The popularity of the tattoo shoulder sleeve and tattoos using non-traditional Samoan tools are considered by modern day Samoan tattoo artists to be a sign of the coming of age of the tattooing art in Samoa. [photo: TG]

The coming together of traditional Samoan “tufuga” and contemporary Samoan tattoo artists this past weekend at Tisa’s 8th Annual Tattoo Festival, brought out strong feelings concerning the traditional Samoan tattoos — tatau and malu vs. the contemporary Samoan tattoos.

Samoa News spoke with tufuga tatatau (master tattoo artist), Su’a Vaofusi Pogisa Su’a, who is carrying on the Su’a family tradition of ‘tatatau’ or tattooing, who traveled from Samoa to attend the tattoo festival.

He told Samoa News that using modern day technology in lieu of traditional tattoo tools by tattoo artists to draw the intricate traditional patterns (mamanu) on bodies and clothing (such as t-shirts) shows how contemporary tattoo artists take lightly, a sacred tradition handed down by Samoan ancestors.

Traditional tattoo tools consist of the “au”, a set of serrated bone combs fastened to a small turtle shell with a short wooden handle and a “sausau” or a tapping mallet; and there are traditions passed on by each tufuga tatatau family that shape the ‘body’ of work, the tattoo itself and its sacredness.

Some shared traditions by tufuga tatatau families for example are in the places where the event takes place — once the tattoo event begins, no one is allowed to walk about in the space and make loud noises. Another long held tradition is that the tattoo event is never for just one individual, two or more are always tattooed; and there are always supporters present during the event.

Su’a feels that the proper place for a “soga’imiti” (men’s tattoo) is around the waist of the men and a “malu” — around the thighs for the women, but not on any other part of the body and not on clothing; and the right way to get a soga’imiti or malu is by using the traditional equipment, the au and the sausau.

Su’a said that by using modern technology for tattoos, the sacredness of the Samoan traditional tattoos is slowly but surely fading away.

Contemporary tattoo artists Paulo Amituana’i and Ualeni Ah Yek disagree with Su’a.

Amituana’i stated, although there are Samoan families who traditionally hold the title of ‘tatatau”’, in this day and age, the talent of tattooing has spread wide and far and it is a talent given to all by God, not just a particular few.

Amituana’i said that Samoa has become widely known in the world because of its skin artistry; in particular its shoulder sleeves and ankle bracelets, as well as the recognizable traditional tattoo patterns printed on t-shirts.

Ah Yek took to the Bible in support of Amituanai’s statement by saying there is no difference in the handing down of the art of tattooing through the traditional way and the story in the Bible of how God allowed his gospel to be preached to other people besides the Israelites.

He says that the time has come when this talent is learned by all and not just a few or passed on in a particular family.


One of the well-known myths involving the tatau (male tattoo) involves how it came to Samoa. The story is told of two sisters, Taema and Tilafaiga, who brought the art of tattooing from Fiji. But according to Su’a, the two sisters brought only the tools, but not a picture of what the tatau should look like. Su’a said that the patterns of the tatau being used nowadays, were something that each tatatau family created.

Su’a told Samoa News that the original tools Taema and Tilafaiga brought with them from Fiji were made from human bones and the very first ink (lama) that was used was made from human blood.


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