Tatau (Tatoo): 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. Thus, tattoo must be interpreted on an individual basis, and situated within its broader historic milieu. In the past, tatau 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 changed, but still potent, meaning.
In addition to the traditional tatau, many Samoans wear a more contemporary form of tattoo that draws upon traditional Samoan and contemporary Western motifs. 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. 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.
While Christian missionaries have frowned upon tatau since their arrival in 1828/30, it remains firmly imbedded in Samoan artistic practice. As manifestations of history, the cultural meanings of tatau will, as always, continue to change. Unfortunately, many of the earlier/pre-Christian histories remain obscure, clouding efforts to record a clear chronology. Today tatau is performed out of respect for culture, elders, and family. It is fa’a Samoa, the Samoan way.
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”.
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 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.
In the past, most boys would begin the tattoo process between the ages of14-18. 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.
This article based on the “Worn with Pride: Celebrating Samoan Artistic Heritage” published sep 4 2002 on the OMA online.
Article “Worn with Pride: Celebrating Samoan Artistic Heritage” was curated by Teri Sowell, Ph.D.