Search our collections

Advanced Search

Topic: Samoan tatau (tattooing)

The most important Samoan tatau (tattoo) for men is the pe’a – dense tattooing which completely covers the lower body from waist to knee. Malu is the equivalent tattoo for women, and covers the leg from the upper thigh to behind the knee, but is not as dense as the pe’a. There is a structure in the design of tatau that most tufuga (tattoo artists) follow, but the detail within the structure is individual to each artist.

Marking and transforming the body
Being tattooed with a pe’a is often described as a rite of passage for young men, although not all Samoan men are tattooed. After being tattooed, a young man is not only accepted as a full member of the ‘aumaga (the association of young men), but is also allowed to serve the matai (chiefs).[i] Some researchers associate the pe’a and malu with ideas connected with the wrapping, sealing, and defence of the body, as well as with ornamenting it and making it beautiful.[ii] Many people see these forms of tatau as images that symbolise inner strength and resilience. They can be seen as treasures, stepping stones in life, empowering the wearer and achieving for them a sense of respect among family and community.

In migrant Samoan communities overseas, various forms of tatau have become identity markers, ways of signifying Samoan heritage and making an important link to what can sometimes seem like a distant heritage and way of life. The tatau is such a strong image of Samoan identity that its symbols and motifs are appearing on clothing and apparel and have been re-interpreted and re-presented by artists in new media and art forms.

Tattooing tools
Important in the creation of tatau are the distinctive tools used to make the tattooed markings. Many Samoan tattooists still prefer to work with a set of handmade tools called ‘au ta, although electric tattooing machines are available.

Each individual ‘au has three parts: a comb, a shell plate, and a wooden handle. The small bone comb has very sharp teeth for puncturing the skin and inserting pigment. It is attached to a turtle shell plate, and both are tied with coconut fibre to a wooden handle. These days turtle shell is sometimes replaced with plastic or metal, and nylon fishing line used instead of coconut fibre. Sometimes the comb can be made from metal.
A set of ‘au has tools of various sizes, each designed for a different purpose. Tools with a wide comb are used for filling in large dark areas of the tatau, while narrow combs are used for very fine lines, small designs, and dots.

A record of Samoan tatau (tattooing) in New Zealand
New Zealand photographer Mark Adams has been documenting Samoan tattooists in New Zealand for more than 30 years. Adams has photographed people and places concerned with colonial history, cultural differences and cultural exchange, both in the Pacific and in Europe. Many of Adams’ photographs of Samoan tatau, both in New Zealand and internationally, are in Te Papa’s collections.

[i] Tapu,T., Tattoo Ritual in Samoa in Bruce and Gweneth Deverell (eds) Pacific Rituals: Living or Dying. University of the South Pacific. Suva, 1987. page 166

[ii] Gell. A.  1993 Gell, Alfred, Wrapping in Images: Tattooing in Polynesia. Clarendon Press.Oxford, 1993. page 121 gives the most thorough and detailed comparative analysis of Polynesian tattooing with an extensive interpretation of Samoan tattoo iconography.

Related information