisters. If you have studied history in University as i did you would have been taught of that. So please think before you speak yet again if you can’t think then obviously this is how you speak. Manuia le aso…and thankyou Hamo Geek for the article!…I am a strong believer of the Samaon saying ‘”Ia ta muamua lou gutu faatoa ta laia sau pe’a/malofie” It is translanted “tattooed your mouth before you get the pe’a/malofie” means the wearer must learn and understand the Aganu’u, Faasamoa, speak the traditional/oratory language before you are worthy of the pe’a/malofie. However time has change and our culture have grown with our people. I believe that nowadays as long as the wearer understand and proud of what he is wearing(pe’a/malofie) and what is represents then he is worthy of the Pe’a/Malofie! We can not stop change however we can preserve our culture by making sure it does not die or become an antique on a shelf for display. FAAFETAI!

    5. I’m guessing your ancestors were slaves…or maybe your just bitter…what happen Samoan girl dumped you…😢😢😢.

    6. Brian, think before you open your mouth. We as Samoans have a culture and we value our tatau as a part of our identities. And for your information, Fiji and Tonga has their own tattoos and if you don’t know anything then check the arrival of Lapita to the Oceania. Each country in the Oceania has their own tattoo. So don’t waste your breath because it pollutes the air but you don’t anything about it.

      For the article, thanks for sharing. The most important thing is that, Samoan values tatau and malu because it is a part of we are and no one takes that away from us.

  15. Malo/Kiaora,

    this is in regards to the song O le vi’i o le tatau samoa, I’m creating a book based on the Malofie and the Malu for a school project. I’m Samoan/Maori and thought that expressing the love I have for my culture, the people and our art through tattoos would be amazing. In this book i would like to explain the myth of Tilafaiga and Taema and how they bought tattooing to Samoa. Unfortunately, I was raised only being surrouneded by my maori side and don’t fully understand/ speak Samoan. I was wondering if you, or anyone would be able to provide me with a full English translation of the entire song, this would be very much appreciated as I’ve done much research and cant find anything that helps. I’ve already asked my dad (who speaks fluent Samoan) , but you know its always one of those “oh, tomorrorw” then when “tomorrow” comes, same thing . Anyways, it would be very helpful and once again so very very much appreciated ! lol anyways thanks for reading my life story in a paragraph , hahahaha much love from this wahine.

    1. Aroha, I’m so sorry for the delay in getting back to you. The translation I’ve posted up there is pretty accurate. I wish I could provide one for the entire song, but I’m a bit like your dad with that -- I’ll get around to it someday? lol … Maybe someone else who reads this can help.

      I’ll tell you one story I heard, though, about Taema and Tilafaga’s oceanic swim. Apparently, when they dove down to grab the faisua, it turned out to be excrement (se’i tulou) … I guess that was just a cultural warning about the dangers of getting distracted from a sacred task.

      A lot of Samoan myths and legends are really graphic like that. Like the story about Nafanua, a goddess who was born from discarded afterbirth..

      Just something that fascinates me about Samoan (and world) mythology…

  16. Faieksia e na rogrog got e hanap ne FA’ sag ta
    This where the tattoo comes from ROTUMA in fiji small island close to savaii….

    1. Munivai correct me if I am wrong but rotuman folklore states rotumans originated in Samoa. Raho is from Samoa, and certainly there is little to no evidence that Samoa received anything from Rotuma. none of you get tattooed anyway. Ma hanis.

  17. u no 4 da kidz. they get tattoo on stickers but not on da real tattoo. some of them no that the bible says not to have marks in our bodies. if we do then we will get a hiding from our mums…but still we are samoan

  18. Things have changed now in our faasamoa. Remember culture evolves and has been evolved over time based on the changes encountered in the environment and the way people see things and adapt to the changes. There is a popular Samoan saying “E sui faiga ae tumau faavae” meaning The way we do things do change (from time to time) but the fundamental principles (of why we do things) still remain. Referring to the Samoan tattoo, it was a symbol of one’s committed service to his/her family, it’s one’s pride and identity. It was something to be protected and looked after with care. That’s why people in those days never publicly display them often except for special occasions or siva. They also cover their tattoo most of the time to keep its ink look fresh against the pale skin. Nowadays, personally I think, due to the changes in our environment and our people are widely dispersed everywhere, as long as you have that pride as a Samoan, and also your willingness to show your identity, together with your willingness to learn about your culture, you are good to have a Samoan tattoo. You are Samoan by heart and blood so why not! You can tell the world of who you are. by having it as long as you wear it with respect, pride and care as a Samoan; which means you can showcase all the Samoan values along with your tattoo. That’s the change we have nowadays and the malu or tatau is worth having by any Samoan who is prepared to wear it with pride and the respect Samoa deserves. I think Palagis who have a tatau now adopt that Samoan pride and they are wearing it with the Samoan pride telling the world about us and our culture. To me that’s the best thing that we do is to share our culture to the world. Remember we are adopting most of the things of the palagi culture and we live in them in all our lives, so why can’t we share our culture as well and be proud and thankful for it?

  19. I think that culture is a beautiful thing, but it has its pros and cons.. I dont think God would be delighted in anyone getting their bodies tattooed at all! For the reason that He gave us His son Jesus to shed his blood for the world’s sins! Jesus spent His life teaching about the kingdom of God and therefore we must live by a heavenly kingdom culture or to be kingdom minded. Samoan culture I honor because it teaches our children how to respect your elders, wearing appropriate clothing, etc but how many churches have conflicts because they bring in Samoan culture where a young person cannot speak unless asked to, or not old enough to take on responsibilities, or I hold a higher title so the other ones opinion doesnt count. . yes as part of Samoan culture it happens and as a result church division.
    My point is, culture is useful as a disciplinary strategy but tatau/tattooing is not Gods will and should no longer be encouraged for the bible says AUA ETE FAAMALIGI TOTI..

    Faafetai mo sou avanoa.

    1. Our culture is one that is well preserved. As we adapt to changes in society and cultural influences, there would be nothing left of our culture. What religious standard were the Samoan people held to before Christianity was introduced? Tattoos are a piece of history, a living artifact. If we get rid of it, it would just be another mystery like hieroglyphics in Egypt. Why should Christianity beliefs overshadow Samoan culture? Why not merge them? To be fair, Samoan culture has existed long before Christianity, and also instill the same values as Christ.

    2. Hi Princesswarior… As fascinated as I am by Samoan tatau, I personally wouldn’t get any kind of tattoo because of my Christian beliefs. I always say it -- culture is about people. We have to decide for ourselves whether it’s more important to identify with other Samoans or with what we believe to be Christian values. Like you, I’ve chosen the latter… but I still respect the Samoan tradition of tatau. As long as it is practiced with understanding.

      Hey Uso_forever.. I’m not a scholar of history, but I doubt that Samoan culture pre-dates Christianity. As a civilization, Polynesians most likely only originated around 2 to 3 thousand years ago (if we go by carbon dating of Lapita pottery), whereas Christianity, as a religion, has records from thousands of years BC. And the concept of one God goes right back to Adam and Eve, of course.

      I think if you stepped back to a time before Christian missionaries came to Samoa, you wouldn’t recognize our culture. We worshiped animals and things in nature. We didn’t believe in or practice monogamy. We were warring and barbaric.

      We talk a lot about the negative influence of Christianity on our culture, like the loss of some of our traditions… but I think we should also be grateful for the order, faith and relative peace that also came as a result of those first Christian missions to our islands…

    3. Firstly, I’d like to thank hamogeekgirl for this insightful article. I’m afakasi, and was raised pretty much like a palagi, and getting to know this part of the 60% of my ethnic/cultural heritage is of great importance to me, especially now, as a parent. I’d like my daughter to have every opportunity to have some knowledge and understanding about this side of her parentage, her other (paternal) side being Maori.

      I’d like to address some comments about Christianity, as mentioned in your comment, princesswarrior, and hamogeekgirl if I may?

      With regards to your statement about not receiving tattoos, the verses in the Bible that you are probably referring to are Leviticus 19:28 and Deuteronomy 14:2 (I was a youth leader at my local church for several years and this question always popped up). These books are from the Old Testament-which is fundamentally the Jewish Torah.

      When Jesus finally came to the Israelite’s, it was to literally turn their religion (Judaism) as they knew it on it’s head. In other words, while the Old Testament shouldn’t be forgotten, Jesus changed things so we wouldn’t have live by those old Laws anymore. He made that possible with His Sacrifice. God never intended for us to continue to live by the Old Testament.

      That’s why there’s a New Testament.

      “Women should adorn themselves with . . . modesty.” 1 Timothy 2:9 applies to men and women. “Present your bodies as a sacrifice living, holy, acceptable to God, a sacred service with your power of reason.” (Romans 12:1) I personally believe that any tattoo would be acceptable so long as I thought long and hard about what it would mean for me, and it’s significance in my cultural, personal and religious identity.

      Another thing to think about when comparing Christianity to the settlement of early Samoa is that Christianity is NOT thousands of years old. It is as old as Jesus. He is only around 2000+ (I can’t remember exactly what happened to the calendar, but someone from possibly Gregorian times messed up the dates so Jesus isn’t actually 2016 years old). Judiasm, on the other hand, is much older, and before that there was Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest religions in the world today.

      So if Samoan culture only really began about 2000-3000 years ago, it could be assumed more accurately that the religion and the culture began roughly within a millennia of each other. Jesus is definitely not 3000 years old, so I’m guessing Samoa would be older.

      Anyway, my main point is that if a Christian wants to obey God faithfully, they should be focusing on Jesus, seeing as God sent Him to Earth, and that focusing on Jesus means taking heed of the New Testament, which means that if a Christian decides to get any sort of tattoo, they are not in violation of God’s Law’s because Jesus nullified those.

      In my humble opinion, if a Christian Samoan wants to get a malu or a malofie or not, that should be strictly between them, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

      Faafetai lava. 😀

    4. i totally agree with this comments, aua ete faamaligi toto. The tatau is a very very old traditional but I think those are the darkest days of Samoa. I really do against tattoo ever since I read and understand the Bible and Gods Will. it looks beautiful, but does it look beautiful in Gods eyes?. Jesus poured out His blood to forgive our since, why do our people pour out their blood?

    5. When putting culture and Christianity together it will divide one way or the other. Culturally is what makes us different from others being christians is what makes us all the same brothers and sisters. If you speak about God not liking people getting their bodies tattooed, Jesus did say its what comes from the inside that gets you closer to God not the outside. Jehovah forbid his people in the old testament to not tattoo their bodies because Egyptians put markings on their bodies to identify the diety they were truly worshiping, in some cases to help them in their spiritual beliefs. But Jesus taught us that its our minds and hearts that are the true temple, as we die our body perishes, returns to the dust and our spirits back to God, so what do you say about the person with the burnt body is he not worthy of Gods love because his body is tarnished? the scars on womens bodys? is her body not worth to go to the kingdom of heaven? it wouldn’t matter because it returns back to where it came from.. dust. Like Jesus said, no amount of food you eat will make you any closer to him its what comes from the inside. So why the judging, for its him that judges, unless in our culture it was taught to get the tattoo as a symbol of worshiping anyone or thing other then Jesus himself then thats another war to go about…

    6. Princesswarrior,

      What you shared is great however, tatau is a part of our culture and its not against the christian values. People have their tatau because it has a meaning of itself. Tatau was their before the Christianity arrived in Samoa and brought morality to people. Therefore, people are aware of the culture values and christian values. When you look deeply to each design meanings of the tatau, it tells your story and my story. Tatau is not a bad thing at all. “FAAMILIGI TOTO” in some Religions refer to religious people who want to serve God like pastors, priests, nuns not all christians.

  20. May I ask..

    My Father is Samoan.. My mother comes from Germany and my entire life I was brought up a dark hair dark eyed German girl in a family of blonde hair blue eye beauts who speak German. My mother met my father in Long Beach Ca. I was conceived in the end of a high school sweet heart love.. Soon after my mother found out I was due to arrive my father went back to Samoa with promises to return. I received nothing but a crib.. Not long.. My mother had found out my father had been in an arranged marriage.. He cried to her.. But nothing further.. When I was a teenage he called only but once.. And cried for hours over the phone to us both.. I tried to call back and his sister told me he had a family and never to call back again. For so long I have hated him and anything to do with him. Denying that side of me existed.. Now I have a daughter. Her father is Hmong.. And I am German and Samoan.. And I realize now not knowing who I am.. Is causing her to not know who she is.. And I have been on this spiritual search ever since.. I have recently accepted who I am.. Knowing just because we are blood doesn’t mean I am him.. And just because I take pride in being Samoan doesn’t mean I take pride in him.. Now that I have I wanted a tattoo and wondered what as a young lady would be a good idea for me.. Or if it is even a good idea.. And how can I teach my daughter more about our culture without just giving her what I’ve read from books..

    1. Hi Melanie. Sorry to hear about your natural father but I think you getting a Tatau is awesome. Trying to figure out who you are and where your roots/heritage descend from is nothing to be a shamed off. I agree with your thoughts; just because of your experience/ lack of interaction with him didn’t define your perception of what it means to be Samoan -- you still want to grasp that which is you and eventually share it with your children since it’s their bloodline as well. Kudos to you Mel. Get that tatau. Much Bless to you young lady. Hope your make that tatau happen.

      Usohamo@hotmail.com

    2. Hi Mel. So sad to hear the story about your father. It’s not too late to try and look for him and learn about your father’s culture. If you are planning to get a malu, go ahead and get it. Non one will stop you because you have every right to get that malu because its a part of your Samoan side. Never let go of that Samoan side but try to learn the best out of the Samoan culture.

    3. Sorry for what happened to you and your father. However, you have that pride as a Samoan. You have the Samoan blood in you. Nothing can stop you from having your malu done, that will remind you of your Samoan identity and who your are, your identity, especially that you live overseas and have lost your contact with your dad.

    4. Religion is very new in Samoa…before first LMS arrived in Sapapalii Samoa was and still is about culture and traditions. There’s a war between religions and it will go on and people will change religions faster then they change their ie lavalava but Samoa culture and traditions will still remain the same.
      A little history lesson. ..Fiji and Samoa had a very close relationships…Fijian chiefs couldn’t stay away from Samoan Princess as did the Tongan King and Samoan Princess…So close it almost looked like Samoa was going to become part of the Tongan kingdom.

    5. So sorry about your father but of course you have every right to a MALU go get it from any tattooist around. There are a few in Australia dont know about the U.S. but alsoi n NZ and why not travel to Samoa and see for yourself where your roots are from and while you’re there, get a Malu. Ask your mum where your dad’s from and maybe surprise him. He’ll welcome you with opened arms…believe me he will. Good luck Mel.

  21. I wouldn’t say this tradition is dead or has lost its meaning.

    Tulou lava!

    O le mea u a fai ai ga kala faapega? A faapea e ke le malamalama le faa samoa ia aua gei faia kala favalevalea.

    This is far from meaningless in some parts of Samoa. True the mainstream and fad of tribal tattoos has and have given false meanings to the true origins of these rituals. It’s sad really. Be proud of your island origins and culture. At the same time don’t make a fool of yourself claiming you represent a entire culture.

    Nice article btw.

    Faafetai lava.

    Soifua!

  22. I TOTALLY RESPECT THE “SAMOAN TATAU”..OR “MALU” FOR THE WOMEN!!! MY MOM WAS A TAUPOU IN THE VILLAGE OF PAGO PAGO BACK IN THE OLD DAYS…AND IT WAS AN HONOR BACK THEN…WHEN A YOUNG VIRGIN/ MAIDEN DAUGHTER OF A “HIGH TALKING CHIEF” WAS BESTOWED THIS AND IT STILL IS…HOWEVER, NOWADAYS IF U WANT TO GO AND HAVE IT DONE …IT’S NOT THRU TRADITION & CULTURE… U CAN GET IT DONE…EVEN IF UR OLDER, MARRIED & HAVE KIDS…IT LOST IT’S MEANING NOW!!!…

  23. I am Samoan/White . And I don’t care what anyone thinks of my Samoan designed Tats . I’m proud of who I am on both sides . People can judge me but it don’t bother me what so ever . That’s that . Much love to my Poly people . Cheeehooooo

  24. That was a great read and excellent information about the tatau. Thank you. I have a question and I want people’s point of view with my situation… I’m an Australian (palagi) man and my partner is Samoan. I have been asked by her family here and also in Samoa to get the malofie. I’ve been to Samoa several times and have met some of the suluape family and witnessed them perform the tatau. My partner and I are planning to live there next year for the culture experience. To learn the fa’aaloalo way of speaking the language and becoming fluent., which to me is something I’d rather do before rushing into getting a malofie. In the process of making my partner and family proud , I may disappoint my parents as I don’t have any tattoos and I’m pretty sure that I’d get a hiding lol but the one thing I’ve always believed if I was to ever get a tattoo it would have to have a lot of meaning to me, as this one sure does.

  25. We are all related to Adam in Gods eyes. I see nothing wrong with anyone who wants to get one. Pride is sin. Children of God we are covered by Jesus Blood.

  26. Wonderful article! When I was very young my Grandfather and I were very close, I grew up in Hawaii in the mid70’s. He had a traditional soga’imiti on him which those day’s when I was young thought it was cool! I would remember that every time he goes outside to smoke he would always put on his button shirt before he steps out, he would never wear shorts and always had pants on “never” seen his legs only when he is changing. As I got a little older I ask him why he never shows his tatau in public especially in front of the house? Then his story goes…He had his pe’a done when he was 16 years old, at 18 he was given the title of a high chief..couple years later he left for war as the first wave of fitafita’s of Am.Samoa…but long story short..He told me that the tattoo he has on is sacred and worn with respect! Not for show and not for entertainment! …you should never get one if you don’t know your culture and the fa’a Samoa way of life!…”ka muamua lou gutu ona ka loa laia lou pe’a!”…..This has stuck in my head since then!!…a lot of my friends and family friends never knew he had a soga’imiti until I told them after…..Papa was a quite Oldman till he passed away in 97’…so what I realize in today’s tattoo is that a lot of non-samoan people are just getting it for the fadd!.. For me I don’t honor any of that! Hurt me so that some of these tufuga’s are doing it for the money!…not all but some!..People ask me why I not getting a tatau!…”My mouth is not ready yet”….My father was a talking chief and I ask him why he didn’t get one….He said why?…I speak perfectly well!…then I laughed….Grandpa already had spoken to him too!!!..SO MY ARGUMENT TO THE SUBJECT……WE HAVE THE MOST BEAUTIFUL THING THAT OTHER CULTURES WANT TO EMBRACE AND THAT WE MOST LIKELY LOSE IN THE NEXT 20 YEARS. OUR TATTOO IS NOT ONLY CULTURE, BUT MAKES US WHO WE ARE ABOUT…SAMOANS, POLYNESIA, WARRIORS, RESPECT&LOYALTY TO FAMILY!!!….AGANU’U!!!….

    1. Dear Silila, I love it!! I love how you have been educated about this topic. I know of a Maori who has a malu. Now this is part of my debate. Not only a non-samoan getting it but how people these days are just getting it for fashion.
      If we don’t protect our culture it’s not gonna mean anything to anyone. But it means alot to me and i know to many like yourself.
      Now the reason for my reply is, I’m doing a year programe of Perfroming Arts here in Wellington, New Zealand and your comment up there ^^^^ i’m going to do a story about a youngman and his grandad protecting and respecting his pe’a. So thank you for your comment cause its given me an idea of how i can protray my debate =) so thank you

  27. As a Samoan, i personally feel that a palagi or our non samoan friends that they would like to get a taulima or a tauvae with our samoan tribal pattern is awesome and i will respect them for that. However a palagi getting a malofie or a malu, I find that very offensive cause these are our ‘measina’ our pride and joy that separates our culture from the rest of the world.It’s our identity as a real Samoan blood. Just wondering if what would happen 20 or 30 yrs from now when it gets out of hands. Our children and their children’s children will lost the most important thing that defines them 🙁 !! great discussions though.

    1. I agree only samoans should get it… but realize their are white samoans out there, im welsh and I married a samoan and my boys are fair, my eldest is as white as me, and if he wanyed one I think he should get one.

  28. I am coming to Samoa from England in April 2014 mainly as I have a love of tattoos and I have been fascinated with traditional Samoan tattoos for many years. I am hoping to get a tattoo done in the traditional style during my stay -- although not a full malu as I don’t think that would be appropriate. However, I would like to get a traditional hand-tapped tattoo that draws on traditional designs but with respect to the culture. I was thinking of having a diamond shaped panel outlined on each leg filled in with traditional style designs for which I would look to the artist for guidance as to what is appropriate. I would like to ask the people on this forum what they think -- I don’t have any link to Samoan culture other than discovering Samoan tattoos over 20 years ago and my willingness to travel nearly 10,000 miles to get one. I want to make sure that if I realise my dream to get a traditional tatau that I can do so while showing my respect for the culture.

    1. Talofa TigerSue. Apologies for the late reply. You’re probably in Samoa already. I think your idea for a tattoo is fine. I doubt you’d encounter any objections amongst Samoans. It won’t be difficult to find a native tattoo artist who will do that for you (for the right price, of course 🙂 ) … It would only be offensive to a bunch of us if you asked for a malu or a malofie (although you wouldn’t be the first non-Samoan woman to)… it’s a matter of identity. Like, how it would be silly for non-Irish folk to get ‘Erin go bragh’ tattoos -- that might be considered offensive -- whereas no one would really be care if non-Irish decorated their skin with leprechauns. For me I have no issue with you getting pretty Samoan patterns in your tattoo (leprechauns), but going more traditional than that would just be… weird. lol.. I hope that helps. Enjoy your time in Samoa! 🙂

    2. I strongly believe that the main reason why non Samoan people want our kaulima on their skins is to.make them look good because our patterns are so beautiful and that makes me very angry. I feel offended if I see a non Samoan has an long sleeve taulima. It should only be us Samoans and not anyone else but now everyone is copycatting our patterns and designs.

  29. Talofa, i’m an american born half Samoan half afro-latino. My father was from Upolu and moved to the states
    as a teenager. He was a great person but not the best father (God rest his soul) I want to embrace my Samoan heritage and get tatau. I know I have a lot to learn about fa’a samoa and other aspects of the culture. But I also know that just because i’m Half Samoan others might look at me side ways for the tatau but I believe that i’m justified in what i’m doing. I really appreciate the article btw

    1. Malo lava L.aliota. I say do it. Don’t let your lack of knowledge stop you from going through this very Samoan rite of passage… but I hope you will use the experience not just to learn more about the Fa’asamoa -- our protocol and the spirit of our culture -- but to contribute in a positive way to your family and village. I think that’s what matters the most: that you make yourself useful and earn a voice amongst your (father’s) people. I think if you spend a few weeks in Samoa, you’ll realize how little the decoration on your body means compared to what a bit of time and service can do for your soul…

  30. Read in the news today about Nike causing another cultural stir with their new Samoan designs exercise wear. It peaked my curiosity and I came across your article in a google search. Reeeealy interesting article and upon reading it, I agree that Nike has no business selling those clothes! Thanks very much.

  31. Hey, I have married into a Samoan family and my husband is NZ born Samoan. We have a child together and I’m wanting to get a tattoo down my leg with Taamoko (Maori traditional design from my tribes, and the shading area with Samoan designs). What I see from the comments above, It’s discouraging and now I’m afraid of being judged because I am Maori with a Samoan husband and we have a son who speaks English,Samoan and Maori language. I’m proud and I’m not gonna lie, I do want to show my culture intertwined with my husbands culture because both are beautiful and yes I am going to show that off, because I hold that close to my heart. People may not agree with what I want to do and I KNOW I will receive foul looks from many Samoans for wearing this…What do you say to people in my position who want to get work done, but people passing judgement on us which I know happens everyday but can not stand seeing a person like me wear their designs from Western Samoa?…

    1. Hey Moana,

      The comments you refer mostly revolve around the traditional male and female Samoa tatau. From my experience, it is the malu and malofie specifically that create heated debates, not so much “modern,” or contemporary, adaptions of them, such as sleeves, taulima and tauvae. It is worth noting that he taulima was originally “invented” as a “souvenir” to American Peace Corps volunteers for them to have as a memento of their time in Samoa, and their eternal connection and reminder of their time spent there. Nowadays, it is quite common for tourists and other people who have no blood connection to Samoa to get a Samoan sleeve or other small tattoo for different reasons, and I think very few object against this as long as the wearer of the tattoo doesn’t disrespect the cultural value of tatau in Samoa.

      I can only speak for myself, but I definitely think you have a very good reason to get the tattoo you mention and I don’t think anyone has a right to pass judgment on you for getting it, since it expresses who you are and your love and respect for your husband’s and your family’s culture.

      I hope the comments here (or elsewhere) don’t discourage you to express your cultural identity and that you follow your heart.

      God bless..

    2. Lagi and hamogeekgirl….Thank you for your replies…Trust me they do mean alot and now, I fell less discouraged. I have had a conversation with a tattoo artist who is of Samoan descent and has a shop of his own. His words along with your own has now lifted weight off my shoulders and has given my confidence back. Thanks again….Moana

    3. Talofa lava Moana, you represent a new generation of islanders of our pacific nation whose reasons for receiving the malu or malofie are genuinely so, to represent and celebrate the changing face of our Polynesian culture. As for the critics who normally do not have any ink on them it may be the case of envy rather than passing judgement for they may ask the question why can she and not me.

      In saying that from the few who have gone through the pain staking process of receiving the malu or the so’ogaimiti you will be shown nothing but love and respect. To go through the process and more importantly complete will allow you to join a special family.

      A family recognized by the markings on their body and there is only one way to get it. You can cheat your way through, you have to earn it by bearing the excruciating pain. This is what makes the malofie and malu so special there is a deeper meaning to it and for those outside the family the meaning is lost to them until they too bear the markings of our forefathers.

      Simply my point of view!

    4. Don t worry about what others think. Dont think like that please -- because that allows there negative views to be strong. My wife is half maori and I am half samoan. We have a child called Tuliomanu and she is awesome. Show off and be proud of your unique blend of cultures! Im going to. When you combine the cultures together you are celebrating both samoan culture and maori culture. One and the other. You are not taking away the pureness of each culture. Do whatever you do with alofa/ aroha and youll be sweet!

  32. The most prominent tufuga of the tatau today can trace their genealogy back to one of these two original families was from Falealupo Tai(coast) family name ‘Faamausili’ . whoever wants a tatau bloody get one ask questions later !! I know lots of NZ born Samoan who wants one years later they still thinking .. dammit !! only those who wear Sogaimiki malofie tatau whatever you want to call it .. the true meaning!!

  33. Outstanding. My brother started the Pacific Ink and Art Expo and we are very honored each year to have the Tatau represented and respected. It is awesome to see others outside of the culture learning about Tatau.

  34. @ Anthony Osborne. Well, I am not entirely sure what you mean about your “credentials,” but I think you’re asking if you’d be considered “worthy” of receiving the malofie according to the tufuga ta tatau. If you’re seriously consider getting it done, I’d suggest that you contact a tufuga and discuss it with him (Sulu’ape tatau is on facebook). As I mentioned in another comment, I’ve seen quite a few palagi with a malofie or a malu without even basic knowledge about the fa’aSamoa or the gagana Samoa (the Samoan language). And I know that goes for quite a few Samoans and afakasi as well. I’ve also read in a tattoo book that a tufuga said that everyone “deserves” to get any tatau they like (including the malofie and malu, although I’m not sure if he referred to only Samoans or not).

    That being said, some people might be offended when they see a palagi with no strong connection (whatever that means) to Samoa who wears a malofie. My advice would be to follow your heart and make an informed decision, and most importantly, get in touch with a tufuga ta tatau to discuss it.

    Good luck Anthony!

  35. There’s a lot of discussion about whether or not it is respectful for a palagi to get a malofie if he doesn’t belong to a Samoan family and is somewhat integrated and knowledgeable in the fa’aSamoa. But the corresponding discussion regarding a palagi getting (or receiving) a malu is not nearly as common and people don’t seem to be as passionate about this as they are when they discuss the malofie. It’s as if the malu is not as important and sacred as the malofie. I find this very strange. Maybe it’s because it is so much “easier” for a palagi woman to get a malu than a malofie (as the malu is far less painful and elaborate a process).

    Personally, I think the Samoan saying “E ta muamua le gutu ae le ta le vae” is as relevant to apply in discussions about the malu as it is in discussions about the malofie. I read a blog post by a palagi woman who spend a few months in Samoa but barely could speak a word of Samoan and did not have a good grasp of the fa’aSamoa but still got a malu. She knew that the malu was the traditional tattoo for women and I giess she had respect for that, but since she didn’t embrace any other part in the fa’aSamoa or knew the about the responsibilities and pride the malu carries with it, her malu simply becomes an ornament to show off to her palagi peers. For me, that’s as disrespectful as it would be for a palagi man to get a malofie to just show off at the beach and brag about.

    What do you think?

    1. I lived in Western Samoa as a 15 and 16 year old boy when my American family was having a difficult time dealing with my teenage years. During my stay I lived on a beach on the opposite side of the island from Apia. During my stay I was appointed a Samoan Father that had temporarily replaced my American blood related family. While living on Samoa I learned to speak enough basic Samoan to get by. It has been 19 years since I have been back so most of that I have lost except I remember the national anthem for some reason or another. What sticks with me the most is the culture and how we lived and ate. My Samoan father told me about the tattoo covering from the lower knees to the hips representing manhood and that if the man receiving the tattoo flinches during the process the artist would stop and in some cases not finish. The tattoos seemed to have more meaning then we find in our American culture today. I have no tattoos but would only consider getting My legs done back in Samoa. My question is if my credentials would be sufficient enough to receive that kind of work according to a true Samoan culture tattoo artist?

    2. Hey Lagi .. that’s an interesting observation, and I think you’re right. We do tend to place more importance on the malofie than the malu, but I believe that attitude comes from the history of these tatau.

      The malofie has always been heavily associated with knowledge of the Fa’asamoa. Sogaimiti are elevated in status above pulau’u so that they are given the opportunity to learn more while serving within the fale of the matai. Most matai (at least in history) advanced to that role from the ranks of sogaimiti -- it was rare to see an un-tattooed chief back in the day.

      The malu, however, was not as strongly connected to this kind of learning. Originally, it really was just a decoration to cover the pale legs of our most prominent taupou. I know that it is very important for an officially titled taupou to learn the traditions and politics of her family / village, especially if she is serious about playing a visible role amongst them, but back in the day… if she wasn’t of extremely high rank in Samoa, or if she wasn’t called on to dance the taualuga very often, it was not likely (or necessary) that she would receive a malu.

      Times are different now, yes. People tend to equate the malofie with the malu more these days, and more Samoan women get the malu done now than ever before. Amongst our own people, the practice has changed and for whatever reason, we’ve attached more cultural significance to the malu (and to the malofie, even, which is still essentially decoration). I think that as our community has dispersed across oceans, we develop a stronger need to identify with all things Samoan, and we find it more important that these things remain exclusive to us.

      Personally, for those exact reasons, I DO get offended when I see non-Samoans with malofie and malu… but I think if we look at it from the perspective of our ancestors, who had no reason to fear the loss of Fa’asamoa in their lives, we’d all be a little more generous with our traditional arts.

  36. Hey I am trying to get Samoan tattoo that means family and love but I want to now what are the symbols I can use and what are there meanings thanks

    1. Hi Edson… I’m afraid there’s no one symbol that represents love or family. In the Samoan tatau, those ideas are represented by a combination of symbols that are not so simple to extract.

      In The Truth about the Samoan Tattoo (Tatau) -- Part 2, I talk more about the symbols in a malofie. Please have a read -- you might find some ideas there for the tattoo you want.

  37. Would it be considered to the Samoan people if a white person were to get the malofie tattoo? I was considering getting it done through traditional means by my samoan friends uncle in Hawa’ii out of respect for the people, but I don’t know if that would really be respectful or not. I know in Hawa’ii that the relations between whites and Samoans isn’t the greatest, and that whites aren’t respected much there.

    1. Hey Higgy… If you live anywhere near Samoans, you should probably expect some (probably a lot of) negative reaction to your receiving a malofie. That said, though, you would hardly be the first Palagi to get one.

      I grew up in Hawaii and ages ago in the early 70s (before i was born, honest lol), my mom had a good friend there -- a Palagi man -- who went back to Samoa with her to get a malofie done. She got her dad’s blessing for him to have it done as an honorary member of our family… and I think doing it like that demonstrated the necessary respect for our culture so that he wasn’t immediately rejected by the tufuga…

      The ONLY problem is that the guy got violently ill during the procedure and couldn’t finish it. Not finishing is considered by us to be an incredible embarrassment… though I don’t think he had to deal with much of that shame because he just went home to the states somewhere. As far as I know, he’s in his 60s now with an incomplete malofie… when my mom and her relatives talk about that incident, i HAVE heard comments about the esoteric reasons this guy wasn’t able to complete his tatau (i.e. he was cursed, or he didn’t have the right blood, etc.)

      In the mid 90s, a very prominent and talented tufuga did the unthinkable and gave the malofie to a Palagi WOMAN who paid a lot for it. It was a huge scandal in our community at the time.. and when this man died a little while later under some pretty tragic circumstances, well.. you can imagine what people were saying about why that happened to him…

      I don’t mean to discourage you, though… In my next article on this topic (which I will get to soon, I promise lol) I was going to talk about variations of our tatau. These days you’ll see a lot of arm bands and shoulder tats or leg and ankle bands with Samoan symbols. While I think they’re very beautiful and the symbols are still the same, because they don’t have the same construction as traditional tatau and therefore don’t carry as much depth of meaning, they’re considered a watered down version of the malofie / malu and therefore more appropriate for umm… everybody? lol I know that sounds not-so-cool, but a lot of Samoans wear their armbands with pride so please don’t think of them as a consolation prize.

      I hope that helps.. maybe a little bit? lol

      Thanks for dropping by Higgy…

  38. love the article…..i am so proud to be a full blooded Samoa keige….thank you for your wonderful post….i cant wait to read part two…..

  39. malo faafetai tele mo le ripoti, you are very right in saying that alot of his teachings was unrivaled and i will be forever grateful for his willingness to share his knowledge through the many books he wrote which were extremely useful especially for those of us who werent brought up in the ways of old nor understood the intricacies of the Samoan Culture and the oratory language. A week before his passing i had inquired about enrolling onto his course like the one mentioned on this post and was told he was in Samoa. I was really looking forward to attending his course on his return but he sadly for me he had continued on to his other home. Rip Tanuvasa faafetai tele mo au galuega sa fai! E manatua pea.

    1. Hi Anne..Writing this post is a little bitter-sweet for me because I was supposed to do it right after my interview with Tanuvasa. It’s taken his passing for me to finally get around to doing this… I guess better late than never, yeah? Thanks for stopping by 🙂 …

  40. Another correction -- the male’s tattoo is called “malofie” and “pe’a” is the only the name of the small black triangle at the back. It seems there was confusion when the palagi’s started recording information and they probably pointed to the back of a man’s tattoo and asked what is was and so was told the name of the part on the back they were pointing to.

    1. Ahh, thank you for the correction. I should have remembered that from this article. I’ll clarify that in part two of this piece.

      Thanks again!

Say something...