The Truth about the Samoan Tattoo (Tatau) – Part 2

Tatau - Samoan Tattoo44 Comments on The Truth about the Samoan Tattoo (Tatau) – Part 2

The Truth about the Samoan Tattoo (Tatau) – Part 2

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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:

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

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.

EDIT > This tufuga’s name was Sua Sulu’ape Paulo II

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.

Ia manuia!

UPDATE: Part III is here! Check it out: The Truth about the Samoan Tattoo (Tatau) – Part III

Known IRL as Lillian (Lils, Lei'a) Arp, I'm just a Hamo Geek Girl, sitting behind a screen... learning, deep-thinking and typing up Samoan things.

44 thoughts on “The Truth about the Samoan Tattoo (Tatau) – Part 2

  1. Talofa,
    There appears to be some differences in opinion in the naming of the parts of the tattoo. I notice that your information is from the 1930 book “samoan material culture”. I have a paper from Su’a Sulu’ape Paulo (who was the tufuga you referred to who died in NZ) and he has given different naming as follows…
    pula tama (pula la’ititi + pula tele) This includes two different signs: the decoration under the small pe’a is called pula la’ititi, while the one beside it with the black shadow is the pula tele. The pula la’ititi symbolizes the desire to take care of one’s closest relatives, while the pula tele refers to the family in the wider sense of the word, signifying social commitment, service towards the community, seeing to everyone’s needs

    1. Hi again James… that ‘Samoan material culture’ reference is only for the image I took from their site. I’m using it just to show the area of the tattoo I was talking about, but I didn’t use any of the information from that graphic.

      What I’m reporting is straight from my interview with Tanuvasa (I posted the audio of that part up there for you to hear). It sounds like he was paraphrasing what he learned from Sulu’ape – probably the information you’re quoting, although I got the impression that Tanuvasa was referring to conversations they’d had – but it’s generally the same idea, don’t you think?

      Thank you though for clarifying yet again, and for providing me with the name of Su’a Sulu’ape Paulo. Very good to know…

    2. By the way, I would love to read that paper you’re referring to James. Is it available publicly?

      1. I don’t think it is on the web anymore – but i have it saved in a word document. Can i upload a word document to 1samoana? There is text and some diagrams.

    3. Hi James. Sorry I missed this comment of yours for some reason.

      Yes please, I would still very much like to read that piece.

      Do you think you could email the article to me?

      Thank you so much.

  2. Keep up the good work hamogeekgirl because it’s lack of knowledge that often contributes to misunderstanding. I’m enjoying the read 🙂

  3. Another great article! I also read that one of the things that make Samoan tattoos distinct from other Polynesian tattoos is that they do not contain circular lines. Is this accurate? Also wondering what the difference is between a Tauleale’a and a Pulau’u? Is the former an untattooed boy and the latter an untattooed man? Thank you for this information. I look forward to the next one.

    1. Hi Rick.. Apologies for my reply coming 3 months late.

      Tauleale’a is a man who doesn’t have a matai title. Pulau’u is a person without a traditional Samoan tatau. So a pulau’u can also be a tauleale’a, and a matai can also be a pulau’u… especially these days. Back in the day, it was more common for matai to be pulled from the ranks of sogaimiti (men who have the malofie / pe’a), so most matai were already tattooed. But it’s not like that today… Just about all the living matai in my family right now are also pulau’u. Hope that helps 🙂

  4. another great post…i love it….cant wait to read part three…..keep posting…..i hope you will publish a book someday….if you do have a book…let me know….i am dying to read one your books…

    1. That is so flattering chadine. Wow… Sadly, though.. I can hardly keep up with a blog, much less write a whole book lol But if I ever do, I’ll definitely let you know 🙂

  5. Talofa
    My name is Laura and I’m currently working on an article about tatau for a school project. I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions/interview you via email. You seem very informed on tatau and I would love to hear you’re opinion and you’re thoughts.
    Thank you

    1. HI Laura… gosh I’m so sorry for the delay in getting back to you. I hope you were able to find sufficient resources for your article. I’m still learning about the tatau – I wouldn’t call myself an expert (yet)… but if you still need help, I’ll do what I can. Let me know, k?

  6. I love the research you undertook HGG very thoughtful and articulate. I just wish to add my 2c into what you spoke about with the proverb “E muamua ta lou gutu ona ta ai lea o ou vae”. Thats best left for matai’s to explain however it was taught that sogaimiti’s main job was to do what the matai’s ordered whether it be to folafola a fono, folafola taumafataga’s when meetings take place or even doing apa’s in the main house. It was frowned upon when someone recieved a tatau and not have a basic grasp of the responsibility of their tattoo. I look forward to reading your next few excerpts and do not hesitate getting at me if you need extra hands in researching. Bless

  7. Wow… I totally missed these latest comments somehow…

    Thank you so much for your thoughts and for your encouragement. I’m still very much a student when it comes to Fa’asamoa, so I do appreciate all your insight.

    As for a book? How about I work on becoming a consistent blogger first? lol

    Thanks again everybody!

    1. Do I have to be Samoan to get a Samoan tatau. I have always loved how they look and recently have read a lot about the culture and what the symbols mean in the tatau. It has made me want one even more. I would like to find a tufuga in the states, If that’s possible, to get it done traditionally. Is that possible to have one of these done?

  8. Hi:) this page is 100 percent helpful to me. Thank you to the creator:) your research is straight to the point and just what i needed to know about the Pe’a. Thank you sooooo much

  9. Wow this is amazing. This has been so helpful to me as a Samoan who grew up in the states. Are there any other social media sites that you can be followed on?

  10. Hi… I have samoan tattoos ( i’m a tattooer)… i have colleagues who do this type of tattooing and I have had the pleasure of working as ‘stretcher’ for one…… i find this style of tattooing the most satisfying to do…. and receive….. when i DO this type of tattoo…albeit with machines….. i strive to achieve the patterns as best i can.

  11. Hi Hamogeekgirl

    My name is John and I am currently enrolled in my Masters of Architecture at Unitec. I am planning to base my thesis on the concepts, values, and aesthetics of the malofie. Is there any way I will be able to receive information on this please? I am currently in the process of research and it will be great to get all that I can.

    Please let me know via email (

    Fave tai tele lava and good work on the blog/website.


  12. Talofa Hamo Geek Girl,

    I’ve loved reading your articles, and they’ve been alot of help to me so far. I would appreciate if you could help me with a few things. I’m doing this information book for a Major Project on the significance and cultural meaning of the Malofie and the Malu. I was wondering if you could email me with any other resources and information you have that will be able to guide me through my research.

    Fa’afetai Lava.

  13. i was born in Pago Pago and wanted to show my respect to the Samoan culture by getting a Samoan tattoo, would that be disrespectful?

  14. yes, to respect the tradition. I’m Samoan and my son’s have tattoos and theirs have been done to closely represets their culture traditional and respectful of it.they have been done by one of a few that does this. I am glad to have found this in fact it was my son that found and post like and share I never would have known.
    even as a Samoan there is always something to revisit in my culture. Thanks looking forward to the next part

  15. My interest in finding out the definition of the word Tatau lead me here to “The Truth About Samoan Tatau’s” (sorry for anything I may or might mis-spell.) Too often we lose so much knowledge of the past for many different reasons. It’s so good to find something like this where a lot of effort is put toward saving as much history in the subject as possible. So a big thank you going out to the author here for all your hard work. I’m sure there are many others who feel the same way that don’t have time to let you know how much they appreciate what you have put together. You have a great gift of writing. I didn’t have a great interest in the subject yet read both part 1 and 2. And listened to Audi you included of interview. Really good work!

  16. I might have missed it but I was wondering what the word “Tatau” actually means in Samoan..? This is a nice article.. I am Tongan and even though we abolished the tradition of the Ta Tatau because religion, I think culture is always something we must embrace..

    1. Sad thing is most of our young boys and girls today just get it for show.
      I was at a faalavelave once where I seen a high chief yell at a girl who had the malu … Cause she didn’t know what she was doing during a sua. I mean put her on blast in front of everyone. Then he asked…ole tama a ai Lea. I mean…it was an embarrassing moment for her.

  17. Hi hammogeekgirl
    just like to add what a great read and very much look forward to the part 3.
    I was just wondering on other people’s thoughts.
    I’m afakasi with half my body tattooed in the Samoan styles I have a 3/4 sleeve expanding onto chest and back done by a Samoan tattooist in wanganui nz. He has links to the suluape aiga. My calf is more contemporary Samoan style.
    I am recently Goin thru a traditional Malofie with only the back to go this is been done by a cook island friend of over 25 years. And a respected tattooist and master carver in the Maori culture. My father has given me his blessings and even though I not fluent in the language I am learning. I respect and love the fa asamoa way.
    I would like to know of others opinions or thoughts.
    Fa afatai lava
    ps I too would be interested in seeing the paper james has?

    1. You’re willing to learn the culture and tatau protocol, then that’s great. We should encourage our people to learn about tatau if they’re planning on getting one. As for a non-Samoan tufuga ta tatau (master tattooist) yeah, I’m kind of against that, but that’s just my opinion.

  18. Hi I’m a students and I was wondering if you could answer some of my question plz it’s for my school project…

  19. Hey guys, I’ve been thinking of getting a malu for a while, but I wanted to get other people’s opinions that aren’t family because they’re a little biased.
    I am a plastic afatasi. Currently learning the culture, and am able to understand more Samoan than I can speak. My Nana was the Ali’i’s daughter, and therefore the highest taupou in the village: Nofoali’i. Theoretically, taupou title has been passed down to me and next time I go back home I am meant to have saofa’i. But because I feel like I don’t know my culture well enough, I don’t want to go back home and face my family. I feel like they will think that I am mataga and will reject me altogether, so I thought that I should get a malu to prove that I am ready for this commitment, this title. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t just want a malu to prove to my family that I am strong and willing enough, or for a fashion statement. I want a malu to represent my culture and my family because the pigmentation of my skin doesn’t do that enough for me. I want my malu because I feel like it will bring my ancestors to siva Samoa on my skin. I know that was a lot of “I want…” but it is true. I don’t want it for the bragging rights, or to tell people that I have a tattoo, I want it for my family, my culture, and my title.
    Please let me know if you think I should go through with receiving my malu or not.
    BTW, I am only 16 which may change your mind to think “no you’re too young”, “you’re just doing it to show off your tattoo”. I’m not. My nana passed away when I was young and I am learning everything I can about the Samoan culture as a way to connect with her and make her proud because she always wanted a afatasi grandchild that could pass as full.

  20. Hi Hamogeekgirl. I thoroughly enjoyed the read. Looking forward to part 3.

    Just out of curiosity. Would it be disgraceful or less meaningful if a tatau or malu was not done traditionally but by needle instead?

  21. Hello there, my 7 year old daughter is doing her math in art project within samoan culture..And I really need help on defining the meaning of each lines in Figure 330-(a)…The first image breaks down into 6 separate lines…Please I need to know more about these lines. Thank you so much, really enjoying reading it.

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