I’m still working on the the final of my 3-part series about the Samoan Tattoo (Tatau) – everything I learned from personal research and from my teacher of Samoan culture, the late Afioga Tofaeono Tanuvasa Tavale.
Here’s the whole series:
Thank you so much to everyone who read, shared and commented on those posts. Before I complete part III, I just wanted to briefly(?) address one of the most common questions we’ve received about the Samoan Tattoo:
Do I have to be Samoan to get a Samoan tattoo?
Please note that in this case, I can only answer with an (educated, thoroughly-pondered) opinion.
The quick answer:
It’s not difficult to find a tattooist who will take your money for a bit of Samoan looking skin art. It’s your body. Do what you want.
Just be prepared for some side glances or head-to-toe scanning, accompanied by sighs and solemn head shakes, from Samoans who hold our culture – and the art we produce to express our identity – dear to our hearts.
The not so quick answer:
Only two tatau forms are considered truly traditional. These are the malofie (known commonly as the pe’a) for men and the malu for women.
Both these tatau cover a person’s thighs, with the pe’a reaching up over a man’s hips to his waistline. They are administered by tradesmen (tufuga) who are skilled in the art of tatau, using handmade tools called ‘au ta, in a painful procedure that can last hours for the malu and up to several months for the malofie.
Both these tatau have deep cultural significance. What does that mean?
It means the patterns and symbols used tell a story about Samoan people – our traditions and even our family histories.
It means that a man with a malofie (who is known as a soga’imiti) has certain responsibilities in his family or village that un-tattooed men don’t. A soga’imiti has a higher social status in his community than others, and is given more opportunities to learn correct protocol, history, oratory skills and other intricacies of the Fa’asamoa.
In the traditional Samoan village, every young man is expected and encouraged to receive a pe’a as part of his natural progression: from boy to village laborer, to student of the matai (chiefs), to family leader.
The context for the women’s tatau – the malu – is not the same, but it still carries a lot of cultural weight. In the old days, only daughters of very high ranking chiefs – especially those who were bestowed a taupou title and danced regularly for village and family events – received a malu.
Today, rules about who can receive it are not as stringent, but the malu is still a symbol of beauty, grace, strength and commitment to the values of a ‘good’ Samoan woman. The malu is sexy! But in that regal and virtuous way where sex is sacred, reserved for the sheets (not displayed on the streets).
A Personal Decision
If you do not identify as Samoan, knowing now what I’ve just told you about these traditional tatau, why would you even want to get a malu or malofie/pe’a?
Without ties to our culture and family protocol, these tattoo could mean nothing to you but a long ordeal of pain for a little bit of body art. To me, it’s kinda like wearing a full army uniform in public and accepting gratitude for service to your country… without ever having enlisted in the military.
Unless you fully adopt our way of life, you’d be like the singer Madonna with the crucifix – making a mockery of a symbol that Catholics consider sacred. You could be offending the very people you intended to honor with the gesture.
Another branch of Samoan body art has become a lot more prominent in the last few decades. Based on old photos, I can only guess that these forms of tatau have been around for a while, but only as decoration because they are never mentioned in any of our traditions about culturally significant tattoos.
I mean that you’d never hear a matai or an expert on Samoan culture refer to a Samoan style armband or sleeve or ankle tattoo as having any connection to the social structures in our families or villages.
In fact, my teacher Tanuvasa, didn’t think much of them at all. He believed – quite cynically, I know – that the only Samoans who get those are too cowardly to endure the pain of the the malu or the pe’a. (I have the recording of him saying that, in case you want to hear it from the source.)
That said, these days many Samoans are proud to get armband, ankleband or sleeve tattoos as a declaration of their cultural connections. Sailors and military who served in Samoa would also get these kinds of tattoos as a souvenir of their time there.
Tanuvasa reminded me that when our people dance in big groups for lively celebrations, we often wrap our wrists, upper arms and ankles in the long leaves of our ti trees. Our armband (taulima), anklet, sleeve, etc. tattoos are suggestive of those wrappings, so this tatau practice is similar to the recent trend of tattooing your ring finger instead of wearing a wedding band.
While these tatau are only decorative, they’re often very beautiful. Modern tattooists are able to capture the essence of Samoa in these skillful creations, using the patterns found in our malu and malofie, as well as in our siapo and elei (fabric art) and our carvings.
To me, this is the kind of tattoo you get when you want to express your love for Samoa and admiration for our culture, but don’t necessarily have the means or the family ties to fully commit to the responsibilities connected with the more traditional tatau.
This is the kind of Samoan tattoo you get when you’re not Samoan… or when you’re proud of your Samoan heritage but have no intention or opportunity to serve in a village, care for your extended Samoan family or study our traditions under the tutelage of a high matai.
The Story-time Conclusion
I read a short story / essay ages ago for school. I tried to find it again, but I can’t remember a lot of its details, or who wrote it. Maybe you’ll recognize it and let me know.
Anyway, it’s written from the perspective of a Caucasian lady who was traveling through a poor, third world country either in Africa or Asia. She fell in love with this place, especially with its people, and she wanted to take home a souvenir.
As was usual in this part of the world, she came across a table set up by the side of the road that displayed little home made trinkets for sale. This lady looked through them for the perfect reminder of her time in this country. Then she noticed that the young girl behind the table was wearing a gorgeous, traditional jade (I think) bracelet. Set against her dark skin, it caught the sunlight and shimmered magically, and this lady knew she had to have it.
After only a little persuasion and some money, the girl happily gave this lady the bracelet… and the lady continued on her way, excited about her beautiful new purchase. She slipped it onto her own wrist, and then something happened.
She couldn’t understand it at first, but somehow, the bracelet didn’t look the same anymore. It didn’t sparkle the way it did before. It looked lifeless and bland now.
It took a little while before she realized that much of the beauty in this piece of jewelry came from its setting against the skin of its previous owner. As an expression of that girl’s culture, it was a part of her style and identity… and was never going to look quite the same on anyone else.
The Moral of the Story is…
Do you have to be Samoan to get a Samoan tattoo?
Should you be?
You tell me.