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Tattoo Education: Tatau Samoa


Tatau: Samoan for tattoo
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.

Legend has it that tattooing was introduced to the Samoans by the Fijians in 1828/30. It was the women that brought the art of tattooing across the ocean to Samoa. As recorded by researchers, both the Samoans and Fijians used identical tattooing instruments. However, the Fijians preferred to use human bones in replacement of today's tattoo needles and the Samoans used boar tusks (the boar tusks acted as teeth to the tattoo instrument). Well, the Fijians were cannibals once upon a time. This explains why they used human bones instead of shells and animal bones.
The teeth of the tattoo instrument had to be sharpened with a piece of coral regularly. If the teeth wasn't sharp enough, the tattooed would suffer severe tissue damage. There were reported cases of infections before the 1940's and some of these infections led to deaths.
A Samoan tattoo on a man is called a 'pea'a' and on a woman, it's called a 'malu'. The pea'a would cover the entire area from the waist to below the knee. Yep, they even tattoo behind the knee and inside the crack of the butt cheeks!!! This tattoo would take an average of a week or two to complete. Tattoos were a way to test a man's mind and physical strength. As with tradition, the family of the tattooed would be there with him during the duration of the tattoo.
While the modern day style of tattooing has invaded the island of Samoa, there are still many that practice this old style of tattooing. I think it's beautiful and I can only hope that this style of tattooing will be kept alive by the Samoans.

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  1. fantastic post dude! damm, i'm so looking forward to get a piece traditionally done, just gotta find the right artist to do so.


  2. Tatooist! its painfull and furthermore they r just like love hurting them self.. but still many NZ dude have it. what's so interesting about that tattoo??? hmmmm

  3. to jona-tat.2: Thanks Jon!! When you say traditional, do you mean back to the old form of tattooing?

    to caramelboopz:'s never about the pain. If pain was a factor, I would have stopped getting tattooed a long time ago.

    For the Samoans, tattoos mean so much more. It's not about looking good. It's about their family and ancestors. Getting a tatau is an honour and is something one has to get before he is readily accepted by his peers. His tattoos are not chosen by himself. It is chosen by the tattooist (usually the village chief) himself. Thus making the tattoo all the more meaningful.

    As for the Maoris in New Zealand, their tattoos are the same. Each part of the tattoo symbolizes something important. We in Singapore and all over the world, are getting Maori tattoos which we don't know about. That's something the Maoris aren't too happy about...

  4. yeah gotta agree with Noel abt the Maoris' view on people like us stealing their heritage. i'm current here in NZ and they are fiercely proud of their traditions. even when the caucasian Kiwis wanna get Maori tatts, the native Maoris still ain't happy abt it!

    and yeah man, looking to get one done old school style, i'm sure it's gonna hurt like HELL! oh man.

  5. Yea Jon...It's all about the heritage. I think it's awesome they are trying to protect their identity. I guess we Singaporeans could learn a thing or two from them. I really do think so...

    Don't think about the pain! When you do get the traditional tatt, think about the pride of sporting one! I'll give up an arm to have a traditional Samoan tattoo.

  6. just returned from samoa with a peá, and yes it hurts. the tufuga(tatooist)decides the patterns.and is a story(the tatau) of their herritage and find an artist is verry hard i just went to the island an asked arround..

  7. Wow! That must have been an awesome experience. How long did it take to do your peá and how much did it cost?

  8. Great post and a subject dear to my heart. Anyone taking the spiritual journey of such a tattoo as the Pe'a or Maori Moko should really show their respect by at least understanding its meaning. Many tufuga's wont perform their art on anyone who is Palagi (white), but increasingly when there is enough money bandied around they will do it. And depending on your resilience it can take up to a month or more to complete then up to a year to actually heal, so it is a huge commitment both spiritually and physically. Most Palagi's I know have only been able to receive the true Pe'a as a sign of the communities gratitude for service to the people. It is a huge honour.
    I have read so many nasty comments online from islanders who think Palagi's should not have Samoan tatts, but seriously, the only samoans who have that attitude are the ones growing up overseas and struggling to connect with their cultural identity. In Samoa, the islanders love to see the foreigners share in their culture and traditions.

  9. Thank you sir! I apologize for the late reply. Your comment was lost somewhere in my emails. I hope it isn't too late to reply... :)

    I can imagine the amount of pain that goes into a proper Pe'a session. But the pain along with the spiritual elements, can make or break a person. Am I right to say that?

    I think it's awesome if the art is shared. The Maoris aren't too happy that their art has been exploited. I totally understand where they are coming from.

    I have some Tahitian art on my leg which I hope doesn't offend anyone. What may be nice to us may run centuries deep to others.

    I'm popping by your blog in a short bit...See you there.

  10. im proud to hear this because i am a full samoan

  11. this a traditional way of tattooing , but the important is the essence of art.

  12. @Anonymous: I'll love to visit Samoa one day. It's been a dream to visit your beautiful island and hopefully this happens sooner rather than later.

    @mystic69: Hell yeah!


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