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

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Back in 2010 I had the privilege of interviewing my Samoan culture teacher, Tofaeono Tanuvasa Tavale, outside of class. I had so many questions for him about our fascinating culture, but I especially wanted to know about our tatau (tattoo) traditions. That interview turned into several blog posts, including: The Truth about the Samoan Tattoo (Tatau)…for which this article is Part II.

Here’s the whole series:

The Truth about the Samoan Tattoo (Tatau)
The Truth about the Samoan Tattoo (Tatau) – Part II
Do I have to be Samoan to get a Samoan tattoo? [Bonus post]
The Truth about the Samoan Tattoo (Tatau) – Part III

Confirming: The Name of the Tatau for Men

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 formally known (in our higher, matai language) 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”

I also want to thank other commenters who have added to our understanding of the name of this tatau.

While the name pe’a may have come from an initial miscommunication, it is now widely accepted as the correct name for the traditional Samoan tattoo for men. Malofie is only really used now oratorically, which is when we’re giving a formal speech or addressing people respectfully.

In the rest of this series of articles, I will continue to use the words pe’a and malofie interchangeably…because I have respect for you :).

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.

UPDATE 2018: 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.

RELATED: I DID learn more about the meanings behind tatau symbols; check out this article ->  Traditional Samoan tattoos and why they’re important to us 

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?

Coming Up in Part III

In the next part of this series, we’ll talk about:

  • 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

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

This article was first posted in 2013 on our previous website, One Samoana. 

Resources

My main source of information for this post is an interview I did with the late Tofaeono Tanuvasa Tavale back in 2010. It is documented across our entire Tatau Samoa series:

The Truth about the Samoan Tattoo (Tatau)

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

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

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

I’m also very grateful for these other great resources online and in my home library:

Tatau: From Initiation to Cultural Symbol Supreme, by Unasa L F Va’a

Tatauing the Post-Colonial Body, by Albert Wendt

The National Park Services of American Samoa

Faafaigofieina o Faalupega o Samoa, by Tanuvasa Tavale

O le Tusi Faalupega o Samoa, by MK Le-Mamea et al

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Miguel Valentin

Greetings, I am a Tattooer in the states and I have been tattooed traditionally (tatau) and by machine. I’d like to present a gift of a Falalilii to my tafuga . Is this in anyway disrespectful? Are there any special customs or traditions I should know about when presenting my gift?

Zadora

Thankyou so much for your helpful and understanding article HGG.

I am self-studying the Samoan Malu/Pe’a, because I would love to get the Malu done. This article has given me an in sight about the body art of Samoan tattooing. Yet alone, the history of it.

Waiana

Wow, I love reading your posts.
I am part Samoan, my nan is Samoan, we were raised very European so she never really talks about our Samoan heritage.
My father is Maori and my mum has the Samoan blood in her.
I love Samoan culture, I want to learn but my mum has only been able to give me a family tree and I am struggling to understand this.
I really want to get my Malu, I have had this urge for over 10 years but now the urge is huge.
Not just to show, more to show I do have a connection, I’m sure people look at me and think yeah nah she’s not Samoan lol

mitieli waisu

hi hamogeekfirl jst want to know so were is the samoan tatto originally from is it from fiji or is it from, this fiti town in samoa

don

Do the tufuga ta tatau explain these sections to the those becoming soga’imiti as they tattoo?

Temu

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.

[…] 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 […]

Jen

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?

Bryana Tanuvasa

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.

Tala

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

Mike

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
mike
ps I too would be interested in seeing the paper james has?

Teine_Nosy

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.

Sione

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..

Vai Timoteo

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.

Mat

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!

Sela Feleti

beautiful insight into Samoan heritage.. thankyou..

Sia

Thank you for this article, looking forward to the rest.

Reillen

Talofa everybody se ua ready le part 3 manaia tele le faitau

sia scates

my son’s are half Samoan or as they say in Samoan, afakasi

sia scates

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

David Paglia

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?

Carla

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.

John Belford-Lelaulu

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 (john.belford@hotmail.com)

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

John

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