Tattooing of Both Sexes in Samoa

Categories: Tattoo

The art of tattooing is widespread throughout Polynesia, and in Samoa the art form has become and remained strong. In Samoa the process of tattooing is known as Tatau . “Tatau are the tattooed lines and motifs that appear on the body, and the tatau artist is known as the tufuga” (MALLON, 2002). The Samoan tattoo is also known as a traditional mark of adulthood for both men and women. “Samoans are the only group of Polynesians-and one of the only groups of the Pacific Islanders-who still practice the traditional art of tattooing” (Nicholas Thomas, Anne Cole, and Bonwen Douglas, 2005).

Out of the two tattoos for the men and women, the most impressive one is for the men, and the proper term for it is Tatau .

“Tatau has often been recognized as a necessary rite of passage for young men” (MALLON, 2002).After being tattooed, the young man is not only accepted as a full member of the aumaga (the association of young men), but is also allowed to serve the matai.

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“The tatau also symbolizes ideas connected with the wrapping, sealing and defense of the body, as well as with decorating it and making it beautiful. So it is seen as both a treasure and a stepping stone for young men to manhood, something that garners respect for the wearer by speaking of his inner strength and resilience” (Marquardt.C, 1984)These values generally remain central to the process and ritual of tatatau today. In some migrant Samoan communities overseas, tatau has also become and identity marker, a way of signifying the Samoan heritage and way of life (Kramer, 1995).

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Tatau is such a strong image of Samoan identity that it’s symbols and motifs appears on clothing and apparel, and have be re-presented by artists in the new media and art forms today.

Mallon said that an account recorded I the 19th century, it is said that two sisters, Taema and Tilafaiga, who were Siamese twins, bought the first tattooing tools to Samoa. They acquired the tools and the instructions on how to use them from the tattooist Filelei and Tufou in Fiji. They were told to tattoo the women and not the men, and they sang this instruction over and over as they paddled their canoe to Samoa. On the way they saw a large and beautiful shell glistening in the waters below and so they stopped singing in order to swim down and fetch it. On returning to their canoe they tried to remember what they were singing and got the song mixed up. “Tattoo the men and not the women they sang” and this was the message they took to Samoa.

Samoan men received a heavy tatau from the waist to the knee which is known as Pe’a. It is made up of fine parallel lines and areas of shade and wide range of motifs and geometric patterns. The word Pe’a refers to both the tatau and to the fruit-eating bat known as the flying fox. The untitled young men with the tatau are called Sogaimiti and as such they are responsible for serving and performing duties for the matai (Sunia, 2002)A man with no tatau is known as Pala’u. Women’s tatau appeared on the legs, starting at the knee and finishing at the top of the thighs. The women’s tatau is called Malu, and it is less elaborate than the pe’a and its structure is less well defined. The malu perhaps takes its name from the malu motif, which is placed behind the knee, and it is the one of the key motifs not seen on men’s tatau or pe’a.

“The resurgence of tatatau among young men and women began around the time of Western Samoa’s Independence in 1962. At this time people were not allowed into chiefly assemblies unless they were tattooed. “And more recently, in 1990, one of the village in Savaii made it compulsory for all men to have a pe’a” (MALLON, 2002). This resurgence of the tatau has continued. As Samoans has migrated to other places in the world, they took their culture and custom with them. The tatau is seen as a strong statement of the Samoan heritage and identity (Kramer, 1995)

“The origins of Samoan tatau motifs can be traced back to around 1500 BC, to the early ancestors of the Polynesian people. At this time the people of the Pacific were making the distinctive decorated pottery that archaeologists call Lapita ware. The tattoo and bark cloth decoration” (Kramer, 1995)

In Samoan society, the tattooing specialist is known as the tufuga tatatau. “In the 19th century tufuga tatatau were associated with two family braches, Su’a and Tulouena” (Kramer 1995). The Su’a worked mainly in Upolu and the Sa Tulouena mainly in Savaii. The work asa tufuga tatatau and the skills of tatatau continue to be transferred from generation to generation. The handmade tools used often by the tufuga tatatau of the Sa Su’a and Sa Tuloena comprises a set of tattooing combs, and a short wooden rod or tattooing mallet. The hand tools are especially valued and are finely crafted.

The tattooing is very painful, not only because of the body been covered, but also because of the implements employed. In order to cover a large area of the body with dense, intricate designs, the artist hammers the ink into the skin with sharp tattooed combs of different patterns. The combs ae made from flat, polished sections of boar’s tusk, filed into rows of sharps teeth. The combs are bound to a wooden, metal, or turtle shell backing, which in turn is bound at right angles to the end of a short, thin stick.

On the day a man is going to have his tatau, he is going to lie down on a mat with a pillow under his stomach to flatten the arch in the small of his back. The tattooist then dips the comb into the ink made from kerosene soot and water, places the comb in position with his left hand and then raps the holding stick smartly with another stick that he holds in his right hand. “The blow drove the teeth of the comb into the skin where they deposited the ink.

The master proceeded quickly along the line of the pattern, tapping out a smooth rhythm while one of the other young subjects wiped away the blood and extra ink with a rag (MALLON, 2002).There will be people stretching the skin tight with their hands to maintain an even pattern and holding him still so that he would not spoil the design by writhing. Others sat by watching, prepared to sing or play the ukulele to distract him from his pain. When the first session has completed, whoever has been tattooed will bath in the cool fresh water. The process goes on until the lower knees were completed successfully, then the tattooist adds a small signature design around the naval, signifying that the tattoo was complete.

“The tattoo ceremony also marks the beginning of adulthood. In addition, it brings a great deal of attention and praise to young men at a time in their lives when they normally get very little or either” (S.Kipeni, 1962).Tattooing also gives the young men’s families an opportunity to show that thy can afford the costly ceremony. The tattoo was formerly a sign chiefly status or impending chiefly status, as no matai was without one (Kramer, 1995).This traditional association must have less force today when none of the older chiefs have tattoos and virtually all of the young men become chiefs, with or without tattoos

All of these factors induce young men to endure the pain of tattooing, but the most important factor is the pain of tattooing itself. Young men adorn themselves with full body tattoos primarily to demonstrate that they can withstand the pain. “Machismo is high on the list of desired traits among Samoan men, and tattooing is an excellent demonstration of courage and endurance” (Marquardt.C, 1984).

“The tattoo is quintessentially Samoan and wearing one is a matter of cultural pride” (MALLON, 2002).Receiving the tatau can be and affirmation of the person and the soul. It can be a public statement of commitment to families, communities, and culture. “It can speak of many things; such as place, values, memories and origins. It is many things, such as an ornament or garment that once worn, can never be removed (MALLON, 2002).

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Tattooing of Both Sexes in Samoa. (2016, Dec 14). Retrieved from

Tattooing of Both Sexes in Samoa

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