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The Ultimate Guide to Samoan Tattoos: History and Significance

Samoan tattoos, known as ‘tatau,’ have been an integral part of Samoan culture for thousands of years. These tattoos are not merely body art but carry deep cultural significance, representing identity, heritage, and social status within the Samoan community. This guide delves into the rich history, traditional designs, tattooing process, modern adaptations, and the cultural and social impacts of Samoan tattoos.

Key Takeaways

  • Samoan tattoos, or ‘tatau,’ have a history spanning thousands of years and are deeply rooted in cultural traditions.
  • Traditional Samoan tattoos include the ‘pe’a’ for males and the ‘malu’ for females, each with unique designs and cultural significance.
  • The tattooing process in Samoa is highly ritualistic, involving traditional tools and techniques passed down through generations.
  • Modern adaptations of Samoan tattoos have influenced global tattoo culture, though they remain a subject of cultural debate and controversy.
  • Samoan tattoos continue to play a crucial role in expressing identity, heritage, and social status within the Samoan community.

Origins of Samoan Tattoos

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Samoan tattoos, known as tatau, have a rich history that dates back thousands of years. Many Samoan descendants have a tie to their culture or would like to. Some have taken to the art of tatau to get back in touch with their roots.

The Legend of Taema and Tilafaiga

A Samoan folklore tale tells the story of twin sisters, Taema and Tilafaiga, who traveled to Fiji and learned the art of tattooing. They returned to Samoa and shared their knowledge, and the art of tattoo spread through Samoa. It is believed that they approached the shores singing a song about who would receive tattoos. At first, no one wanted tattoos, but eventually, the Chief decided to give them a chance and get a tattoo. From there, tattooing became a Samoan tradition.

Early Tools and Techniques

Samoans created their own tools and a vast array of designs to tell stories in their tattoos. Each Samoan village made its customs and symbols that hold the history of time. Today you can recognize Samoans and even which tribe a person may be from just by the marks on their body. The tools used in traditional Samoan tattooing were made from natural materials such as bone, turtle shell, and wood. These tools were used to tap the ink into the skin, creating intricate and meaningful designs.

Cultural Significance

Tattoos have been a part of Samoan culture for several thousands of years. People speculate that the English word tattoo might even come from the Samoan word “tatau.” This word comes from the sound of the tattooing tools. For thousands of years, Samoans in Polynesia have passed down the tradition of giving and receiving tattoos between fathers and sons. The cultural significance of tattoos in Samoa is profound, as they represent not only personal and family history but also social status and community ties.

Traditional Samoan Tattoo Designs

Pe’a: The Male Tattoo

The Pe’a is the traditional male tattoo that covers the body from the waist to the knees. It is a rite of passage for Samoan men, symbolizing their transition into adulthood and their commitment to their culture. The intricate patterns and designs are unique to each individual, often telling the story of their family and heritage. While some people may get involved enough to return to the islands to get a Pe’a, others opt for smaller, contemporary Samoan tattoo designs that pay homage to the traditional ones.

Malu: The Female Tattoo

The Malu is the traditional female tattoo, typically covering the thighs. It is considered a symbol of protection and service to the community. Modern Malu designs may incorporate more delicate and intricate patterns, as well as a greater variety of symbols and motifs. These designs can be adapted to fit various parts of the body, from the arms and chest to the back and shoulders.

Symbolism in Patterns

Samoan tattoos are rich in symbolism, with each pattern and motif holding specific meanings. Common symbols include tiki figures, ocean waves, and animal symbols. These elements are not just decorative; they tell stories and convey the wearer’s identity and heritage. Samoans created their own tools and a vast array of designs with deep meanings to tell stories through their body art. Each Samoan village made its own customs and symbols that hold the history of time in the body tattoo.

In Samoa, tattoos are more than just body art; they are a profound expression of cultural identity and heritage. The designs are deeply rooted in tradition, yet they continue to evolve, reflecting the dynamic nature of Samoan culture.

The Tattooing Process

Preparation and Rituals

Preparation for a traditional Samoan tattoo is a deeply spiritual and cultural process. The recipient often undergoes a period of fasting and prayer to mentally and physically prepare for the ordeal. The community plays a significant role, offering support and encouragement. The process is long, painful, and dangerous but the community takes care of the receiver, and when the tattoo is complete they hold a great celebration for the newly anointed.

Tattooing Tools

Traditional Samoan tattooing tools are simple yet effective. The primary instrument is the au, a comb-like tool made from bone, turtle shell, or boar tusk, attached to a wooden handle. The artist dips the comb into the ink and begins tapping it into the skin. The comb is held at a slight angle and struck with a mallet or another tool to drive the teeth into the skin. The artist must maintain a steady rhythm and pressure to ensure that the ink is evenly deposited and the lines are clean and crisp.

Healing and Aftercare

Healing from a traditional Samoan tattoo can take several weeks. The recipient must remain still and endure the pain of the repeated punctures, which can be quite intense. Throughout the tattooing process, the artist may stop periodically to stretch and massage the skin, helping to keep it supple and reduce swelling. They may also apply additional ink or make small adjustments to the design as needed to ensure the best possible result. After the tattoo is complete, the community continues to support the recipient, helping with the healing process and celebrating their new status.

The newly tattooed person is rewarded with the honor of joining inner circles during ceremonies and village talks to learn more deeply about their culture.

Modern Adaptations of Samoan Tattoos

Contemporary Designs

In recent years, Samoan tattoos have evolved to include a variety of contemporary designs. While some individuals still choose to undergo the traditional pe’a or malu process, others opt for smaller, modern designs that pay homage to traditional elements. These contemporary tattoos often feature traditional Samoan patterns but are placed on different parts of the body, such as the chest, arms, shoulders, or back. Modern malu designs, for instance, may incorporate more delicate and intricate patterns, as well as a greater variety of symbols and motifs.

Influence on Global Tattoo Culture

Samoan tattoos have had a significant impact on global tattoo culture. The unique and intricate designs have inspired tattoo artists worldwide, leading to a fusion of Samoan elements with other Polynesian and even Western tattoo styles. This cross-cultural exchange has helped to popularize Samoan tattoos beyond the Pacific Islands, making them a sought-after style in tattoo parlors around the world.

Debates and Controversies

As with any cultural practice that gains global attention, modern adaptations of Samoan tattoos have sparked debates and controversies. Some traditionalists argue that contemporary designs dilute the cultural significance of the tattoos, while others believe that these adaptations are a natural evolution of the art form. Disagreement is older than tattooing, and this debate is no exception. The key is to approach Samoan tattoos with respect and cultural sensitivity, acknowledging their deep-rooted significance in Samoan culture.

The evolution of Samoan tattoos reflects the dynamic nature of culture itself, balancing tradition with modernity while maintaining a strong connection to its origins.

Cultural and Social Impacts

Identity and Heritage

Samoan tattoos are deeply intertwined with the identity and heritage of the Samoan people. They serve as a visual representation of one’s lineage, achievements, and social status. The intricate designs and patterns are not just body art but a symbol of cultural pride and personal history. Understanding the history of Samoa, including the ancient origins and the influence of the Tu’i Tonga Empire, is crucial to appreciating the depth of meaning behind these tattoos.

The tattoos are a testament to the resilience and continuity of Samoan culture, even in the face of external influences and modernization.

Tattoos in Samoan Society

In Samoan society, tattoos are more than just a form of self-expression; they are a rite of passage. The process of getting a tattoo is often accompanied by rituals and ceremonies, emphasizing its importance within the community. The tattoos signify strength, bravery, and spiritual guidance, and they play a crucial role in social cohesion and cultural continuity.

Preservation of Tradition

The preservation of traditional Samoan tattooing practices is vital for maintaining the cultural fabric of the community. As such, it is important for anyone interested in this art form to approach it with a sense of respect, humility, and cultural sensitivity. This means taking the time to educate oneself about the specific cultural traditions and meanings behind the designs and being mindful of how one’s actions and choices may impact or be perceived by members of the Polynesian community. Embracing Samoan culture through traditions, such as the ava ceremony, helps in preserving these age-old practices for future generations.

Famous Samoan Tattoo Artists

Pioneers in the Art

The art of Samoan tattooing, or tatau, has been passed down through generations, often within families. One of the most renowned pioneers in this art form is Su’a Sulu’ape Paulo II, who played a crucial role in preserving and promoting traditional Samoan tattooing techniques. His work has been instrumental in keeping the cultural significance of tatau alive.

Modern Masters

In contemporary times, artists like Su’a Sulu’ape Alaiva’a Petelo have continued the legacy. These modern masters blend traditional techniques with contemporary designs, ensuring that the art of Samoan tattooing remains relevant. Their work is celebrated not just in Samoa but globally, influencing tattoo culture worldwide.

Influence on the Tattoo Community

Samoan tattoo artists have had a profound impact on the global tattoo community. Their unique designs and techniques have inspired countless artists around the world. The influence of Samoan tattooing can be seen in various tattoo styles, making it a significant part of the global tattoo culture.

The legacy of Samoan tattoo artists is a testament to the enduring power of cultural traditions. Their work not only preserves the rich history of Samoa but also showcases the island’s vibrant culture to the world.

Discover the rich tradition of Samoan tattoo artistry through the works of renowned artists. Their intricate designs and cultural significance are a testament to the island’s heritage. To learn more about these famous Samoan tattoo artists and explore their masterpieces, visit our website today.


Samoan tattoos, or "tatau," are more than just body art; they are a profound expression of cultural identity, history, and social status. The intricate designs and the traditional methods used to create them have been passed down through generations, preserving the rich heritage of the Samoan people. Despite the influences of modernity and globalization, the art of tatau remains a vibrant and essential part of Samoan culture. Whether you are a tattoo enthusiast or a cultural explorer, understanding the significance of Samoan tattoos offers a deeper appreciation of Samoa’s unique and enduring traditions. As you delve into the world of Samoan tattoos, you not only witness the beauty of the art form but also the resilience and pride of a people who continue to honor their ancestral legacy.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the origin of Samoan tattoos?

Samoan tattoos, also known as ‘tatau,’ are believed to have originated from a legend involving two sisters, Taema and Tilafaiga, who brought the art of tattooing to Samoa from Fiji.

What tools are used in traditional Samoan tattooing?

Traditional Samoan tattooing employs handmade tools, including a comb with needles (au), a mallet (sausau), and a bowl for holding the ink. These tools are made from natural materials like bone, turtle shell, and wood.

What is the significance of the Pe’a and Malu tattoos?

The Pe’a is a traditional male tattoo that covers the body from the waist to the knees and symbolizes courage, endurance, and social status. The Malu is the female counterpart, covering the thighs and often symbolizing protection and service.

How long does it take for a traditional Samoan tattoo to heal?

Healing times can vary, but it generally takes about 2-3 weeks for the initial healing phase. Complete healing can take several months, and proper aftercare is essential to avoid infection and ensure the tattoo heals correctly.

Are Samoan tattoos only for Samoans?

While Samoan tattoos hold deep cultural significance for Samoans, people from other cultures can also get them. However, it’s important to approach this with respect and understanding of the cultural meanings and traditions behind the tattoos.

Who are some famous Samoan tattoo artists?

Some renowned Samoan tattoo artists include Su’a Sulu’ape Alaiva’a Petelo, who is considered a pioneer in the art, and modern masters like Su’a Sulu’ape Paulo II. These artists have significantly influenced the global tattoo community.