So this is the continuation of my report on what I have learned about the Samoan tattoo over the years, thanks largely to the class I took and an interview I conducted with the late Afioga Tofaeono Tanuvasa Tavale.
Here’s the whole series:
Before we get into this post, though, I just wanted to thank James (who left a comment in part 1) for pointing out something about the Samoan tattoo for men. I originally called it the pe’a, and indeed, that’s what most people call it. But this tattoo is traditionally known as the malofie.
As James says:
…“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”
Thank you again. Although it’s still widely acceptable today to call this tattoo a pe’a, I hope we all get used to referring to it by its original name.
Okay, let’s continue our discussion.
The Symbols and Patterns in a Samoan Tattoo
The truly beautiful thing about a traditional Samoan tattoo is that every little symbol used has meaning, and names even.
Certain elements of the malofie and the malu will be the same all the time, no matter who it is receiving the tattoo, but other parts of the design – the arrangement of certain symbols – will vary according to a person’s village and family history, as well as the tufuga giving the tattoo.
That small black triangle at the back is an example of an image common to all malofie. On a superficial level, it represents a va’a (canoe), but each part of that design carries even further meaning.
As a writer, Tanuvasa himself was a diligent researcher who learned a lot about the tatau from renowned tufuga Sulu’ape. The Sulu’ape title is carried today by several tufuga, but Tanuvasa conducted his interviews with the first Sulu’ape to gain widespread popularity outside of Samoa because of his level of skill, the man who eventually lived in South Auckland and died tragically in the 1990s.
I do apologize, but I don’t know his full name. Most people connected to the Samoan tatau scene, though, will know who I’m talking about.
Based on what he learned from this Sulu’ape, Tanuvasa helped me to understand the symbols that make up the va’a at the back of every malofie.
First is the pula tele, the large upside-down triangle. Nested inside that is a smaller triangle, often filled in completely with ink, called the pula tama. The pula tele represents a person’s extended family, while the pula tama refers to the immediate family.
Asofa’aifo are the lines that extend from the va’a shape and over a man’s hips. These lines strengthen the idea of family connection. Below the va’a are the ivi’aso’aso, which represent the intricacies of genealogy. So yes, we’re all about family.
The Stories Inked into a Samoan Tattoo
It can take years, maybe even a lifetime of study to learn all the names and meanings of every symbol in a Samoan tattoo. From the little that I know so far, what impresses me most are the layers of stories you can read in a tatau, if you know what to look for.
Each little pattern comes from everyday occurrences. For example, one symbol that looks like a ‘V’ comes from the footprints of a particular bird. Another V-shaped motif is taken from the legs of the ‘ali, those wooden headrests old men in the islands use as pillows. A common triangular symbol represents the shell of a delicious sea snail. Another symbol looks like a centipede. Another pattern is taken from the nets used to catch pigeons. Another one looks like a spearhead, and so forth.
Combined, these patterns tell us about life in Samoa back in the day. In my mind, they conjure up images of waking up in a remote village, understanding my place amongst family and friends, performing the typical chores of the day, and encountering objects, aromas, animals, plants and food unique to the environment of Samoa.
These experiences are fading with the passage of time – even for those of us who still live in Samoa – and might one day only exist in our memories, preserved in the symbols of our tatau (and our siapo, and other Samoan forms of visual art).
With a little more knowledge, though, you will be able to read a deeper, more personal story in the same patterns. The arrangement of certain symbols might represent a particular event in your village’s history. Another grouping of images might tell you about the status of a matai title in your family. The way a symbol is drawn might be dictated by something in your genealogy, or it could be a signature technique of the tufuga who gave you your tatau, which carries its own significance. You are forever connected to the person who tattoos you, so his mark becomes another part of your story.
On yet another layer of meaning, symbols in the tatau send strong messages about who we are as Samoan people. We’ve already talked about the va’a image in the malofie, how each symbol in it refers to different aspects of family. Indeed, the core of the Fa’asamoa is family.
I have so much more to learn still about symbols in the tatau, but I would expect other combinations of patterns to represent other inherently Samoan values: love, respect, courage and duty, etc.
This depth of intricate symbolism, and the degree of knowledge you have to possess in order to truly understand it all, elevates the Samoan tatau to a whole different level of body art.
It’s definitely not something you would undertake lightly.
Are you Samoan Enough to get a Samoan Tattoo?
We have a saying in our language:
E ta muamua le gutu ae le ta le vae
Its literal translation: “Tattoo the mouth before tattooing the legs”. It just means that you should strive for a little bit of wisdom first before you rush to get a tatau done.
Some people quote this proverb to insist that you shouldn’t receive a Samoan tattoo until you fully understand our culture first. I used to think the same way.
It makes sense, though. How can you truly appreciate the work of art if you have no idea what it means?
Tanuvasa, however, said that young men shouldn’t allow their lack of knowledge to prevent them from getting the malofie. The act of being tattooed itself will teach them so much, and having a permanent reminder of your culture on your body can often motivate a person to learn more.
Traditional village customs support Tanuvasa’s perspective. Pulau’u is what we call untitled men who don’t have a malofie. When matai gather together for discussions or ceremonies, the pulau’u are required to run around outside doing the difficult tasks to serve these chiefs. Sogaimiti, however, are allowed to sit inside the fale with the matai, to learn the intricacies of the fa’asamoa by listening to their conversations and participating in their rituals.
I now believe that even the desire for a tatau is evidence that a person wants to connect with the Samoan culture, and that shouldn’t be discouraged.
But people should still make the effort to really learn about the Fa’asamoa – whether that comes before or after being tattooed. It’s a sign of love and respect not for the tatau itself (which is still just a thing) but for other Samoans, for your parents and ancestors, for those of us who hold our traditions in our hearts.
After all, culture is really about people, right?
On to Part 3
Gosh I can talk a lot. I didn’t really stick with my agenda, did I? In this post, I was supposed to also cover:
- 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
I promise I will try to be a lot less um long winded when I DO talk about those fascinating topics in my next post.
Thank you all for your comments so far. Please continue to drop your thoughts and any questions here for me as I prepare to tackle Part 3.
UPDATE: Part III is here! Check it out: The Truth about the Samoan Tattoo (Tatau) – Part III