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One on one with Master tattooist Tufuga Su’a Alaivaa Tikeli Loli

Tufuga Su’a Alaivaa Tikeli Loli
The “Art of Pain — Samoan Traditional Tattoo”

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — A high school dropout has made a name for himself in Europe and the Pacific through promoting, marketing and tattooing Samoa’s traditional tattoo for men and women — le tatau and le malu.

Tufuga Su’a Alaivaa Tikeli Loli, Samoa’s international tattooist is once again offering his skills at the Tisa’s Tattoo Festival in American Samoa this week, at Tisa’s Barefoot Bar, Alega.

He markets his skills under his name and as the “Art of Pain — Samoan Traditional Tattoo”.

His next stop after this Fest, is the "Marquesas Islands Arts and Culture Festival", which will be held on the island of Nuku Hiva, from December 16 to 20, 2023.

Su’a told his story when asked how he became a world-sought after tattooist from the Pacific.

The 33-year-old father of two said, he grew up in a family of seven — his five siblings and his parents Silisu’ega and Tikeli Loli of Moamoa Faleasi’u and Vaipu’a Savaii.

He believes his earned talent was a blessing from his late father.

In 2011, he refused to attend school anymore but would rather follow his father to traditional tattoo events in the village and other places. 

“I watched his daily works and I started practicing being the handy boy for him.

“From then on I gradually learned the art already in 2013 and in February 2014 I became a soga’imiti.”

Right after he’d been given the traditional tattoo the work of tattooing of men and women came naturally, Su’a said.

In 2013, he accompanied his father to a festival that was held in France, and by then he’d already picked up the tattooing technique.

He got the contacts in Europe, Su’a said, from a French teacher at the National University of Samoa.

The teacher was a friend of his father, who invited them to the festival, and they spent three months there. 

Tattooing in Samoa continued then in 2015 and in 2016- 2017 he was again asked to come to France to a sharing of knowledge between several artists from the Pacific — French Polynesia, Tahiti, Wallis and Futuna and the Marquesas.

He then took up training on the use of electric needles rather than the traditional Samoan way of tattooing.

Su’a said, two weeks before the end of his one-year course in France, he received a call from Samoa that his father had passed away.

But while in France he learned within that year about the traditional designs from the French Polynesian artists.

Now about six years later, The Tattoo Artist Su’a Alaivaa is being asked again to take part in the Marquesas Islands Arts and Culture Festival 2023.

 As soon as the festival in American Samoa is over and done with, next month Su’a will fly to the Marquesas, the largest island group of French Polynesia.

He is now training his baby brother, and he will be accompanying him there.

Su’a hopes to train his two daughters to become Traditional Tattoo Artists, adding there are several female Tattoo Artists in Europe and in French Polynesia as well as the Pacific.

 When asked about the practice of using the traditional ink, Su'a said, there's spiritual taboos of the lama that he refuses to use on his clients. 

He explained the he stopped using lama several years before his father passed. He said when he saw what happened to the last ink his father made at home — that was enough for him not to use it anymore.

"We can still make the ink for demonstration, and display in respect of the culture."

He said the experience of making the ink was scary for him and his family, even for the French friend of his father, who wanted to see it first hand.

The burning of the lama or ink was done at night and was a successful process,  except for protecting it from the spirits. 

Su'a said, his father put the ink on a shelf away from the floor and kept their light on the whole time.

However the dogs kept them up the entire night barking around the house until daylight.

Luckily when his father checked out the ink — it was still there.

That's when the teacher learned about the spiritual side of the ink and for him, he told his father to never burn or use the Samoan ink anymore. “It's too much work and scary.”

Tisa’s Tattoo Festival’s last day of events is tomorrow, Saturday, Oct. 28. All are welcome to visit and to enjoy the cultural event.


Of interest, unlike the Samoan tatatu and malu, the traditional Marquesan tattoo is typically a full body skin tattoo covering the face or head and stretches all the way down to the feet, in elaborate designs made up of meaningful spirals, bulls eyes, crossed lines, geometric shapes, animals, and thick bands of ink alternating with decorative borders.

Traditional Marquesan motifs and designs stand out for their immensely intricate patterns and darkly shaded designs — and unlike the Samoan tatau and malu — the Marquesan tattoo can take a lifetime to complete.

Typically, Marquesans add to their tattoos throughout their lives, signifying their accomplishments, their tribe, their status, and even some tasks that they can perform, i.e. preparing certain foods, etc. when they get a particular motif on a specific part of their body.