Tatau: A History of Sāmoan Tattooing

Written by      

The first Europeans to reach Sāmoa—aboard three Dutch vessels in 1722—reported that the locals who paddled out to them were dressed from waist to heel in fringes and “a sort of artistically made silk cloth”. A later visitor, Louis-Antoine, Comte de Bougainville, realised that this “ornament” was actually a series of indelible marks, very likely made permanent by puncturing the skin and applying the juice of herbs, “as I have seen practised by the natives of Canada”.

For many years after, these early encounters, explorers, traders, and missionaries struggled to understand the social function of the Sāmoan tatau. One of the world’s most elaborate and richly symbolic systems of body decoration, it was carried out by master tattooists (tufuga), who employed sophisticated tattooing tools of various sizes, tapping them rhythmically with a wooden mallet to apply the designs. The tool itself consisted of a small comb made from pig’s tusk or bone sharpened to needlepoints and attached with coconut fibre to a turtle-shell plate, both of which were lashed to a wooden handle. The tufuga was assisted in his work by helpers (toso), who stretched the skin of the client and administered therapeutic massage.

For a young male, getting a tatau, or pe’a, which covers the body from waist to knee, was not to be undertaken lightly (the female malu is lighter and its application less ritualised). Engaging a tufuga was expensive, requiring gifts of food and fine mats, and the procedure, which lasted many weeks, was painful and cloaked in formalities. But pain was more or less the point. It was, after all, a rite of passage; one with deep cultural significance, as Te Papa curator Sean Mallon and French anthropologist Sébastien Galliot make clear in Tatau, their landmark cultural history of the subject. For an individual, the tatau was, in the words of one Sāmoan religious leader they quote, “a literal inscription of his socioreligious identity, beliefs, and duties”. And its formalised patterns and imagery were “a visual depiction of his embodied life… his environment, family and God… cultural pride, beauty, bravery, ability, and potentiality”. Acquiring it created a cohort of young warriors, bonded by the experience, who were ready to fight, and if necessary to die, for their group.

Western missionaries took a dim view of such things, and from the 1850s actively suppressed the practice of tā tatau. Where it survived, it was as a private ritual rather than a communal one. But it would be wrong to think of it as a rigid, unchanging cultural expression destined for inevitable extinction. For one thing, it exerted a powerful appeal to Europeans and Americans. The markings were painstakingly documented by foreign scholars and Sāmoan travelling troupes were fêted. The German governor of Sāmoa, along with some of his senior administrators, went so far as to receive the pe’a themselves.

Sāmoan independence led to a revival of tā tatau, and in the 1960s and 1970s, Sāmoans arriving in New Zealand in search of work introduced it to this country. As it spread beyond its island shores, it adapted to novel conditions by harnessing new materials. Kerosene soot or Indian ink was substituted for the traditional burned candlenut-soot pigment, turtle shell was replaced by Perspex and other plastics, and sennit by nylon fishing line. In the interests of hygiene, tufuga began to use steel needles that could be sterilised in place of bone, and took to wearing latex gloves and covering pillows with plastic.

Yet even as Sāmoan tā tatau became a global cultural phenomenon valued for its authenticity, it embraced new motifs and forms and was taken up by Western tattooists apprenticed in the art. As a result, it began to attract a wider range of interpretations, often loosening its ties with ritual and morphing into an expression of individual identity.

Tatau celebrates—or, at least, acknowledges the inevitability of—these evolutionary departures, seeing them as the fruit of an endless search for personal and cultural meaning. Exhaustively researched, and enriched with interviews and striking documentary photography, it is a fitting tribute to a vital 3000-year-old tradition.

More by