Vanya Taule'alo – Artist in Samoa



By Vanya Taule’alo

Tattooing in Samoan society embraces the concept of mana, a concept not usually connected with tattooing in western societies. The concept of mana is important to Polynesian religion, mythology, and traditions, including rituals such as tattooing. Mana can be best described as power and a vital strength, or life force. Persons and objects endowed with mana are seen as magical and worthy of the greatest reverence and respect. When interviewing individuals who had been tattooed in Samoa I was immediately made aware of the mana that was bestowed on these individuals through their tattooing experience. It was a personal journey, a cultural immersion and a strongly psychological experience, which changed their lives forever.

German anthropologists such as Carl Marquardt saw little value in Samoan tattooing beyond concepts of personal adornment and male vanity. Marquardt paraded tattooed Samoans in the Frankfurt Zoo in the 1890’s as specimens of another more “primitive” world. Missionaries were aware of the cultural significance of tattooing and must have realised that mana was conferred on the individual so they attempted to eradicate it, along with ancient gods and customary practices which they saw as pagan, lewd and debased.

Tattooing is strongly linked to the Samoans sense of pride in their traditions and culture. Tattooing was a rite of passage ritual; it was a symbol of adult sexuality, strength, and warrior status leading to adulthood chiefly status, a role of leadership. Luckily the missionaries failed to eradicate the art of body tattooing in Samoa. The last 20 years seen a strong revival in its practice which I relate to feelings of nationhood and cultural identity.

Samoa became independent in 1962. Cultural practice that were subdued or lost during colonial rule are trying to reemerge with festivals like ‘The Teuila Festival’ held every year giving breath to old games, crafts and tattooing. The destruction of ancient religions, rituals, symbols, meanings and icons is a source of great sorrow for many Pacific peoples, and this motivated me to research and discover the meanings of tattooing before all knowledge dies with the old people who still remember some of their ancient traditions. According to Albert Wendt, internationally known novelist, poet and professor in English, Auckland University;

“To understand the motifs (tattoo) you have to go back to pre-Christian times. Life altered radically with the pakeha (white man). We don’t know our ancient traditions. It’s very difficult now, we are just obeying beautiful symbols. A lot of the symbols must have been motif symbols of the family gods, district gods and national gods. We don’t know much about the ancient religions any more. We have run out of explanations because we’ve lost the meanings of our ancient religions”

The revival of cultural pride and nationalism has created a huge resurgence in the art of Samoan body tattooing in Samoa and amongst Samoans overseas. Today a traditional Samoan tufuga, Paulo Suluape, lives in Auckland servicing the needs of communities there and Australia. Over the last twenty years in Samoa I have witnessed a large number of men and women being tattooed and each time I ask them “why?” I am told it is “part of my culture.” Samoa was the only Pacific country not to entirely loose its ancient art, and as this resurgence in the art of tattooing has spread across the Pacific. It has been the Samoan tattoo artists who have tattooed their Tahitian and Maori brothers and then taught them the skills of the lost art.

That Samoan Body Tattooing, is a strong mark of cultural pride and identity is clearly bought out in all interviews I had with tattooed individuals.  I examine personal experiences with 4 very different individuals, an artist, and a part Samoan woman living in New Zealand, a tattoo artist, and a part Samoan male now living in Australia. I question many aspects of this rich cultural art form. What are the changes in traditional practices and attitudes towards the Samoan art of body tattooing? What influences these changes? Who is tattooed today? What are wearers of contemporary tattoos saying about their culture and sense of identity? Is tattooing making a cultural statement about identity in the Pacific region? Who is tattooed today? What influences the decision to be tattooed?

Samoan body tattooing cuts to the very core of the concept of identity. The quest for identity marks the individual desire to be tattooed and is a connection to the ancestral and cultural past. It also shows that the culture is still very much alive today, not just in Samoa but wherever tattooed Samoans are living. Today the person being tattooed sees it as a cultural symbol; the wearer is making a statement about his ethnic identity. So what are the wearers of tattoos saying about their culture and sense of identity? Why is there a need to express identity in such a painful and dramatic way?

In July 1995 I interviewed Samoan artist, Fatu Feu’u who is a painter, printmaker and sculptor. Feu’u was born in Samoa but he has been living in New Zealand for the last thirty years, he is now in his early 50’s and had his tattoo completed in 1991 when he was well into his forties. Like many people I have spoken to his desire for having a tattoo was strong for many years. However, because of the ceremonial cost, the time it takes to do and pain involved it is often a dream for many that does not turn into reality. Many individuals are quite old and already well established as the family chief or matai before they succumb to the tattooist’s chisel. Feu’u was one such person and he shared these thoughts with me when I questioned why he had his tattoo done. Clearly, his tattoo was both a cultural statement and a spiritual experience.

“It was something that I always wanted to have ever since I was a kid. I had dreams, nightmares about when I was going to have it done. Whether I was going to survive it? Whether it was going to look good on me or how I might feel about it? In the last ten years I understand a little bit more about myself, my art, my culture and having a tattoo has something to do with that. I did not take it lightly. I wanted to go through the ritual of my own culture”.

Feu’u spoke of feeling more culturally confident and able to play an adult chiefly role in his family, after he had his tattoo.

Another reason is spiritual; it makes someone accepted in the society. Here in Auckland having a tattooed person in the community is necessary for ceremonies. Once you have had a tattoo you have to identify yourself as set in that culture, and all things pertaining to that culture. Looking after the family, caring for the family, being a tulafale, (talking chief) for the family, it is like being an ambassador. It has to be connected to the spirit, A lot of things happened in the past. Not only wars but also migration. You had to be connected to the spirit world for help. That spirit world still exists in a lot of Samoan things. It has been belittled by Christianity”.

When I asked Feu’u about the ritual involved with his tattoo there are clearly shifts and adaptations to the way things are done in New Zealand. With greater distances to cover and the demands of work schedules Feu’u was unable to get a so’oa or partner to accompany him when he was tattooed. This would be unheard of in Samoa even today, for it is seen as bad mana to be tattooed alone, and no one would do this for fear of evoking bad spirits. Feu’u made the following statements with regard to the ritual performed while he was tattooed.

“I did not have a partner as it was difficult to organise the person at the same time. If it were a community that lived close together it would be different. There were hardly any ceremonies during the tattoo, because of where we were and where it was done. Paulo Suluape wanted me to have a tattoo so it was like an artist to artist exchange. At the end we had a very big umu saga, a Samoan feast and presentation of traditional gifts. It was a big ceremony with a lot of ritual and speeches. There was a huge exchange of fine mats and a lot of people didn’t realise what it meant to me. ”

I have known Pepe Rewitti-Sapolu, for some years. In the early 1980’s Pepe was a teacher in Samoa, and in more recent years she has worked as a social worker in New Zealand. Pepe is of mixed blood, her mother was Samoan and her father is white New Zealander. Pepe grew up in New Zealand and came to Samoa for 3 years as a way of finding her roots and to learn about her Samoan family and culture.

For Pepe having the malu or female body tattoo was important in connecting her with her mother and the women in her family. It was a strongly spiritual and cultural undertaking that cemented her identification with her Samoan heritage. Back in the 1980’s she was impressed with the malu’s of some of the old women she saw in the food market. She asked her aunt about the tattoo and was told her that her grandmother and great grandmother both had had them. Pepe was tattooed by Petelo Suluape about ten years ago. I asked Pepe why she had the malu and did she feel different as a person after the malu had been completed. Part of her response is as follows,

“After I had it done I was really proud. I felt really close to the women in my family. I felt angry with colonists who had tried to stop our people having the tattoo. I felt really stirred up as a person. It was a beautiful piece of artwork that was part of me. It was part of my Samoan spirit. I felt really strong and I wanted it as part of my culture and to show my children, to be proud of that part of their heritage…For me having the malu secured who I am. The malu helped me re-establish myself. It made me feel more Samoan than I was before, identity-wise, I felt closer to whom I am. You go through so much emotionally, physically and spiritually. You have it forever. I think my mother who died when I was really young would be proud”.

Pepe spoke at length about the process and ritual involved with her tattoo and she reflected after our interview that talking about it had stirred up a lot of memories for her,

“Holistically when I reflect back on the years I was in Samoa I know I went through a lot of healing, discovery re-birth. I suppose I really found myself spiritually emotionally and physically. I believe having the malu was a celebration for me. I left Samoa to return to New Zealand as a woman, with confidence, good self-esteem and I knew clearly who I was, a New Zealand born Samoan-palegi who is proud to be Samoan. I have a strong spiritual link with Samoa. The malu will stay with me forever. I know it has assisted me in moving forward and it gave me strength and I am proud to have the malu.

As a female with a tattoo Pepe also expressed how empowered she felt after having the tattoo and the respect that is shown to her on important family occasions such as weddings when she reveals her tattoo.

“Now in New Zealand on certain occasions I lift my dress up to show I have a malu and my family and I are proud. I am reluctant at times but it is also my privilege to do this. It is not a selfish action but a proud one”.

I interviewed Petelo Suluape who is one of Samoa’s most reputable tattooists about his experiences of being tattooed and changes in procedure and ritual and the meaning of tattooing in the community. Suluape’s reason for being tattooed was fairly typical of many males living in Samoa, where they are not so moved to make statements about identity, as are New Zealand Samoans, but rather motivated by envy of someone else having a tattoo which they admired. Suluape’s was motivated after his younger brother had a tattoo. He admired and envied the tattoo so the next day his brother Paulo, started on Petelo Suluape’s back. Suluape’s other reasons for being tattooed are to do with his chiefly status. He found that having a tattoo was necessary for him as a chief to feel authoritative and that he felt more responsible at family, traditional, and ceremonial occasions after he had the tattoo.

“The thing is that before I had the tattoo I neglected most things that happened in the family. Once I had the tattoo I was more obliged to perform and to do what I should. (by this he means looking after the family as a chief and participating in important gatherings, ceremonies and the decision making processes in the village.) I was more responsible. It forced me to learn more about my culture. You would be laughed at if you have a tattoo and you are a chief and you don’t know the things to do. It made me go into the community and learn. I would not feel comfortable to go into the village and give my speech without my tattoo.”

Petelo Suluape acknowledged that there was a big increase in the number of people being tattooed because they want to connect with their culture. Petelo is aware that much of the knowledge relating to tattooing is being lost and he wants to try to get other tattooist to talk about their craft so a book can be published recording important aspects of this fascinating art form. Sadly, Samoan’s tend to believe that power comes with retaining knowledge as an individual, and that to share that knowledge dissipates your power. So far, few tattooists are prepared to talk about tattooing and much information will be lost with this passing generation.

What are some of the changes in traditional practices? If you visit a Pacific Arts Festival or walk down K ROAD in Auckland, you will be impressed with the innovative, imaginative and wonderful display of tattoos on both men and women. My own family has developed over the years a keen interest in traditional and not so traditional Samoan tattoo. As a palegi (foreigner) woman living over half of my life in Samoa I have undergone the pain of the Samoan tattooing chisel twice, and had a needle tattoo by a Hawaiian tattoos once.

In 1993 before going to Australia for study, my son and I had taulima’s or armbands tattooed on my wrist and my son on his upper arm. We were feeling very mixed about leaving Samoa and were motivated by a need to express a spiritual connection with Samoa. Secondly, when I returned to Samoa for the Seventh Pacific Arts Festival in 1996. I had a second tattoo on my ankle and this time my sister -in law was my partner. In 1997 at a Tattooing convention, a Hawaiian tattooist Keone Numes tattooed a wonderful tattoo on my upper arm, connecting me spiritually with the Pacifc. Each time the motivating force was a connection to identity, and a pride and respect for symbols of this region.

I designed for my eldest son, Setu, a very contemporary looking tattoo, which we call his “Manatua Aiga,” (remembering family) tattoo. In 1997 Setu remained in Australia while we returned to live in Samoa. Setu wanted a reminder of his family and his Samoan culture. Setu’s tattoo utilises symbols of the male and female tattoo. Each member of his family represented in the tattoo. Again, we see a change from tradition in that Setu’s tattoo was done in a tattoo parlor in Newtown Sydney using European style needles and inks. While the composition of the tattoo contemporary, the symbols were traditional. Setu made the following comments about his tattoo, which covers his entire right forearm.

“I always wanted to get my tattoo design made by my mother. I had my arm band tattoo done in 1993 in Samoa and prefer Samoan tattoo’s and symbols to the palegi picture type tattoo’s. I have been with my family for over twenty years and very soon this chapter will close. There is the added harshness that all my family members will be overseas. I wanted my tattoo to be a band of respect and love for the past and the future.

The three lines swooping down to the diamond symbolise my brothers and me. I am a Pisces so I have five fish swimming up my arm; they are in the center of the pattern. Everything is done in five’s as there are five members of my family. Five flying fox symbols form two lines down the sides of the main triangle they protect me. The triangle is a symbol of unity. I also have Vanya’s pattern in my tattoo. She wears my armband pattern on her ankle. The band around the top of my tattoo contains five large bird’s footprints, one bird for each member of my family; these represent the journeys that we take in life. I feel closer to my family for having this done, and also closer to Samoa, which sometimes seems very distant”.

To conclude it is obvious that Samoan Body tattooing it is clearly linked today to asserting pride in national and cultural identity. It is for some an intensely spiritual undertaking giving the individual an enormous sense of confidence and wholeness. While we see the emergence of a variety of contemporary Samoan arm and leg bands the style of the full body tattoo for men and women remains as it was in ancient times. For Suluape, Setu, Fatu and Pepe being tattooed made them feel more responsible, complete and authoritative. Yet perhaps of greater significance was the spiritual changes that occurs after they were tattooed, the bestowal of mana that changed their lives forever.


[1]. Comments by Prof. A. Wendt during the discussion part of the seminar paper given by the author on, Eternal symbols: Tapa and Tattoo Designs in Contemporary Samoan Art, Apia, September, 1996.

2. Taule’alo V. Eternal Symbols: the Art of Samoan Body Tattooing, Master of Visual Art Research  Paper, Sydney College of the Arts, The University of Sydney, Jan 1997

Tattooing In Contemporary Samoan Society.

By Vanya Taule’alo.

English Copy.

Published in Tatowier Magazine,

Germany, November 1999.

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