The Truth about the Samoan Tattoo (Tatau)

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Tattoo is an artform that’s been practiced around the world since… forever… but traditional Samoan tattoos – tatau – are an especially iconic expression of Samoan culture and the values we hold as a people. Over time, and partly because our tattoo patterns have become so popular in mainstream body art, many of us have lost our knowledge of Samoa’s established tattoo practices and don’t understand the true depth and beauty of tatau.

In this series of articles, let’s explore the history behind tatau Samoa, outline how it was practiced in the ‘old days’, and then have a chat about how the artform has evolved along with the Samoan culture today.

This post is part 1 of a series:

The Truth about the Samoan Tattoo
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

With Thanks to Tofaeono Tanuvasa Tavale

A few years ago, I took an advanced Samoan language and culture class with the late afioga ia Tofaeono Tanuvasa Tavale. If you ever come across a book that details aspects of the Fa’asamoa, chances are it was written by Tanuvasa. He was a prolific author with 8 matai titles of his own and decades of experience educating in this field, so his authority on the topic was largely unrivaled.

I loved sitting in his class, listening to his stories about old Samoa, absorbing his profound wisdom about the Fa’asamoa – but I was probably the least knowledgeable of all his students. I was the only one who would reply to him in English when he asked a question. Yes, I know. Shame on me.

But he was always very kind and patient. I found out later that his English was almost as flawless as his Samoan, and one day he even graciously allowed me to interview him (in English) outside of the classroom. I had so many questions, and with great enthusiasm he helped me to understand.

In my time with Tanuvasa, this is what I learned about the Samoan tattoo:

The origins of the Samoan tattoo

We call it ‘Tatau‘, and according to legend, it was brought to Samoa by two sisters.

The story is beautifully preserved in the traditional, chant-like song: O le Vi’i o le Tatau Samoa. Says the song (a loose translation):

This is what we know

of how the art of tattoo came to Samoa

Two women (sisters)

swam across the deep ocean from Fiti

They carried a basket with them

(filled with tatau equipment)

and repeatedly chanted the song:

‘Only women receive tattoos, not men’

The reason men receive tattoos today

is that their song was sung incorrectly

They arrived to the coast of Falealupo

and encountered a huge faisua

They dove into the water for it

and when they surfaced again

they began singing that it is men who receive tattoos

and not women

This song, which continues on to talk about enduring the pain of a tattoo for the sake of pride in your culture, is a great way to begin learning about tatau, but Tanuvasa taught us that it only tells a very simple version of its true, often controversial origin story. (Like how Disney re-packages fairy-tales for children.)

The sisters in this story were actually demigods, Siamese twins named Taema and Tilafaiga. Because of the ‘Fiti’ reference, it’s commonly thought the tattoo was a gift to them from chiefs in Fiji.

Deep Samoan tradition, however, maintains that the tatau is purely Samoan, so Tanuvasa believes that the ‘Fiti’ referred to in the song is actually Fitiuta, which is a town on Ta’u, one of the Manu’a islands in what we now know as American Samoa.

I doubt that many would agree with this interpretation, but it makes sense to me because Manu’a is known in our history as the birthplace of Samoa’s first kings, the true origin of our fa’asamoa.

So a ‘faisua’ is a giant clam. Its meat is apparently so amazingly delicious (says my mom, I’d love to try it!) that it’s considered a delicacy in Samoa.

UPDATE 2019 – I HAVE tried faisua now, and it is beautiful! But definitely an acquired taste – it’s not as creamy as oyster, and has more of an ‘ocean’ flavour. 

In Tanuvasa’s version of this story, the faisua that distracted the swimming sisters was enchanted. It was a deliberate effort (by who? I don’t know) to prevent the twins from reaching their destination and sharing the art of tattoo. They nearly drowned diving for the faisua – which turned out to not even be a faisua – and when they finally resurfaced, their disorientation caused them to forget that it was women who were meant to be tattooed.

But the sisters carried on and brought the practice to a certain village in Samoa. They taught everything they knew to the ancestors of one family, and then for some reason (a complication of some sort) they also took the skill to another village and another family.

Tufuga‘ is our word for a person who is especially skilled in a particular trade. The most prominent tufuga of the tatau today can trace their genealogy back to one of these two original families – and I’m not going to tell you who they are or which village they’re from because I can’t remember, sorry. I’m sure this information is in one of Tanuvasa’s books, though. You should look it up :).

The Samoan Tattoo for Men

The pe’a is what we call the Samoan traditional tattoo given to men. It is named for the standard tatau pattern that resembles a fruit bat, what we call a pe’a.

Please Note: In Samoa’s higher, matai language, pe’a is referred to as malofie. (O le upu fa’aaloalo lea o le p’ea).  For the rest of this article, I use both words – pe’a and malofie – interchangeably.

The pe’a tatau begins at the waist and covers just about every bit of skin, right down to the knees, with intricate designs.

Myths about the pe’a

Because of a lot of inaccurate information floating around, I grew up thinking that only matai (chiefs) receive the malofie, and that it carries great spiritual (almost occult even) significance – as if you’re suddenly a superhero when you get it, or you’d be cursed if you got the wrong kind of tattoo or something.

Corrections: The malofie is not actually magic 🙂 .. it’s simply a very meaningful bodily decoration… and it is a piece of art so highly valued in our culture that to be allowed to receive one is a gift. It is also considered a rite of passage for various reasons.

Also, you do not have to be a matai to receive your pe’a tatau. Young, untitled men in a village are called ‘tauleale’a‘. When they work hard and prove themselves honorable, they may find favour in the eyes of their elders, and might even be offered the opportunity to be tattooed.

Requirements to receive a pe’a

In my experience though, it’s usually the young man who approaches his elders with the desire for a tattoo, and as long as he hasn’t done anything horrible to make his family hate him, his request is usually approved with pride.

The only requirement now is that the young man find a ‘soa’, another worthy relative who will receive the tattoo at the same time as him. I’m not sure how the tradition of the soa came about, but I have heard that having a loved one with you through all that pain is often a great source of comfort, a real bonding experience. It’s kinda beautiful.

Once a tauleale’a receives a malofie, he is now known as a ‘sogaimiti‘. This word is often misused, especially amongst younger Samoans today. I hear a lot of them refer to the tattoo itself as a sogaimiti, but please be clear:

the ink is the malofie. The man is the sogaimiti.

UPDATE 2022: I figured out why so many people use the word sogaimiti incorrectly. The pe’a tatttoo features a pattern that is also called a sogaimiti. That is most likely what’s caused the confusion.

A Samoan Tattoo for Women

Contrary to the instructions in the legend, women DO get tattooed, actually. The malu is what we call the girl version of our body art, but the protocol surrounding the malu is completely different from that of the malofie.

So we’re all familiar with a taupou, yes? In family and village politics, the taupou title ranks almost as highly as the ali’i, or high chief. It’s a pretty big deal.

While all daughters of ali’i are referred to informally as taupou, a ‘real’ taupou must be officially appointed, her title bestowed upon her in the same kind of ceremony (a ‘saofa’i‘) as for a matai.

Each extended family will have at least one (official) taupou, but in a village, a family’s ranking determines how much authority each taupou has over village affairs. This means that being a taupou in your own family is one thing, but being the highest ranking taupou in the village is something else altogether.

This distinction is important because, according to Tanuvasa, back in the old days, only the highest ranking of taupou ever received a malu. We’re talking, not just a daughter of a high chief, but the daughter of the highest chief of a district, or the daughter of a king.

These taupou of high ranking were island celebrities and were called on to dance the taualuga at the most prominent events. In those not-so-Christian days, when a taupou danced, her skirt was always hiked up HIGH to show what she was working with, and apparently, pasty pale legs were not the deal. This is the reason, says Tanuvasa, that these ladies’ legs were decorated with the malu.

SO, traditionally, the malu was very rare. Only a few women ranked high enough to receive it – as opposed to how just about any young man could get a malofie – but it was still essentially decoration for the body, something used to enhance beauty. Like permanent make-up.

UPDATE 2022: Over time, more and more women began receiving their malu, regardless of their family and social rank… and then in the mid-1900s the malu became recognized as an official traditional tatau – which means, we began accepting the cultural significance (and not just the decorative properties) of the malu. Now, a woman who receives a malu is making a commitment to traditional Samoan values: modesty and dignity, plus the care and protection of her family.

Time for a Part Two

Part 2 of this series looks at:

  • The Symbols and Patterns in a Samoan Tattoo
  • 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

See you there.

The Truth about the Samoan Tattoo – Part 2

This article was first posted in 2013 on our previous website, One Samoana. Please leave a comment if you have any questions.


My main source of information for this post is an interview I did with the late Tofaeono Tanuvasa Tavale back in 2010, which 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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Why would the sisters swim from Fiti Uta, SKIP Upolu…AND swim to Falealupo, Savai’i? It doesn’t make any sense.

Fiji owns the Tattoo.

Rocky Suluape

But it got ban in fiji, tonga and nz. To many people dying of infections. My grandfather helped and tryed to rediscover tonga fiji and the maori patterns.

So i guess

Fiji couldnt handle it so it took a samoan had to perserve it


Hi to everyone. I’ve always been fascinated by the Samoan tattoo alone. When I found out that the tattoo describes your own story, I decided to do it, surely this question has been asked many times i think, but i will ask. Where could I make such a tattoo with the traditional method? my story is quite complicated and long. how long does such a tattoo and preparation for it take? what would it cost? I have to prepare financially because I don’t think my story will be cheap. I have to add I’m not Samoan resident, I’m truly respect tradition and culture of Samoan people. Thank you


I’m glad I came across your page. I am currently researching tatau symbols and meanings as a means to design my tattoo. So much information!!!! My father was afakasi and mother is Japanese. I have been thinking of possibly intertwining my Samoan and Japanese cultures together in a leg piece. I have skimmed through the comments, there are so many views on what is acceptable and what is not. I guess it comes down to my personal connection to my tatau. I think I will go for it.


Hi! I am an afakasi but my father is military so we have moved around a lot and I haven’t been able to be around my samoan family as much as I would have liked. I feel very disconnected from the culture (which breaks my heart) and I was wondering if you had any suggestions on how I could learn more about my heritage. My aunty used to teach me these things but she passed away a few years ago, so it really means a lot to me to continue learning. I also am really interested in learning the language but I don’t have the ability to travel to Samoa, do you have any online recommendations?


The pe’a is a sleeping bat hanging upside down with its wings wrapped around the thighs, hence the name.


You got such an amazing knowledge about our Samoan traditional but I`m not quite sure if it is a gift from chiefs in Fiji, I mean we actually knows where is it came from !!its definitely from Fiji but as you mentioned before it seems like everybody`s got an opinion or even their made up stories ! yeah exactly but my point is, those equipment as you said its a(gift) from chiefs in Fiji, but I would like to say that this isn`t a made up stories or my own opinion but its from where i was educated which means those equipment it wasn`t a gift the twins brought it from a different and they carried it till they arrive in Falealupo.

faafetai lava.


I have only recently come across your page and I love reading all your posts I have learnt so much.


Hey does anyone have any idea what it could mean to hear the tatau sound out of nowhere? One night I was going to sleep and out of nowhere I heard the tatau sound twice. It would come and go.


how has tattooing hanged over the years (highschool project im working on so would love opinions) so has it changed, is it different, whats the actual traits as in tradition?

I need to know 😉

Hana Tito

The story was very beautiful and impressive ,it makes me feel and proud to be a real tama’ita’i Samoa(sorry my fa’asamoa is not that good) but i would like to hear more story from our samoan cultural…

[…] form of culture present on the island. Although the practice was originally created in Fiji, legend has it that two sisters, Taema and Tilifaiga brought the practice to Samoa many thousand years ago where […]

Cherie Faumuina

This is entirely too interesting and I have so many questions. My father just became an Ali’i in Western Samoa and I am his youngest daughter.


Tattoos for males. Man has been adorning his pores and skin for the reason that daybreak of the cave dweller, and tattoos for males have had a complete spectrum of objective and which means.


In Fiji and especially on Viti Levu, women also wore vulvic tattoos under their liku or skirt. Here tradition dictated that only women, not men, could wear tattoos (vei-qia) and the designs were created by skilled female artists who have been described as hereditary priestesses. According to a local chief (mbuli) writing at the turn of the 20th century, the women who performed the painful rite were specifically referred to as Lewa vuku, or wise women.
One was a kind of healer and her counterpart was the Lewa dau batia or expert tattooer.The rite was performed in the secret recesses of the forest, and young women were usually tattooed after they had reached puberty and before they were married. The ancestors were invoked to help guide the ceremony, making visible a genealogy of design and descent. The mbuli said:

Vulvic and buttock tattooing, Fiji, 1870s. In Fiji, tattooing is only performed by and for women, and is chiefly confined to the parts of the body which are covered by the liku or grass skirt. Charles Wilkes, writing around 1840, stated: The women believe that to be tattooed is a passport to the other world, where it prevents them from being persecuted by their own sex, numbers of whom, by command of the gods, would meet them, if not tattooed, and, armed with sharp shells, would chase them continually through the lower regions. So strong is this superstition, that when girls have died before being tattooed, their friends have painted the semblance of it upon them, in order to deceive the priest, and thus escape the anger of the gods.

Vulvic and buttock tattooing, Fiji, 1870s. In Fiji, tattooing is only performed by and for women, and is chiefly confined to the parts of the body which are covered by the liku or grass skirt. Charles Wilkes, writing around 1840, stated: The women believe that to be tattooed is a passport to the other world, where it prevents them from being persecuted by their own sex, numbers of whom, by command of the gods, would meet them, if not tattooed, and, armed with sharp shells, would chase them continually through the lower regions. So strong is this superstition, that when girls have died before being tattooed, their friends have painted the semblance of it upon them, in order to deceive the priest, and thus escape the anger of the gods.
Tattooing was the revered and beautiful ornamentation of the women to which great weight was attached to both by men and women, and it was performed in the following manner.

The woman to be tattooed must fast for a clear twelve hours, from daylight till eve, and the night before she must fish for freshwater prawns from dark till dawn, and must search for and procure three lemon thorns to be affixed to pieces of reed stems as handles [for the tattoo instrument].

Then she had to lie on her back before the old woman who concocted in a coco-nut shell the liquid used for the staining. This ancient dame blessed the liquid and prayed to the spirits of the dead to soften the skin of the girl so that the operation should not pain her too much. Then the tattooing commenced, the sacred part [vulva] being the first to be done. The pain which it caused was called the extraction of the spear. When this had been done, which was the part that gave much pain, the girl was soothed into a heavy sleep, and then the operator pushed on with her work. The pattern traced was like that painted on native cloth, A Nairukuruku.

The girls intended husband had to present [the wise women] with a club, as an earnest or preliminary payment, then he had to feed the operators and provide a feast on the fourth day after the conclusion of operation. By then the skin on the body would have healed. That day was called the shedding of the scales. Then all the women would gather together to witness the falling off of the scales, and it used to rouse the envy of the young girls to see the beautiful pattern. It made them want to be tattooed.

It was also done for the sake of the womans husband, [so] that when he went to sleep with her¦and undid her liku (grass dress) [he] might see the beautiful tracery. For that reason the womens lips were also tattooed [so] that her husband might desire to kiss them.

Interestingly, when Vitian navigators were sailing home from trading expeditions to the east, they always desired a westward gale as they were uncommon. In their attempt to invoke the Spirit of the Land Breeze,” they produced the following chant:

Come, come, O Spirit, From the ladies of the west;

O ladies with the black mouths [tattoos], Give us a fair wind.

Of course, there were other tattoo forms and tools used in Fiji and all of the designs were compulsory. As one missionary wrote, the Creator God Degei, who was a deified chief and also the snake god, punished untattooed women in the afterlife, presumably because they had not shed their scales as his daughter did, the first Fijian woman to do so. In fact, women were still tattooed frequently in a cave below the Nakauvadra Mountains of Viti Levu as late as the 1880s, where it is said that Adi Vilaiwasa, the daughter of Degei, received her markings.

In the Lau Islands of Fiji, girls were inked on their buttocks, face, vulva and fingers with an adze-like instrument pointed with a sharks tooth or fish bone dipped into a sooty black pigment of candlenut. The operation was performed in a special taboo hut which the men called the black bottom. According to tradition, old women plied their clients skin in three or four installments covering a period of a year or more. It was said that if the girl accepted lovers during the course of her tattoo initiation, the pain would increase. When it was over, her fingers and the corners of her mouth were tattooed to show that she was marriageable.

In other regions of Fiji a comb-like instrument consisting of four or five finely chiseled teeth set into a bone and fixed to a light handle six inches long was dipped into a pigment of charcoal and candlenut oil. The pattern to be tattooed was stenciled on the body of the girl and the delicate lines were driven into the skin with the blackened rake. As one 19th century writer commented: The command of the god affects but one part of the body, and the fingers are only marked to excite the admiration of the Chief, who sees them in the act of presenting his food. The spots at the corners of the mouth notify, on some islands, that the woman has borne children, but oftener are for the concealment of the wrinkles of age.”

German naturalist and artist Theodor Kleinschmidt added still more ethnographic observations and illustrations of Fijian tattoo customs as he encountered them on Viti

A line of tattooing typically starts at one wrist and runs up the arm to cross the chest above the breasts to the upper shoulder, and from there runs down the length of the other arm. There are generally two lines of tattooing on the back, these converging downwards from either shoulder like the seams of a jacket towards the spine and the tattooing which encompasses the haunches. Other tattoos may take the form of little stars on the cheeks, legs or hands, depending on taste. The tool is a blade of turtle shell or of chicken or other bone, or some lemon thorns, fastened to a light stick in the form of a miniature size. In addition to puncture tattooing of this sort, rows of ornamental cicatrices are often cut into the flesh of the breast, back and upper arms. Men are only exceptionally tattooed, and then not elaborately.


HI is there anyone that knows about how the 2 girls mentioned were mermaid spirit’s?

[…] The Truth About the Samoan Tattoo One Samoana […]


How much does it cost to get a malu done please 🙂


In nz about 1500

Maria Sangrenta

First things first, I’m SO glad I found this post I must thank you so much!

I’m graduating in Visual Arts (in Brazil) and needed some information about tattooing over there. You gave me the whole lot and more!
And I like the way you write (mind me, it’s getting rare to find good writers with good content on the subject at first shot).
I’m still not up to part 2 but sure it will suit my research as well. 🙂

I’m not much of a “hey you nice post” person but I felt like I had to. Thanks again from the other side of the world for sharing so much. It means a lot.

and #foratemer etc haha

Kara Pacheco

IS there a Samoan equivalent to the moko kauae?

Pio Tagiilima

No..Only the Maoris and maybe other Polynesians eg Marquesas but not Samoa.


The Samoan equivalent to the moko kauae is moko apakaki, it does paint the face black. or purple blue..LOL


What is a proper gift to give to someone getting a malu?


Soga’imiti refers to the untitled man with a tattoo. Not a tattoo as some people try to refer to it.

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