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

by | Tatau Samoa, Le Api | 57 comments

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:

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] The Truth about the Samoan Tattoo – Part 3

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.

A Compromise

Another branch of Samoan body art has become a lot more prominent in the last few decades. Based on old photos, I can only guess that these forms of tatau have been around for a while, but 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.


  1. Judy Toa

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

    • hamogeekgirl

      Thank you Judy … I’m still learning, too 🙂

  2. Ola Penn

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

    • hamogeekgirl

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

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

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

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

  3. Lagi

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

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

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

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

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

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

    • hamogeekgirl

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

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

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

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

    • ryaniuli

      I really appreciated your perspective. I agree with you can’t tell who is Samoan and what they have adopted culturally. My kids are half palagi and I’d hate for them to be judged on their appearance if the choose to represent our (their) culture.

  4. lindsey dahl

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

    Thank you,
    Lindsey Dahl

  5. Faatuatua

    I like the article and the purpose behind it. I do agree that some elders would say something like what Tanuvasa stated; that those who dont get the traditional tatau’s are cowards. I believe he didnt mean to offend anyone by it. Growing up around samoan elders they really like to joke around and challenge you. Telling you, you can’t do it because your afraid when they know you can. I believe Tanuvasa was challenging our youth to think; why have a sleeve when u can have a malu/soga’imiti that has meaning n responsibility to it.

    Well Tanuvasa, I understand your point but let me share you mine. I dont have a malu but I have a taulima. The reason why I dont have a malu is because of the old samoan say; ka muamua le guku, ae le’i ka iga le pe’a. My grandmother told me that. Why have a traditional tatau if you’re not ready to uphold the duties and responsibilities that comes with it. I speak for myself and I believe that the reason why some of us dont want a traditional tatau is out of respect. Why get a tatau when you dont know how to do faalavelave faasamoa or tautala le gagana faaaloalo. It is respect that some of us choose talima ma tauvae to represent our samoan side. o le sog’i miti ma le malu o mamanu ga a Samoa, they are secret to our culture and thats why we leave them to those who have the will and mouth to represent our culture respectfully. So its not that we are cowards, it’s out of respect we leave the traditional tataus for our brothers and sisters who are smart at the faasamoa and they can uphold the duties & responsibilities. At least thats what I’ve been told, but everyone has their own opinion. If you want to do more research there is a book called “O si manu o Alii by Aumua” she has her point on the tatau as well. Its a great book, not only about the tatau but about the cculture and the language itself. Faafetai lava.

    • hamogeekgirl

      I think that’s an honorable point of view, Faatuatua. Thank you for comment. (And I love your name, by the way).


    • lila

      Thats true.. I agree with u faatuatua.. my dad want me to get da malu, I told my dad let my baby sister get that cause my dad is his side of da family is chief. Idk how to talk respectful in from of others like u do lauga. I can dance taupou n do feau, comes to.da.faaaloalo ia misi akoa.. my baby sister knows everything.. thats why I choose taulima n tauvae.. I luv my culture.. ty faatuatua for dat good n tru point..

    • lila

      One more. Once u get that malu or sogaimiti u take care those two things n da rulea. Like my uncles tell us if we ready to get a.malu or sogaimiti.. tausi lelei tulafono o le tatau.. yes walk, talk, know ur respect to others..

  6. Timeout Taumua

    Faafetai mo le article! Nicely done. Your late teacher used to be mine in Samoa College. May he rest in peace. That is a good question and the jade story is the right answer! Nothing against others with it, but to me, as long as it is received free of charge. I consider that then a cultural gift for one who has the utmost respect for the faa-Samoa, rather than being hustled for that respect! It is a form of acceptance in honor of this specific individual. That then speaks both for the individual and the culture, placing much more value of both. If it’s paid for, then our cultural symbols are valued in equivalent to a prison tatoo, those ugly military ones, or any others scratched onto skin with nails and ink.

    As to Ola Penn, the “coward” reference by my late teacher is a valid point. One of the unwritten purpose of the tatau, is to test the taulealea’s nuts (fuamiki). Because the faa-Samoa is literally based on humility and respect (unfortunately nobody notices), violence is discouraged for men culturally in the village. The tatau then slowly became a form of expression and symbolized bravery. You have to have fuamiki to lay there for three months while the teeth of this thing goes into your skin at least a quarter inch not just once but over and over! The worst part of it is that in some parts, it has to be done the same way on the next day!!!! Imagine that!! And the worser worst worst part of it, that goes for the area around the fuamikis! I believe the original tatau called for tatooing the fuamikis which is not practiced today! And then after all that everyday for three months, you have to go and soak those still bleeding cuts in sea water. Often wonder why nobody lost his fuamikis from that alone!!!

    But the evidence is with my late teacher. In his support is the amount of tauleleas’ walking around with pe’as’ half done, commonly known as p’ea muku! It is difficult to measure one’s bravery from getting a pe’a probably because the average person uses violence as the measuring stick, but for a culture who value respect and humility over violence, this was our way of measuring how big one’s fuamikis are!

    Hope I contribute some insight onto this subject and the late Mr. Tanuvasa taught the Faa-Samoa Aganu’u in Samoa College!

    Fa’apale Alosese Tuvalu Taumua

  7. Vai Fruean

    money is more important in our days than the culture, this is getting ridiculous, if its not yours then don’t do it, i’m samoan that knows the culture very well and in order for you to get a pe’a or malu, you have to earn that, you gotta tattoo your mouth first before you get one meaning learning a fa’asamoa in the village especially in the matai system, starting from your family, you got to serve(tautua) all these are tight in the culture(aganu’u) or the fa’asamoa, the samoan ways. well my point is, if you don’t know anything about the samoan culture not even samoan protocols, the language of chiefs it will be better for you to NOT get one, the artists are getting ridiculous as well, money is more important to them than what’s matter, some of the people that wears the pe’a or malu in our days are those who are dancers, just to show off and telling the world they’re of samoan heritage but they dont’t know nothing about the culture,you gotta live and grow up in the village in samoa to be able to learn about this not in town area like apia, i’m talking specifically about villages where there is a matai system. anyway the aganu’u is very dear to my heart and i’m proud of it. PROUD SAMOAN.

  8. hamogeekgirl

    Thank you so much everyone for your comments. I really appreciate you taking the time to read this post and share your thoughts. I’ll come back with more specific replies.. But just a note…

    Please remember that a sogaimiti is not a tattoo. The tattoo for men is called a pe’a or malofie.

    Sogaimiti is a MAN who has a pe’a. If we keep getting this word wrong, we’re going to confuse people who are learning our culture.

    Ma le fa’aaloalo lava.

  9. tama mai faleata

    When people say “ka muamua le gutu, ae le’i ka iga le pea” it fair to say people who don’t have one say this, purely out of jealousy that they don’t have the nuts to go through the process?
    When I hear samoans say this I think back to when I was going through faapefu and that is pain that is hard to describe, but my point is how can people say the above quote when it is a painfull process fai uma ile loko!..I knew once I took the journey that my life would change, so I’m doing most of the taulealea work in church, folafola tonai/sua/faaloaloaga, tautu ava, tufa ava I would like to think that when you decide to take the journey of tatau, that there is still time as long as you put the time in to learn tu ma aga ole tatou aganu’u.
    But don’t let peoples comments like the above quote stop people from getting the laei, cause you find people who don’t have one like to use this, but it should be the person wearing the tatau there responsibility to find out how to improve yourself in samoan culture.
    For myself I think every samoan boy should go through this prob think twice bout trying to be the tough on the street cause your humbled by the journey you took..went to hell and back, but I stand before God and my family as a humble servant.

  10. Teine Samoa Moni

    I believe that you should be Samoan (born and raised) and be a Chief’s daughter to have the privilege of getting a malu. As for the men, a pe’a is always a rewarding thing for a young man who is wanting to have a Chief title. I believe that today, the malu and pe’a have defeated their purpose because many people define it a sexy work of art but as you have mentioned it is also very sacred. Some people are giving the opportunity to people who are not Samoan to get the tattoo because of money. I do believe that the malu and pe’a are two distinctive part of the Samoan culture that makes our culture unique. The neatness and standout of the tattoos when done are magnificent. Although I do believe that research and visitations to Samoan villages, countries, families, etc. are not accounted for actually understanding the culture of Samoa. The article is great. The knowledge is shared. The ideas and opinions we well supported. The passion though is not written in your article determining a Samoan person at heart. (No offense) Thank you for sharing such a well written and thoughtful piece of writing.

    • Samoa685

      I agree nowadays people get it for all sorts of reasons but miss out on the main purpose it was set out for.

    • FalFal

      The tatau is as sacred as our children, I agree foreigners should not get the tatau and to everyone who thinks that putting parts of the tatau on your arm qualifies you as a culturally respectful samoan…you might want to think again. There is no compromise with our traditions, period. Our ancestors have been carrying that tradition for decades and our so call “fia poko” generation comes along and decide to modernised it. Yes, I too am sick of looking at girls parading their malu in their mini skirts.

  11. Tuiga

    I took some time to sit down and read this article and everyone’s comments. It’s pretty sad that we soldiers who grew up in Samoa are called cowards for having tatau sleeves. I speak Samoan, I grew up in Saolufata, Upolu to be exact! I chose to leave the island to better my family and a future for our people! But having a little bit of home with us is a disgrace? I didn’t get a malofie cause I know I’m not physically there to serve but I support my family from abroad. Does this consider us in the US military cowards for leaving Samoa to find a better life for our families and our people? No I think he’s a coward, he should have thought this through when he said that! And it goes for you as well. It’s funny cause most of the people that served in the military came back to Samoa and brought wealth to the island, and yet were still not entitle to a bit of Samoan culture. With us being in the military brought more opportunities and open up many doors to all the Samaons down there! That is something you as a writer sometimes need to think about. There’s people out there that follow up on everything that’s going on down in the island.
    Besides all that, I love the article, it tells the truth about our culture, our people and the origin of our sacred tatau! Sorry if I disrespected you, I felt a little offended when reading about us in the military in relations with our tattoos!
    Ia aua nei avea ia tala ma mea e tetena ai I lou finagalo, ua na o se pola lava e motu i tua e le amanaia ina. Ia alofa le Atua ma ia foai le mafaufau matala aua lou feagai ai ma ou tiute fai. Ma lo’u fa’aaloalo lava faafetai.

    God bless America!
    Fa’avae i le Atua Samoa.

    • Marjourie Meredith

      Gnaaaaw I am so proud of you brother! I am half Samoan half English but I was born and raised on the islands my whole life and I understand why you would be offended. I speak fluently in both languages. I pray that you don’t really take to heart what elder Tofaeono Tanuvasa Tavale said. I can imagine even my grandpa saying things like this as well (not that I agree) but o tagata matutua a e faapena ma o latou uiga 🙂 I am proud of my brothers who get the sleeve because of their family and cultural bonds. Malo lava le loto pulea ma le loto nu’u! Ia manuia ou faiva!

    • hamogeekgirl

      Hi Tuiga. My apologies for finding your comment so late. I think you’ve misread me, though. Tanuvasa’s statement about ‘cowards’ had nothing to do with people in the military. It’s me who suggested that armband or sleeve tattoos are a good way for anyone (Samoan or otherwise) to express their love for Samoa, especially if they’re not in the position to fully participate in the Fa’asamoa.

      Tanuvasa’s point was that, if you’re Samoan and you’re going to get a taulima, might as well get the whole pe’a done. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to fully understand the culture to get it. You just have to be willing to learn.

      I know his words sound harsh – nobody likes to be called a coward – but it’s an opinion shared by a lot of our elders. Please take it within context and with the understanding that they come from a different world than we do. My purpose for writing anything about our culture is to shed light on the history that we share, and that – to me – includes showing respect and humility for the beliefs of those who came before us.

      Ma le fa’aaloalo lava

      Ia manuia la’asaga o le tausaga fou.

    • Jerry

      My military sibling:
      We who have chosen to serve our people are often disregarded. Our love for our people and our freedom to practice our way of life is what draws us to serve. Those who think only of themselves and are eager to find ways to make themselves seem important are always the first to denigrate those who truly serve. There is a great deal to admire in island culture, and you should be proud of ANY portion of your makeup. Remember, you come from LOVE. That is the underlying truth and what gives you the strength to serve your people, even if that service costs you your life. That courage deserves Respect. You will find it in the hearts of all your true people.

      Respect and Best Regards for your brother in service…

  12. Valentine talamoni

    Do I have to me a Samoan to get a Samoan tattoo? Considering today’s modern society, “No.” The fact that the design patterns are visually pleasing and unique, there’s a lot do demand for it from “outsiders,” it’s beneficial for the client and also for the artist. It’s a win win situation. BUT, when that person wears that contemporary sleeve with sinuous patterns of waves and imitation of soaring birds, can that person explicitly describe the journey of how those patterns came to be. Where do they originate from? What specific bird is imitated as a pattern? What fish? Where is the direction of the True North, to which direction the pattern shows the wind blows from to its intended destination? Yes, anyone can wear the Samoan tattoo, but do u know the story, ur ancestory line is engraved in those patterns. And that, I feel is a pride only Samoans are inheritedly privileged to wear. Personally, my answer is “yes”, you have to be Samoan to wear a Samoan tattoo, especially a contemporary one. Today we don’t have pride in preserving the essence of our culture, even ADIDAS(or was it Nike) tried to imitate the tatau pattern. Wear it with pride, knowing your ancestors story which becomes inheritedly yours by birthright. :). Thank you for the article. Soifua

    • tom kasipale

      in all honesty you don’t have to be, you can be african and still get it. the samoan tatoo is somewhat a small thriving business now – as it’s been shown all around the world more peeps are wanting it……… the actual answer is no you don’t have to be i should know my family does this for a living and are pretty much renowned for doing it – hell the is a girl in america not of samoan decent that has my family matai name………doing freaking just that tats wtf

      • Timeout Taumua

        cheap-ass tricks! selling a family honor for money to foreigners! probably a no-name matai anyhoo-hoo! Would u give up the muli for the right price though? everything else is for sale! cheap-ass tricks!

  13. Amy

    Really great, measured and informative article.

    Quite helpful for those of us who are half caste and who sort of struggle with walking the line between expressing both sides of our culture.

    I wholeheartedly agree with Faatuatua. That from my perspective as someone who has grown up (as per my fathers wishes ) to live the Palagi life. I would never consider following the malu route because it would not be appropriate.

    I do not live the faasamoa way. This is purely just my own opinion as many have eloquently stated that it is impossible to judge a persons character by the colour of their skin. So the pea or malu might be right for them.

    I am Samoan and Palagi and proud of both parts so the contemporary form of tatau, I see as a potential compromise based on my background.

    Great to see this discussion taking place.

  14. Leen

    I still think girls should be very dilligent when they’ve gotten the malu! Whether the times have changed or not..

    • Leuaina

      I absolutely agree, it really irritates me when I see young girls with a malu prancing around in mini-shorts showing it off, I know of a few girls who have the malu and don’t know much about it other than it’s a ‘samoan thing’. Diligence and respect is so important when it comes to anyone who has received a tatau, I really hope that our generation won’t be the ones who change traditions *sigh*

  15. Fiafuatai

    I’m a Samoan American. Only been to Samoa twice for visits, and being born and raised in the States, it’s been challenging trying to understand my own language and culture. Considering the whole tatau, I honestly believe if you’re NOT of Polynesian heritage you shouldn’t get a Samoan (or Poly) tatt, unless you were raised with/ by polynesian people and know the significant of the tatt.

    I remember some of my meauli and palagi friends who were raised with Samoans would talk about getting one. I always told them the saying “e ta muamua le gutu a e le ta le vae” because personally to me, if you’re gonna get a poly tatt, know what it is you’re getting. Speaking for myself, I would LOVE to get a malu but I feel that I still don’t know a lot about it. I really just want one because it looks cool, but what a shame it would be if someone asked me, “hey what does your tatt mean,” and all I can say is.. “IDK it looks cool. It’s Samoan.” Oka se ma!

    This one palagi guy asked me where he could get a Samoan tatt because he thought it looked cool. I was offended by that. I feel that the malofie and malu, with all its designs and meanings, should be seen as something of high value and shouldn’t be exploited for business and money gain.

    Nowadays, poly and non-poly tattooist tatt up anyone. Nick Carter from the Backstreet boys has a tribal tatt, Rihanna went to NZ and tried to get a Maroi tatt but then covered it up. I just feel that you need to have some sort of understanding of what the designs mean before getting it. Just because it looks cool is an invalid reason for me.

    • Edward Daniels

      let me start by saying, i really like Polynesian tattoos an i know i want one. i dont want to disrespect the culture by getting one. at the same time i have not found nothing out there with meaning like it. That right their alone makes me want to see what the pieces mean and put together something meaningful while being a very aesthetic design.I refer to book that breaks down the symbols and the meaning for them. in ur honest opinion will i be regretting the tattoo even if i know what the pieces mean.

      • hamogeekgirl

        Hi Edward. I think it’s up to you what kind of tattoo you get. Knowing the meaning behind those symbols is at least a display of respect for our culture. If you don’t identify as Samoan (by blood or adoption/adaption) then I personally would feel more comfortable with you getting a taulima (armband) or sleeve tattoo rather than a pe’a. As you can see in the comments, though, other Samoans have differing opinions. Some don’t like to see any kind of Samoan designs on non-Samoans, so just be prepared to accept that your choice might cause offense. If you can deal with that, go for it.

  16. Sean Harvey

    I wouldn’t ever get a pe’a. I’ve been in love with Samoa, its culture, and its people for as long as I can remember. I would move there in a heartbeat is I wasn’t in such a financial pinch right now. I’ve been, but did not get a tatau. I’m not Samoan ethnically, i’m not a citizen, I’ve spent a whopping 7 days on the Samoan islands, and I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to get a pe’a. I will hopefully get a sleeve tattoo one day, as i want to express my love for the islands but am not Samoan in ANY way.

  17. Kyle

    I’m glad I found this article. I love tattoos and I’ve been trying to find a way to incorporate my uncle(half) who passed away and was half samoan. He was amazing person. Very passionate about life and always tried to be a good role model for me. He was like a father to me. I want to find a way to incorporate his culture and memorial into a tattoo. But I don’t want to disrespect his family’s heritage. Thank you for taking the time to write this up.

  18. Kawika

    Poly tatau is part of our cultures and. Caucasians and foreigners getting polynesian tattoos are, in a way, stealing our culture by getting inked up with something 95% of people do not even know what they are wearing. Every lines, every details in a polynesian tattoo represent something personal to it’s owner or family. There is no “copy and paste” in poly tattoos. You guys go on google to look at exemples, without knowing what it means:”oh this one is beautiful, I want it”??NO, it doesn’t work like that. We do not wear this as fashion. it is a shame to us, polynesians to see so many people getting Samoans, maori, hawaiian or even PNG tattoos without meanings..just for fun?You walk on beaches looking though with your ink and you do not even come from Polynesia OR you do not even know what you got on your body!!! be careful what you get because one day you might hear someone asking you a question on your ink and there are some good chances you do not know what to answer. Polynesian tattoos do not only mean ocean and turtles or sharks. We do not get tattooed by fun, our ancestors were wearing our tattoos for very specific reasons-it is in our cultures as tattoos were our way to communicate with other islands, warriors and repulse enemies. Before thinking of getting inked up with a polynesian tattoo, think twice.
    Your friends and family might find your new tattoo beautiful, but if you come to Hawaii or anywhere else in the poly triangle, you might get a different opinion from people who do know what your cute little poly tattoo means…

    • DV

      I am a white man from South Africa. I can not afford to go to any of the islands, but one thing I have felt a great attraction to is the Polynesian tattoo. Don’t ask me why, but it has always resonated with me as a thing of beauty and power.

      I could not bring myself to get one as a younger man is it seemed naive & disrespectful to be ignorant of the meanings and symbols on your body that are clearly very important to a group of humans half way across the globe.
      Still, it calls to me.

      10 years later I purchased a book on Polynesian symbols that is geared towards creating your own, meaningful Polynesian Tattoo. It has opened my eyes and for that I grateful because it gives me a deeper insight into a culture that is fascinatingly strange and so far removed from my own that I can only be in awe.
      But I am stuck with one problem. It still does not seem right to get a Polynesian tattoo that has not at least been scrutinised, altered, touched or approved by one from the islands.
      But where do I go to meet this Polynesian artist? How do I spend time with a creator so he may better gauge my soul if I can not leave my piece of rock?

  19. Bryana Tanuvasa

    I’m not sure if this thread is still active…but I would appreciate if anyone saw this to please let me know their opinions on the matter.

    I am an afakasi, whose mother and grandmother are Taupou’s and my great-grandfather a Matai. Is it right for be to receive a malu? I don’t want it for decoration, I want it carry on and represent my ancestors on my skin. My issue is that me preparing and asking if it is right for me to get a malu might come off as a bit…mataga?
    In my village, I am recognized as a taupou, but half of my family doesn’t approve of this as I am only half Samoan and it wouldn’t look right on white skin even if there is brown blood beneath it.

    • Teine_Nosy


      Whatever issues you have with your relatives is something you (if you’re an adult) or your parents (if you’re young) should discuss together. Whether you choose to wait for their approval or not is up to you. Will you be happy with the decision or will it inflame an already intense situation? Only you know the answer to that.

      You say you’re the taupou of your family, the malu is like your signature, the visible Samoan imprint – it symbolises who you are as a taupou and your duty as one.

      It doesn’t matter if you’re full, half or 1/4 Samoan. You’re still Samoan (part Samoan in your case). Some of our people really need to let go of segregating us as if we belong in different class (caste) systems.

      The colour of your skin shouldn’t even be an issue. I have relatives who are part Samoan, Norwegian and American or part Samoan, Maori and Greek (and I could go on forever but I’ll save it for another time). My aiga skin tones range from milk chocolate to caramel to vanilla haha. We’ve basically got the brown to white shade covered. lol

      And there’s nothing wrong asking for advice. Don’t feel like you can’t share any concerns. Just don’t mention names hehe.

      Best of luck to you.

  20. PasificaInfo

    The picture with the woman being tattooed and surrounded by other women is actually a Melanesian picture. Motuan tattooing that is still around today.

    • Pasifika2000

      Thumbs up for noticing!! I was reading and enjoying the article until I came across that picture…poor research by the looks of it.

  21. devonhiee

    Seen Filipinos with Polynesian looking tattoos and wanted to knock their asses out. Big disrespect and it is very depressing to see how trendy our culture is. Polynesian tattoos should only be for our people. Even at that, you should have to earn it rather than give someone cash in exchange for one.

    • James

      Agreed, seen many Filipinos with Poly tattoos claiming its their culture?!

    • timeout taumua

      if u find the time and do the research, you will find Filipinos with polynesian design tats all to way back to the 1600s I believe and white folks started documenting the art of tatoo designs from the south pacific. it’s really interesting.

    • Miguel

      If you follow our species’ migration, you’ll see that your people passed by what is now the Philippines. We too have our own tattoo cultures. From headhunters in our nothern mountains and seafarers further south. Even the European depictions of our natives show them as covered in tattoos. Perhaps we are not trendy. Maybe your culture and mine just have a few similarities. Don’t hate 🙂

    • Lanie

      I know it’s an old comment but I feel there is so much misconception about this. The ‘Polynesian looking tattoos’ you may see on Filipinos may actually be traditional Filipino tattoos.

      If you trace back the origins of Polynesian people they originated from the ‘Lapita’ people thousands of years ago and who first appeared either in Taiwan or Northern Philippines (it’s debated).

      If you don’t believe me have a look at our languages, we’re all classified under ‘Austronesian’ languages, in Visaya (a language of the Philippines) our words from 1-10 are: usa, duha, tolu, upat, lima, unom, pito, walu, siyam, napo. You might find you recognise some words there because some are similar to counting to 10 in Polynesian languages.

      We too have traditional tattoos that have been around for thousands of years (and even found preserved mummies with the tattoos on them!) and recorded as early as the 16th Century. They might look similar to Polynesian tattoos but please don’t think of it as disrespect, tattoos are part our culture too!

    • M_Civil

      Im Maori with some Poly in me through the family, not that I was fully informed about it, nonetheless the comment I see is something even my boss said to me when I asked about his Tatau, and all in respect you are correct that it should be earned and not paid for but I am stumped how would I possibly earn one that tells my family and tradition into the poly world and sacraments? I am truly curious to have a modified Tatu with Nga-Puhi Moko or/ Ta moko ties to describe my lineage; it seems obvious that would not be possible but I am a free-lanced Maori male, any ideas on what to do?

  22. Kizz

    I have enjoyed reading the opinions of both Polynesian’s and Non-Polynesians on this thread. I am a non-polynesian with no family that are, however the reason for me getting my Samoan Polynesian tattoo was because of the cultural respect that Polynesians have for their family, the land they stand on and the appreciation for the elements. I spend 2months in Hawaii and have always felt a bond to the culture as its very similar to the camaraderie in Indian Cultures.

    I met with a Polynesian artist who was visiting London and we spoke for 2months before we even got the tattoo done. He planned each line and what I wanted the tattoo to symbolise to me. Its a tattoo I am proud to have as it has my family, my personality, protection all in one. I only wish I was fully Polynesian.

    For me I would oneway want to spend more time travelling the Polynesian Islands and emerge myself in the culture.

    I respect some Polynesians getting offended by non-polynesians getting these tattoos if they don’t understand the culture or fins a pretty design in a book. I agree, its allot more than that.

    Its similar to people getting Dragons, Coys, Buddhist Symbols etc. tattooed on them – without understanding the true meaning the tattoo is empty.

    • timeout taumua

      don’t be embarrassed by wearing a poly tat. i consider that an honor. there’s just the two traditional ones that i believe are cultural and should only be worn by folks from Samoa, but all other designs are fair game. u expressed the right conditions why other cultures wear these designs. other europeans before you did the same but worse. picasso is an example. its difficult to ignore where he got the influence for the paintings that made him famous until he sent his student gauguin to study art in Tahiti. i always consider picasso a thief and a liar as his paintings had been displayed on bodies of polys for thousands of years. but don’t worry about it, get more as unlike picasso, you do it out of respect for our culture.

  23. Beth

    I got a question I found a tattoo that I really like and then want to put it on my left thigh. I don’t know how to put the picture to show you what I talking about….

  24. Tex Man

    Hi, Im from PNG and I have actually noticed that picture..these a motuan women form Papua New Guinea.

    Like me my wantok says,it is very much alive today.

    Em taosl,

    Lukim yupla .

    • hamogeekgirl

      Hey guys… Just visiting this post for the first time in a long time – I still love all the thought and discussion going on in these comments.

      Thank you also for the correction on the image of the women receiving tattoos (removed now).. I’d never heard of Samoan women with those kinds of tattoos either, but I found that photo on another site, labelled there as Samoan, so I was like… oh, that’s interesting… lol.

      I should have researched further before including that image here.

      That said, that tattoo practice (from PNG? Melanesian?) is beautiful. I have some Melanesian ancestry… I wonder if I qualify.. lol.

  25. Vincent J Francis

    Hello, I hope this trend is still active. I’m from the Melanesian region of the Pacific (although our people are relatively light skin, also depicted in one of your photos) and the Tattoos on our women look amazingly attractive especially on their thighs.

    I have a deep regard for Samoan culture and would love to immerse myself in it, by marrying a Samoan woman. I usually entertain the idea of having her tattooed in my A’alo while me in her Pe’a.

  26. kit

    Thank you for this site those article and you all for your comment. it s been a year now i’m thinking hard about getting a samoan tattoo. i would never do a malu or pe’a as i am not samoan, and it just feel wrong. i was scared about a sleeve too because i dont want in any way disrespect anyone. So i was worried, i knew i wanted or even needed a tribal tatt since i was 15 but never did because nothing seems right. I saw a lot of those.

    Till i saw 3 years ago a samoan tatt for the first time. it just imposed itself to me. I follow the design to the origin and discover samoa and try ever since to discover and learn about the culture and history. i’m far from done, cause i really want to learn it all. I have such a profound respect for the culture.
    I want it to reflect my love and respect for samoa not the other way around.
    I will for sure read again this website as it s really hard to find large source of info about history some things here and there. but i want to know way more before i got a sleeve.

    All your comment, reassure me a bit, about the not traditionnal being accepted by non samoan. And not taked as disrespect.

  27. Jay

    Really was planning on getting the tattoo but out of respect i wont do love the samoan culture tho thanks for educating me on this topic

  28. Nissi

    What is your opinion on this situation…
    Me and a group of other girls ,2 of who’s mother is truly Polynesian, have been doing Polynesian danceing of all styles for a few years now under the teaching of our kumu (their mother). In many more years when we feel truly experienced we each wanted to get a malu to show our love of the dances and culture. Although not all of us have any polynesian blood at all or any other ties to the islands besides dancing . What do you think is best?

    • hamogeekgirl

      Hey Nissi

      I can only give you my opinion – I hope others will share theirs.

      Samoa is only one country in Polynesia. Even amongst Polynesians, we are sensitive about who is wearing the symbols that represent our own cultural heritage… What I mean is, it’s highly unlikely that you would see a Samoan man with a full moko (facial tattoo) from the indigenous New Zealand culture, neither is it common or generally acceptable for, say, a Tahitian dancer to get a Samoan malu.

      I’m not saying it never happens. It’s your money and your body – people can do what they want..

      But tattoos like the malu and malofie (and ta moko for Māori, or Marquesan tattoos, etc)…the ones that are more than just sentimental decoration because they are connected to cultural ritual and rites of passage…these ones are statements of identity.

      And as much as I loved and appreciated someone else’s culture, if I didn’t truly identify with that group of people – if I wouldn’t tick an ethnicity box calling myself one of them – then, as a matter of pride in my own cultural heritage, I would never want to mark my body with what another entire culture considers a symbol of who they are.

      Instead, I’d spend a little time figuring out who I am and how I want to celebrate that.

      That’s just me though.

      Keen to read any other thoughts on the matter. x

  29. Ryan

    I’m only 1/4 Samoan… but I’m wanting to get the tatau. It’s important!



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