Tatau (Tattoo): Throughout Samoan history, tatau (tattoo) seems to epitomize the importance of the dressed Samoan body. Tattoo is, after all, unique in its permanency, as the inked designs fuse with the body. However, tattoo has also proven to be fluid and dynamic, continually defying one-dimensional definitions and singular meaning throughout its history.
1. Traditional Samoan Tattoo
Do you know what’s the best part about having matching Samoan tattoos with your brothers? You can get an awesome photo like the one depicted above. Sure, the design may not be identical, but having the tattoo on the same area certainly helps!
2. Chest and Full Sleeve Samoan Tattoo Designs
Samoan tattoos may also be an extension from the chest area to the wrist area like this piece. It almost looks like this person is wearing a unique vest – a cool one at that too! The design for Samoan tattoos are usually very intricate and detailed, just like this piece.
3. Shoulder Samoan Tattoo Designs
The shoulder area is also a popular spot for Samoan tattoos. Do keep in mind that most Samoan tattoo meanings are close to the wearer’s hearts, usually having to do with a long-standing tradition at the very least.
4. Samoan Tattoo on the Arm
Many of us happily ink the Samoan tattoos on ourselves without being aware of the significance behind Samoan tattoos. Are you aware of some of the meanings of these tattoos? In any case, you might have already started to recognize the style of Samoan tattoos just be looking at the top few items in this list.
5. Samoan Tattoo Neck and Chest Area Design
Samoan tattoos can be worn by girls too! Tattoos like this one have various designs and locations that you can ink them on. This Samoan tattoo design is made up of only line art and it is not shaded at all, but it still looks so unique and gorgeous.
6. Black and Red
This is one of the rare few pieces where you can see some colors in the design too. In this Samoan tattoo, only the turtle has some red ink shaded within it, perhaps to show that it is more significant than the rest of the tattooed piece. We love the color coordination!
7. Bird Samoan Tattoo Design on the Sides
This unique tattoo design is a mix of black and blue, with the bird being inked in a style that is surely inspired by the Samoan tattoo designs. Once you have seen enough of tattoos in this style, you will have no trouble recognizing it later on.
8. Half Sleeve Samoan Tattoo Design
This tattoo is so neatly done that it looks amazing! A lot of work goes into designing and inking a proper Samoan tattoo since every little detail needs to be correct and accurate for the tattoo to turn out like this piece.
9. Fully Colored
This Samoan style tattoo here is fully colored and shaded! Look more closely and you will notice that the shading and tone for this tattoo piece is intricately done with detailed dotwork. The color coordination also makes the tattoo piece look more harmonious.
10. Along the Hips
A Samoan tattoo for women can be positioned right where the hips and the upper thighs connect. Here’s to gorgeous side portraits for this woman when she’s wearing a dress with a thigh slit! As usual, the tattoo edges are very clean and defined, a characteristic for Samoan tattoos.
11. Lower Back & Back of Thighs
Since a Samoan tattoo is mostly geometrical, you can expand the tattoos naturally in any directions or with any shapes that you desire. A Samoan tattoo is usually characterized by recurring patterns and designs making up a bigger, more complete tattoo piece. So you can ink your Samoan tattoo anywhere on your body!
12. A Samoan Tattoo Design on the Back of the Neck
Samoan tattoo designs can fit naturally onto any of your body parts, following the curves of your body perfectly. This particular piece of Samoan tattoo is relatively simple in design as compared to some other pieces with more delicate features in it.
13. Just on the Wrists
You can always opt for a smaller tattoo in place of the full-sized Samoan tattoos typically worn on men. The tattoo that is done in a very Samoan style in this tattoo above is just along the wrists, fitting in like a bracelet.
14. Dotwork & Recurring Patterns
The recurring chain-like patterns are crucial parts of what makes a Samoan tattoo looks beautiful. These tattoos are always shaded carefully, with shadows to show the difference between the layers of the tattoo. It is also the same shading techniques that bring out the metallic shine of any chain motifs in the tattoo designs.
15. Just A Small Band
There are often misconceptions that Samoan tattoo designs have to be very big, complex and shaded. This is actually inaccurate because Samoan tattoos can also be inked in a simple band design like the ones above – it is not even colored in!
16. Barely Shaded
The Samoan tattoo design here is a little different from the usual ones. Typically, Samoan tattoos are fully shaded or inked in, but this one looks more like a hand-drawn work without much shading at all. Our best guess is that this is an unfinished piece. It still looks good for an arm tattoo piece!
17. Sea Creatures
Some Samoan tattoos may focus on the ocean life like the tattoo above. Samoan tattoo designs like the one above are usually inked along the chest or on the shoulder blade areas, fitting into the curving areas perfectly.
18. Just a Samoan Hand Tattoo
Samoan tattoos are less frequently inked on the back of the hands, but it does happen! This person above has inked this tribal-looking Samoan tattoo on their hands. It could look even better if the tattoo extends to the arm areas too!
19. Sleeve Tattoo Looking Good!
The best place for any Samoan tattoo designs would probably still be on the arms. You don’t have to ink it on both arms either – it can look just as amazing inked on just one side! Typically, when inking only one arm, the tattoo will also extend to the chest area, although that is not a requirement.
20. Sea Turtle, Samoan Style
It seems like a Samoan tattoo meaning is closely linked with the ocean life. Often, you will see sea turtles and other sea creatures depicted in a Samoan tattoo piece. That is, if they don’t go for the typical patterns that you will see in a Samoan tattoo.
Thus, tattoo must be interpreted on an individual basis and situated within its broader historical milieu. In the past, tattoo was a spiritual process and a cultural requirement for those wishing to hold various positions within society. These traditional tattoos continue to be worn, often with the change, but still potent, meaning.
21. A Bull or a Buffalo?
Right after the post above which shows usual depictions of sea critters and creatures in a Samoan tattoo, here’s one with a water buffalo in it. It’s amazing how they can create the look of the animal using abstract designs and geometric patterns, don’t you think?
22. Minimal Patterns
This Samoan tattoo design is a lot less striking in comparison to some other more intricate tattoos. The tattoo is mostly black, with just a little bit of patterns and designs embedded in it. It still looks amazing though, we won’t deny that!
23. Like A Tribal Leader
Samoan tattoo chest pieces can be inked on regardless of your body size. As mentioned in some of the previous Samoan tattoo descriptions, these tattoos’ edges can wrap around a person’s body outline perfectly, so you can ink it anytime, anywhere.
24. Like a Fish Hook
Remember the cartoon that The Rock starred in? This Samoan tattoo looks almost like the Polynesian one that The Rock was sporting! The only major difference is that this one looks a little more colorful with the flash of red.
25. A Shark on the Forearm
In addition to the traditional tattoo, many Samoans wear a more contemporary form of tattoo that draws upon traditional Samoan and contemporary Western motifs.
Usually, a Samoan tattoo meaning is not immediately obvious to its viewers. Some individuals tattoo sharks, creatures and other patterns in a Samoan design purely because they like how the tattoo looks and nothing much else.
26. Shoulder Samoan Tattoo Designs
Simple and clean – we like it! This Samoan tattoo features only a circular center design, and the areas surrounding it are decorated in a matching Samoan style. Whether simple or complex, any tattoos can look great as long as it is done right.
27. Feet Samoan Tattoo
Remember what we said about Samoan tattoos’ designs making it possible for the tattoo to fit basically everywhere on your body? Well, here’s more proof of this fact! You can’t deny that these tattoos look amazing with their simple recurring patterns and shadings.
28. Like A Pair of Wings
One of the key reasons that Samoan tattoos are so popular is that the patterns in it are made up of basic shapes, beautified by their unique arrangements. This Samoan tattoo on the back is lovely for the same reasons – anyone can draw the shapes and lines in this tattoo, but only a few can come up with these designs.
29. A Modern Samoan Tattoo
Modern Samoan tattoo design can look drastically different from the traditional ones that we have shown you in the sections above. The tattoos can look intricate and delicate due to the thin lines and smaller motifs. In comparison, the traditional Samoan tattoos feature big motifs and coarse lines.
30. A Samoan Bear Motif
You might need a second glance to notice that this is a tattoo of a bear! This Samoan tattoo is a lot simpler when compared to some other designs that you would have seen here. Nevertheless, it’s not very often that you see a bear tattoo, right?
Contemporary tattoo artists and their clients have developed a new and exciting Samoan design vocabulary, rooted in tradition, to express specific personal, family, regional, social and/or cultural statements.
31. Back Tattoo in Samoan Tattoo Design
This is one of the traditional Samoan tattoo designs that will have the Samoan forefathers feeling proud! When it comes to back tattoos, Samoan tattoos should cover the entire back rather than just s section of it. This is how you can do the Samoan tattoo meaning some justice!
32. Almost Finished!
This tattoo is an unfinished piece – there are still some places to be shaded in, but we love how it looks already! Tattooing the chest areas to match the length of the shoulder tattoos is a great choice; It makes the tattoo look like a complete piece without needing more sections to be inked.
33. Across A Shoulder & The Top of An Arm
Isn’t this Samoan tattoo justs amazing? The designs blend so well together wherever they are inked that it looks quite like a complete tattoo sleeve. While the tattoo does not completely cover the arms or both shoulders, the Samoan tattoo designs is still amazing as it is.
34. Salamander Samoan Tattoo Designs
This is another Samoan tattoo that depicts an unusual animal. Note how the designs are still made up of simple curves and shapes to form the entire shape of a salander, with its tail curling around a more intricate Samoan design.
Samoan personal tattoos
Samoan tattoo, both traditional and contemporary, allows the wearer to artistically explore and announce his or her Samoan heritage, and acts as a strongly voiced and permanent display of cultural pride, especially by those living in the Samoan diaspora.
35. A Well-Designed Samoan Tattoo
Does this tattoo make you think of sun worship? It sure did for us! A circular piece like this one can fit nicely across a chest area, around the shoulders or even as a back piece. The forearms work too, just like in this picture!
While Christian missionaries have frowned upon tattoo since their arrival in 1828/30, it remains firmly imbedded in Samoan artistic practice. As manifestations of history, the cultural meanings of tattoo will, as always, continue to change.
36. Full Sleeve Samoan Tattoo
See? We have just talked about how a circular design can fit on the shoulder areas well, and here’s one already! There is also a circular motif around the elbows and the opposite section of the arm where it usually folds. The Samoan tattoo design for this piece is very streamlined and seems to flow perfectly down the length of the arm.
37. Samoan Tattoo Designs for Chest and Arm
When you choose a Samoan tattoo design, you technically only need to design it for one side. This is because most Samoan tattoos like this one is reflected symmetrically across the middle section, perhaps only shaded in opposite colors like for the arm tattoos.
38. A Smooth Flow
Samoan tattoos sure do well in reminding us of how our energy flows down our body! The designs are so well connected to each other than a full frontal Samoan tattoo design like this piece can look like traditional Samoan armor.
Unfortunately, many of the earlier/pre-Christian histories remain obscure, clouding efforts to record a clear chronology. Today tattoo is performed out of respect for culture, elders, and family. It is fa’a Samoa, the Samoan way.
39. On the Left Shoulder
While we can’t tell which type of share this would be, I think we can all agree that it has a very delicate design within it to make the entire creature look like a work of art. To be fair, most Samoan tattoos are really intricate arts!
40. Watch the Shadings
This is the type of shading that we are talking about! Do you see how well the colors blend together, from a darker tone to a lighter one? This is an excellent example for a Samoan tattoo, and we sure love to see more like this one.
Tattooing, however, more than alters the physical body; it transforms the wearer’s sense of self. Samoans wearing traditional tattoo almost universally speak of the inner change they experience while undergoing the process of outward marking.
While the tattoo is a permanent and highly visible commitment, most Samoans feel the aspect of pain during the process is equally important, as they share in the collective suffering of those tattooed before them.
It is this pain that strengthens their personal ties to family, community, history, and culture, ultimately providing the wearer with a sense of “completion” regarding his or her “Samoanness”.
Tattoos men and women
Both men and women continue to tattoo their bodies in a traditional manner. For men, this traditional tattoo called pe’a, runs from just above the waist to just below the knees. The overall design is organized within a framework of bounded zones that are filled in with secondary motifs.
While the overall framework is fundamentally standard, artistic creativity flourishes within the zones, as artists inventively manipulate a gallery of traditional design motifs. Most motifs are highly stylized visual references to the natural world (centipede, flying fox, and conch shell).
Individual motifs and designs conceptually relate to the wearer’s family history, his strength of character, and his commitment to certain behaviors, such as honoring and caring for family, being prepared for all crises and events, being firmly grounded, conquering fear and looking for a challenge.
Each complex design for a pe’a must be carefully composed to contain the appropriate iconography and carefully aligned to enhance the natural curvature of the body. Thus, the skill and knowledge of the tattoo artist (tufunga ta tatau) must be reaffirmed on each client.
Historic records indicate the esteemed role of the tattoo artist and his basic procedural techniques have remained fairly constant. The role of tufunga ta tatau continues to be a position that is primarily hereditary and held solely by men.
The tools of the tufunga ta tatau have also remained somewhat standard, comprising a set of combs (au), a tapping mallet (sausau), pigment, a sponge and water. The combs are made from serrated bone attached to a plate of turtle shell that is then connected to a wooden handle.
The width of the comb (5-50 mm), the number of teeth (4-60), and the fineness of the serrations vary on the artist’s need. The tufunga dips the sharpened ends of the comb into a thick pigment made from finely ground candlenut soot mixed with water (although more recently India ink is also used) and places it above the skin.
In the other hand, the artist holds the wooden mallet to strike the comb, thus introducing the pigment under the skin. In addition to the requisite tools, the master artist requires assistants (often apprentices) to wipe away blood and excess pigment during the procedure, but more importantly, to hold the skin taut, helping to keep the bluish/black lines sharp and distinct.
The Process of Tattooing
In the past, most boys would begin the tattoo process between the ages of 14-18. To start the process any earlier was deemed unwise, as growth would distort the design.
The completion of the pe’a was a great event, as it signaled the boy’s transition into manhood, his readiness to serve the chiefs, and his desire to master skills required to be considered for a future title. On average, it would take 2-3 months to finish the pe’a, as pain and inflammation required some rest between sessions.
Today, the pe’a is performed on fewer Samoan men, as they reevaluate the pain, cost, and the social worth of wearing one. Those that choose to receive the tatau often decide to accept the commitment when they are asked to take a family title.
Thus, many of these men are in their 20s, 30s or older before undergoing the process. While the average age has become higher, the average time taken to finish a pe’a has become shorter. Many of these men have professional jobs that restrict time away from work, and many travel to Samoa from other “countries,” although some tufunga ta tatau live or travel abroad to practice their art.
Due to these time restrictions, the process has become more rushed, and is often finished in a matter of days, rather than months. In terms of design, however, the pe’a has remained fairly constant.
In the past, the traditional tattoo of Samoan women, called malu, was performed on young women somewhere between the ages of fourteen and twenty-five. These women were important members of a family whose special role was celebrated by marking the body.
Today, fewer women wear malu, and there are no firm restrictions regarding who may wear one and when it should be applied. Malu is placed primarily on the thighs and knees, but it can also be found on the lower abdomen, wrists and hands.
Like pe’a, malu is bilaterally symmetrical, but the design is sparser, almost lacey, containing linear motifs arranged in vertical, horizontal, and diagonal rows. While men and women share many tattoo motifs, the lozenge-shaped motif called malu is limited to women. Significantly, it is often the first motif applied by the tufunga ta tatau, placed behind the knee joint.
Malu Means to Protect
While women’s tattoo may have had protective significance in the past, today it is discussed in terms of family status and cultural commitment.
When a women is preparing to get her malu, she (and often family and friends) will be interviewed by the tattoo artist (tufuga ta tatau) to determine the motifs to be used and their proper placement, so that the finished design will correctly express the family history and personality of the wearer.
Similar design personalization through personal interview is also the protocol for men preparing for their pe’a.
Since most Samoan women keep their legs covered below the knee, malu is rarely visible in public. Rather it is primarily seen when dancing or sitting cross-legged to make the ceremonial drink ‘ava, making the permanent commitment to culture directly relevant to ceremonial events.
Although seen on fewer women today, tattoo masters who perform the malu on women state that it is of equal importance as the male pe’a, and that they are worn today for similar reasons.
Article “Worn with Pride: Celebrating Samoan Artistic Heritage” was curated by Teri Sowell, Ph.D.