150+ Traditional Samoan tattoo Designs & Meaning for Man and Woman / 2018

 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. samoan-tattoo-5835245 samoan-tattoo778-4687642 samoan-tattoo655-8504340 samoan-tattoo101-774x800-7021348 samoan-tattoo100-800x800-2422223samoan-tattoo31-1071x800-3766445samoan-tattoo6-7347215 samoan-tattoo99-640x800-2263169 samoan-tattoo98-800x800-5197969 samoan-tattoo97-640x800-5572786 samoan-tattoo96-641x800-7353886 samoan-tattoo95-769x800-6985698 samoan-tattoo94-800x800-6220996 samoan-tattoo93-590x800-3176942 samoan-tattoo92-800x800-5497713 samoan-tattoo91-800x800-6039508 samoan-tattoo90-640x800-2403318 samoan-tattoo89-1067x800-8245462 samoan-tattoo88-800x800-5008048 samoan-tattoo87-6186556 samoan-tattoo86-685x800-3682124

Samoan tattoo

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. samoan-tattoo85-800x800-5980624 samoan-tattoo84-720x800-6392289 samoan-tattoo83-800x800-6393106 samoan-tattoo82-640x800-4607534 samoan-tattoo81-3879493

 In addition to the traditional tatau, many Samoans wear a more contemporary form of tattoo that draws upon traditional Samoan and contemporary Western motifs. samoan-tattoo80-3673872 samoan-tattoo79-6592400 samoan-tattoo77-8524675 samoan-tattoo76-4825813 samoan-tattoo75-450x800-6179356

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-tattoo73-6399825 samoan-tattoo72-800x800-7660338 samoan-tattoo71-798x800-3298044 samoan-tattoo71-1572937

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.


 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. samoan-tattoo70-1074333 samoan-tattoo69-7960371 samoan-tattoo68-639x800-5384361

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. samoan-tattoo67-1234996 samoan-tattoo66-5883445 samoan-tattoo65-3746912 samoan-tattoo64-2370221

 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. samoan-tattoo63-1887732 samoan-tattoo62-5084460

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. samoan-tattoo61-7737946 samoan-tattoo60-6791803 samoan-tattoo59-8547380

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. samoan-tattoo58-4930603 samoan-tattoo57-6195728 samoan-tattoo56-9246592

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). samoan-tattoo55-3610216 samoan-tattoo54-2405021 samoan-tattoo53-7475627

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. samoan-tattoo52-1905622 samoan-tattoo51-2895114 samoan-tattoo50-4172938

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. samoan-tattoo49-7352841 samoan-tattoo48-3566477 samoan-tattoo47-2436028

 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. samoan-tattoo46-7383664 samoan-tattoo45-1212275 samoan-tattoo44-1853005

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.samoan-tattoo43-9844610 samoan-tattoo42-4961194 samoan-tattoo41-600x800-2740968

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. samoan-tattoo40-9565062 samoan-tattoo39-800x800-4746778

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. samoan-tattoo37-5521125 samoan-tattoo36-800x800-9145359 samoan-tattoo35-2577987

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. samoan-tattoo34-7750320



 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. samoan-tattoo32-2686373 samoan-tattoo32-640x800-6151136

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. samoan-tattoo30-5609760 samoan-tattoo29-8914350 samoan-tattoo27-4131622 samoan-tattoo26-5999085 samoan-tattoo25-5927454 samoan-tattoo24-1750435

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. samoan-tattoo23-7640867 samoan-tattoo22-7045608 samoan-tattoo21-1653784

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. samoan-tattoo20-7758931 samoan-tattoo19-3734769 samoan-tattoo18-7438685

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. samoan-tattoo17-2995205

 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. samoan-tattoo16-4305615 samoan-tattoo15-6560060

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. samoan-tattoo13-8592619 samoan-tattoo12-2243771

Similar design personalization through personal interview is also the protocol for men preparing for their pe’a. samoan-tattoo11-3960806 samoan-tattoo10-7132679

 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. samoan-tattoo8-2883703 samoan-tattoo9-2161523

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. samoan-tattoo7-1577783 samoan-tattoo5-3186631

This article based on the “Worn with Pride: Celebrating Samoan Artistic Heritage” published sep 4 2002 on the OMA onlinesamoan-tattoo4-6812507 samoan-tattoo3-9645920 samoan-tattoo2-4583423 samoan-tattoo1-9472387 samoan-tattoo-1-6276966

Article “Worn with Pride: Celebrating Samoan Artistic Heritage” was curated by Teri Sowell, Ph.D.