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

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This is Part III of a series of posts about the Samoan tattoo – tauau. If you haven’t already, please check out the previous articles in this series:

The Full 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 – Part III

So far, we’ve looked at the origin legend of the Samoan tattoo, as documented in an old Samoan chant. We also talked about the symbols in the malofie/pe’a and malu tattoos, and we’ve got a passionate conversation still going (in the comments) about who should and shouldn’t be allowed to receive traditional Samoan ink.

While that discussion wages on, let’s turn our focus and have a look at how you would go about getting a traditional Samoan tattoo (tatau).


How to get a traditional Samoan tattoo

So you’ve got deep love for your Samoan heritage, a passion to learn our culture, and you’ve decided that you want to commit the rest of your life – i.e. your body – to the expression of your Samoan pride.

What do you do now?

Here’s a typical scenario for how a young man would go about campaigning for a pe’a tattoo.

In the old days

Back in the old days, a young man would approach his father (or strongest father figure) to express his interest in getting a pe’a tattoo.

This father would usually react with joy, especially if his son was a good boy – respectful, hardworking at school, diligent with his church, family and village responsibilities, etc.

This father would know that the honour of a malofie doesn’t come cheap, so he would ideally have the means – i.e. fine mats, siapo, livestock, crop, or other goods – ready to trade.

If this father was not as blessed with material wealth, he might counsel with the matai in his family, who are usually happy to contribute towards creating another soga’imiti in the village.

And then it’s time for the young man’s father to find a tufuga ta tatau, a master in the art of the traditional Samoan tattoo.

Le tufuga ta tatau

My late teacher of Samoan culture, Tanuvasa Tofaeono Tavale, said it’s always best to go to a tufuga in your family. A stranger might not care as much about the quality and symbolism in your tattoo, he reasoned.

If that’s not possible, find a tufuga who has a good understanding of your family lineage because this should reflect in the patterns of a pe’a tattoo.

Of course, you’ll also want to find a tattooist with the highest level of skill (that you can afford). They’ll be known by reputation.

Mangere East 1990

So the young man’s father would ask around before choosing a suitable tattooist. They would talk, negotiate a price, make an agreement, and then the father would give the tufuga an intricately woven fine mat, rolled up tight and bound with a strip of fabric. This is called a fusitā.

A fusitā is like a down payment – a deposit so the craftsman can begin his work. It’s a promise that the full payment will come after the tattoo is completed.

These days, a lot of tufuga prefer the full payment up front and in the more contemporary currency of cash money.

We could still give him fine mats and other measina (culturally valued treasures) like a siapo, tanoa ma le fue, etc. but these are only symbolic gifts to accompany the cash.

Preparation & Support

The young man now begins his tatau journey with prayer and instruction.

Receiving a traditional Samoan tatau is an emotional and spiritual rite of passage that can take anywhere from a few days to a year or more to complete.

The physical act of administering a tatau – boring sharpened, serrated bone deep into a person’s skin – is also extremely painful and inherently dangerous, so this privilege comes with strict rules.

The tufuga will explain to the boy that from now till however long it takes to complete his pe’a, he cannot be left alone, he cannot drink or smoke, he must rinse his progressing tatau in the ocean, but never in direct sunlight, and many other rules.

It’s understandable that this young man might feel overwhelmed already at this stage of his journey, but he doesn’t have to face it alone.

He can count on the support of a proud village – who will pray for him, bring him food and drink, keep watch over him, tell stories and sing to to distract him from the pain – and he can also choose what we call a soa.

A soa is someone – usually a sibling or cousin, male or female – who agrees to receive a pe’a or malu at the same time as this brave young man. The same tufuga will direct both their tattoos, which will happen in the same fale (house) so that they can encourage and cheer each other on through the pain.

Finally the day comes when the tufuga moves in to the young man’s home, armed with the tools of his trade and a small army of helpers.

It’s time to begin the tattoo.

Samoan Tattoo Ink

I love how they made tatau ink back in the old days.

So you know the Hawaiian kuikui nut tree? In Samoa we call that a lama, but I think its English name is candlenut.

Candlenut tree, known in Samoan as lama.

Anyway, the seeds of the lama tree have this woody shell that tufuga would collect and burn in a shallow pit.

Above the pit, they’d suspend a large flat rock to collect the soot from this lama fire, which they would then scrape into a container (e.g. a coconut shell), mix with a bit of water to form a paste, then cover and allow to cure for at least a year.

WARNING: Lama soot is extremely toxic, so this curing process is literally a matter of life and death. Just saying in case anyone decides to make this ink themselves. Please don’t use it unless you know what you’re doing and are absolutely sure it is safe.

A Painful Ordeal

I love the way the soga’imiti over at describes the pain of receiving a Samoan tatau.

“Because the handle of the instrument is struck with some force, the little teeth at its end are usually driven right through all layers of skin into whatever is underneath… the pain involved in applying the tattoo may be a lot greater than by using western-style machines, which only scratch open the skin’s surface.”

I asked my good friend Lina to describe how the pain of receiving her malu compared to that of bearing children. She says:

“With that first tap came the sensation of my skin splitting open… The pain factor? OFF THE CHART, WOMAN! I’d give birth any day!”

No wonder the pe’a tattoo, which is a lot more detailed and dense than the malu, is applied in stages. This young man’s body would need time in between sessions to rest and recover (if only a little bit) from the ordeal.

A Time to Celebrate

And then one day, at long last, the tatau is finally complete.

It’s a time for much celebration in the village. The boy they know and love has endured this journey with dignity and is now a man. A soga’imiti.

As a final act of release, the tufuga cracks an egg on the young mans head, rubbing it in with a little coconut oil. The village presents this tufuga with more gifts (which usually include a bit more money). And then it’s time for the party.

They celebrate with a huge feast, complete with music and drink, and their newest soga’imiti – still sore, but happy and relieved – honours them with a solo dance to show off his intricately decorated legs and torso… a symbol, seared into his skin for the rest of his life, of his love for his family and his Samoan heritage.

Variations of Tatau Practice

To be clear, it’s not just young, untitled men who received (and receive) the pe’a tattoo. Older men receive it as well… some of them already matai, some of them grandfathers. Older men don’t always need the same kind of familial or financial support as younger men, but the process for receiving their pe’a is generally the same as described above.

RELATED: This article goes into more detail about the variations of the tatau practice -> Traditional Samoan tattoos and why they’re important to us.

The Samoan Tattoo Today

Today, traditions around the Samoan tatau are generally the same, but with several significant differences.

These include:

    • you don’t have to be in Samoa anymore to get a malofie
    • the young man can go directly to a tufuga (rather than through his father/family) now, and
    • young women who want a malu don’t have to have a title or a father who is a high matai these days.

Not everyone agrees with all the changes, but it’s important to remember that even back in the old days, traditions around the Samoan tatau varied according to family and village.

Researching the Tatau

My teacher Tanuvasa first started documenting our culture when he was an itinerant teacher in Samoa back in the 1950s and ’60s. His work took him into just about every village in both Samoas, where he made note of little differences in the way that we practice our Fa’asamoa.

For example, Samoan chiefs are always men – except in one or two families. The ali’i title is always higher ranking than the tulafale title – except in one or two villages, due to historical events.

If you continue to study the art of the Samoan tattoo, you’ll discover that protocol and ideals will differ from one Samoan to another.

One school of thought is that you have to KNOW and fully understand the Samoan way of life – even to the point where you can give elaborate Samoan speeches (lauga) or list your ancestors back to Adam (or thereabouts) – before you’re allowed to receive a pe’a.

After his own extensive research, Tanuvasa concluded that, actually, you don’t have to know everything. You just have to be willing to learn and progress within our culture, and in fact… sometimes it’s not possible to learn if you don’t already have a pe’a.

“Correct” Traditions

Today we continue to debate the ‘correct’ traditions regarding the Samoan tattoo.

      • Can we get one if we’re not Samoan by blood?
      • Is it okay to apply a full pe’a or malu a modern tattoo gun rather than traditional au?
      • Should ladies with malu be wearing short shorts in public?
      • Can a tattoo artist who is NOT Samoan give someone a full traditional tatau?
      • Should just anybody be allowed to call themselves a tufuga?

I don’t know the answers to these questions.

Because we’re talking about the culture of a variety of different villages and families – one that is always evolving, especially as more and more of us live outside of our homeland – those answers might not even exist anymore.

I can only describe for you the most common and socially acceptable practices amongst Samoans (as I’ve done in this series of posts about our Tatau) and then offer you my own, personal opinions about how things should be.

I’ve said it a hundred times and I’ll say again now for good measure:

Culture is about people.

If you want to identify with a people, even if they’re your own family or village, you have to respect the views of those who were there before you and be sensitive to the beliefs of those who surround you today.

On that note, let us continue to discuss and deliberate and come to our own conclusions regarding the Truth about the Samoan Tattoo.

This article was first posted in 2016 on our previous website, One Samoana. 


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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I’m getting my tatau done in March and got both blessing from my parents which is all that matters. I have a question about work my job won’t allow time off as I work graveyard shift is it possible to get the tatau and go to work? I work in an office environment so I don’t do much but sit with abit of walking? Can you please help me? As I don’t want to lose my job as well finish my tatau ? Faafetai lava


Can you elaborate more on the symbol of the egg being cracked?


What an awesome article! I have no connection to my Samoan heritage and was raised in NZ by my mum’s side (all nz European). I want to make moves to deepen my connection and start by getting a tatau, not a malu but something to wear proudly to mark my heritage to others and remind myself of my roots as I go on this journey. So this article serves as part of my research as I’m trying to deepen my understanding of tatau before just getting one. Thank you!


Hi, I’ve read your articles countless times and I’ve loved them every single time I’ve read them. I and my sister have been wanting to get our Malu’s for such a long time but we have been so scared to even speak to anyone in our family about it. My parent’s split when we were young and my Mum married a palagi so I never was taught the fa’a Samoa. My mum has always been ashamed of her culture and that’s how she’s been since she was young. But for me, I love my culture so much and since my Mum has never taught me I’ve been trying to learn on my own. My Dad lives in another country and I don’t learn much from him although he speaks fluent Samoan and wants me to do the same. I’m still on my journey to learning Samoan fluently and learning more about my culture. And some of the things that conflict me from asking anyone in my family about it is that on my Dad’s side is that my Dad was adopted but he was adopted out to extended family whom I grew up with knowing them as my immediate family. My Dad and I are still in contact with my Dad’s birth family and they’re all so well educated on the fa’a Samoa ways and they are the only people I know who I could ask to talk about getting a Malu but it’s awkward for me being their child’s firstborn and not living with my Dad. And my reason along with wanting to get a Malu is that in my line of work, I work internationally, and to be able to have something permanent to remind me of my why and to remember my roots and who I am. It also is a way I can represent my country proudly. It’s a dream and wish of mine, and so I’ve been trying to research as much as I can and learn. I know that the easiest way to being able to get a Malu would be to talk to my Dad’s birth family. Does anyone have any advice on how I could approach my Dad’s family about wanting to get a Malu as well as anything I should do first before even approaching them.

Eric Fonoti Petersen

What a GREAT and BEAUTIFUL read! Thank you for sharing your heart on the Tatau (Malofie/Malu) I love emphasis you put on “CULTURE IS ABOUT PEOPLE!” Because without people there would be no culture (but of course with guidelines LOL). Thinking about the Malofie makes on nervous but at the same time thinking about the end result of carrying your Culture with you for the rest of your life means everything to me. I still believe that there’s such a reverence/respect to the Malofie and Malu people get carried away with how your supposed to wear it or who can wear it. I strongly believe that it’ll change you in a way to carry yourself with respect because you’re not wearing something that belongs to you, You’re wearing Samoan History or THE CULTURE. I disagree (my opinion) with the saying “MY BODY MY TATTOO”. only because the tattoo is a family lineage and you’re wearing your family’s history just like what You’ve posted on here, each design is to represent a piece of Samoa, a piece of the Village you come from, a piece of your family’s lineage and so on. so you carry with you Your Culture. Fa’afetai, Fa’afetai, Fa’afetai!


What a great intro! Thanks so much for putting this all together. I am a ‘palagi’ and will have my malofie done with my soa next year. I live in Samoa and have a Samoan family who adopted me from the day I arrived. To me the malofie symbolizes so many things, particularly my connection to my adopted Samoan aiga and the love we share, my dedication to the Samoan culture and it’s concepts and values, as well as its beautiful art forms that have stood the test of time. As a palagi, I was very apprehensive about getting it done so I did, and will continue to do, my research. I will be here for several more years and plan to continue learning the language and give back to a culture and people I love very much, alfoa tele. My adopted Samoan family and all my Samoan friends are thrilled which I’m really encouraged by. I know that getting a malofie will be just the beginning of yet another journey.


Recently, my father asked me if I wanted to get a malu. My father is a high chief of our family and I am Samoan (although my great great grandfather is full Irish). I would really love to but I feel like a plastic Samoan. I can’t speak Samoan properly/fluently (but I can understand it pretty well), I don’t speak Samoan to elders, I haven’t learnt much about Samoan culture and I can’t even Siva Samoa very well. I don’t feel as if I deserve to get a malu done nor do I feel that I’ve earned it. Can I get someone’s opinion on my situation? Also, is there an ideal age that someone should recieve a malofie, malu or any other Samoan traditional tattoo?

Jemimah Holaafolau

I have a question please if anyone could help me out. I have been planning with my niece and cousin to get our malu done but now being told the number of us has to be even? Meaning we have to find a 4th person. Also would like to understand more about who can be a soa? Can a husband/wife be a soa to their spouse? Any help should put my mind at rest. Thanks heaps!


hi Jemimah, that would be correct, because it’s all malu. I don’t think they work in uneven numbers, if there was a dude amongst you, it would somewhat be different. And a soa can be husband/wife. I just had my malu done, I am a soa to my hubby now a soga’imiti. with my bro inlaw as well. who had no soa. Hope that answers your question. The malu is an honour to have. Enjoy the experience.

Gloria Cooper

I’m very interested in the tattoos because I noticed that a few WWE Wrestlers have them and I wanted to know the history behind it is it a family tradition or is it a tribal thing and what do they mean because they are some very beautiful tattoos and I know that there’s a meaning behind them.


Is that you real gloria?

Ezra Purcell

I loved reading every part of this ! Im 14 years old and thinking about getting my Tatau when im 16. This made me 100% happier to be SAMON!!!!!! 🙂

Ms Jay

Thank you for this. In the past couple of weeks my desire for a malu has increased. Reading this gives me much strength and only deepens my resolve to have one. For the sake of all those before me, I would love to wear my family pride and cultural, represent it with respect and love. This has been on my heart for a while, so thank you for confirming what my heart feels. I will however need to talk to my mother about it and maybe get some design ideas from her in regard to our family history.

faafetai lava


Thank you for all the articles! My biological dad is Samoan and my mother is has Irish blood. My parents separated when I was 3 and my Samoan dad hasn’t been in my life since. I’ve always longed to know my culture more- as I’m the only one in my family with Samoan blood, I’ve felt lost. I’ve been trying to get my hands on anything and everything to do with the Samoan culture. One day I’ll get back to my homeland, but until then I will rely on these type of internet sources to educate myself. Thanks so much.


I was in tears reading some of this. It makes me so happy to learn! I am part Samoan. I wasn’t brought up with fa’asamoa, my Nanna was ill & died before I could learn more & I only ever saw glimpses however as I grow older it becomes more important to me and in particular the voyaging nature of our people resonates with me deeply. As such I have parts of our family tapa on my body already and am so keen to learn more about my homeland. I feel that it’s in my heart. Thank you for the light you shed & share.


is it wrong as a person, who is part Polynesian to hate it when white people or other races get a pe’a or malu and have no idea the meaning behind it. even if they do understand. is it wrong? personally it feels like colonization, people from another world come and take what is ours away from us. hope i didn’t offend anyone.


Many of the tufaga of various ages has told me that there are no guide lines or rules that says a non samoan can’t wear a Fai malu or Pe’a. If they can endure the journey and live righteously then why not. A legendary Sulu’ape said we can use a white mans clothes, smoke a white mans cigarettes and other things of their culture, so why can’t we share ours. These tataus were gifts to us in the first place. In the days of tui manu’a the tongan chiefs would come to Samoa and get what was their version of the pe’a. The band that a lot of Samoans wear today started all from European travelers who wanted to get a Tatau but couldn’t bare the journey of a full pe’a or malu so they just took a piece and it was allowed even back then. the reality of our tatau is that only a small percentage of our entire samoan community is really keeping the practice going. And it seems the younger generations are the one willing to keep it alive. If we only keep our culture to ourselves and not share it with the world then surely it will fade. The fa’asamoa is strong in our people and sometimes our people don’t always have to have the same blood. So ask yourself the question how much in our everyday lives do we use,own or associate with things from someone else’s culture. We Samoans are strong christians indeed but Christianity came from a culture far from our lands. We all live on one earth and coming together in today’s times are gonna be crucial soon. Tofa soifua and I hope you read this with an open fatu.


Hello Uso,
Thank you for your response to Gasper’s question. I too, at time have had same thoughts as Gasper, but your response makes a lot of sense and I quite agree. We’re sometimes protective of our ways and culture but it is such a beautiful culture not to share with the those who are interested in learning. So, I thank you for your elaborate response.

Ace P

Nicely put Uso


No, there is absolutely nothing wrong in feeling that way.


Uso, Thank you, I don’t mind sharing my culture. I love people taking a interest. but i think there’s a thin line between being interested and disrespected. My great uncle ( the second full blood in my line) and I went to a tattoo convention in California , there was a women who had a pe’a tattooed, but a non- Samoan. I just feel that if are going to get the tatau, take the journey. But no she got it cause it’s cool.. does that not bother you? i only have the opinion of my family members.
I respect your comment.


Hmm I do see what you mean. And you are correct there’s a fine line. In my personal opinion after receiving my full pe’a I do believe it should not be a fashion statement and I’m all for if they want to be apart of our culture there are right ways and wrong ways of doing so. I personally rather see a female wearing a malu but like in the Tatau origin story it was the women who got the pe’a and not the men. I would say the way our culture is today that we should strive to keep it within our modern standards to maintain traditions rather then change them. I agree with you completely in this case. And what it falls to are the tufugas who chose to ka these individuals.


I believe we should instead celebrate the fact that we have something so unique and significant that other nationalities go as far as to want to wear it… I have had my tattoo for 20yrs now, and what I came to learn in that time is this – it doesnt belong to me, it was given to me, it belongs to be worn and worn with respect no matter if you are samoan or not. That decision lies with the tufuga.

Kara Pacheco

So my dad is Samoan, but he was given up for adoption and raised by a Mexican Couple. We’re trying to get back to our roots, but we have no family. I want a tatau to represent our ancestry. I want to learn more about Samoa and Samoan culture, but I have no clue where to start.

Ethan Peffer

hi! i love this article. all the information and history behind the tatau is truly amazing. You have helped me gain a deeper knowlege of my own cultures history and a greater understanding of the tatau. Thank you!
i am almost 20 and have been wanting to get a samoan tattoo since i was very young. i am a half samoan (my mother was born in apia, but my dad is american) i grew up spending my whole childhood learning about the culture from my mothers side of the family and bonding with the relatives on her side. the teachings of respect and honoring your elders and ancestors is something i wish everyone could learn. I would like a samoan tattoo that truly tells my story, and have personal family meaning. not just some ink slapped on because it looks cool. i want it to honor my ancestors passed and be an ongoing story of me and my families lives.
The long debate and question i have had since i was younger is, is it acceptable for me being white(even though i am half samoan by blood) to have the honor of a samoan tattoo? Because i have my fathers skin not my mothers, i am interested to know what full samoans think of me having it? And if they think it is disrespectful or wrong of me to have it.?
Thank you! -Ethan


You’re part Samoan. And that’s enough. Best of luck to you.


I’ve been wanting to get one since I was in high school. Now that I’m in my forties, is it too late?


No, never too late. Best of luck to you.


Thank you for these posts and tapping into that well of elder knowledge to further inform us of our history. It’s important to document and share this, because if we don’t write it, who else will? Plus I feel this is a great way to spark dialogue.

I’ve always felt a slight cringe about people outside of Samoan culture getting the malofie or malu. I feel even more conflicted when it’s a person outside of Samoan ancestry giving these sacred markings. Taking into account Samoa’s history with colonization, I feel it’s no different when Non-Samoans get a pe’a/malofie/malu. Our island nation has a traumatic history with folks just prancing in and taking what they want, deeming certain practices “not ok” and “ok” because they refuse to look at a different perspective, and inevitably changing the context of a lot of our ways of life.

It’s like when people visit Hawai’i and think it’s all paradise and a great getaway. However, Native Hawaiians have the highest homeless and unemployment rates in their own damn land. Hawai’i’s past with being colonized and illegally annexed is a huge factor in their current state of affairs. How is it that the tourism industry owned by Non-Native Hawaiians are getting richer and the Native people are getting poorer and pushed off of their own land?

What I’m getting at, is that folks want to pick and choose what they think is “pretty” or “desireable” about Samoan culture, but what about the rest of our existence? I’m not saying you have to be ride or die for Samoa if you get a pe’a, etc., but I think one should definitely question what their connection to our history is and if you’re just perpetuating more disempowerment in our community by getting these tattoos. Especially if you’re not of Samoan ancestry, you’re basically taking something that’s practiced in a certain context and redefining this context once you place it on your body. How does that act, not have remnants of colonization written all over it?

Obviously I don’t share the same sentiment as your late professor, Tanuvasa, but these are just my personal thoughts on the issue. I thank you for shedding light on this man’s work.


hi! Thank you so much for all the information in these 3 posts. I’m not Samoan and had a tattoo done in the style of a tradition Samoan tattau. I met my artist at a convention and after talking for a bit, he offered his time. The main reason for me to get a tattau is that while I travelled the world (did the full 360), Samoa was the most magical place I visited. From the moment I landed, I didn’t feel at home, I was home. I wanted to have one done on one of the islands but it wasn’t meant to be. After I left Samoa, I felt that there was nothing in the world I could not achieve and it has inspired me to take some chances and enjoy life a lot more. Until, almost to the day, 3 years later I stumbled on my artist. He drew to shape on my leg and after the thumbs from my mom and I, he went to work. I found it a lot less painful than a machine made one, apart from the thicker outer lines. The only thing I ‘regret’ is not asking more about the designs. Do you know where I could find a overview of some sort of the different designs and meanings?
fa’afetai, Lucia

Irena Nansen

I really loved this explanation of the Samoan tattoo’s. Well I myself have grown up learning about the traditions and customs of Samoa, although I’m not full blooded Samoan i still respect their ways of life. i think one thing you’ve missed out about the malu’s, is that it’s not for show. like everyday I literally see girls walk around showing off their malu’s, as if it was traditionally meant to be showed off. Again as a half-caste with a malu myself, I find it quite offensive and I’m sure I’m not the only one out their who is offended about this. My Grandfather who was also not a full blooded Samoan was the high chief in the district/village, my mother is the taupou of the village. The reason being for me getting this tattoo was because my Dad [a newly appointed high chief] was getting his done. Again as a person who loves history, it’s quite sad seeing something so traditional being taken advantage of and now getting a malu is like a new fashion trend. Sorry for ranting off, but thank you so much for this explanation, I loved it so much. I truly hope that the other girls who read this, will learn something from it.
Again sorry for the rant, and have a good day

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