Vanya Taule'alo – Artist in Samoa


Traditional Samoan Tattooing in Contemporary Pacific Art


Vanya Taule’alo

(New Zealand/Samoan/Australian artist)

I was not born in Samoa, nor were my ideas, values, and attitudes to life shaped there. I have now lived over half my life in this country, a country so very different from my own culture and country in so many ways. These experiences can be exhilarating and moving and at times frustrating and profoundly depressing. Certainly, Samoa has provided me with a rich canvas from which to find inspiration as an artist.

I began my journey into a foreign culture in 1974. I was twenty three and was training to be a teacher. During the long Christmas holiday, I went on a trip to visit my husband’s country, the small Pacific Island of Samoa. I shamefully admit that before this visit, I had neither shown any curiosity about his country nor made any attempt to inquire about his culture or way of life. While living in New Zealand, he had had to fit in with the dominant European culture. There were so many things about him I had not even begun to reach or to understand.

Samoa presented for me the first true exposure to a radically different culture. For the first time in my life, I understood what it was to be a palagi (person of European origin) and to stand out because of the colour of my skin. I understood what it meant not to understand a word of the language being spoken around me, and to be an object of intrigue and derision. I found myself doing mental somersaults as I realised that my values and opinions were not universal. It was the beginning of a self-searching process through which over the years, I have come to learn a lot about other people and myself.

I will never forget the assault of hot air that blasted my face as I walked off the plane and the strange smells and sounds that surrounded me. For the next two months, I would be stunned with a wide range of cultural experiences that bewildered me; outraged me, fascinated me; and made me laugh and cry. It was an unforgettable night drive from the airport to the main town of Apia, along a rough and pot-holed road flanked either side by charming fale (traditional Samoan houses). There were no walls on the fale and so the activities of the occupants were visible to all. Mosquito nets hung ghost-like from their supports, each one containing a number of people as they slept on flax sleeping mats on the hard floor. Those who had not gone to bed sat cross-legged on the floor playing cards by lamplight.

The contents of the fale were scant, typically, a bed covered with kapok mattress (it was not generally used for sleeping but for storing family mats. There was a trunk for clothes and a closet with mirror. Samoans, being communal people, enjoyed the company of others and lived openly in villages and family groups. Land belongs to the aiga (extended family) and family members live together on their family land, building their own fale with the help of other members of the aiga. This was indeed a different world from that which I had come from. Life as I understood it would from now on be in a state of reassessment, re-evaluation, and re-appraisal; I could never be the person I was before. I was now a legitimate member of this fascinating and frustrating culture.

I have lived in Samoa permanently since 1976. Over the years, we have had three sons, I have taught hundreds of children, and become reasonably integrated into the local community. At the beginning, I was ambivalent about Samoa. I missed my own family and friends back in New Zealand. I felt very much on the outside. Gradually things changed for me as I began to see some very beautiful things about Samoan culture. I have learned to compromise, to be patient, to expect less from people, yet there are still times where my old value system kicks in and I cannot compromise, when issues are fundamental to my being. I still miss my family. Naturally, there were times when I hit the brick wall headfirst. Nevertheless, I do consider myself very fortunate that I can play an almost chameleon role, I am able to understand two cultures and shift between them as I choose.

Why I became an artist?

I have always loved art. Because of family circumstances, I was unable to enter University Art School, although I attended evening classes at the university in the early 1970’s. Art was certainly a strong interest of mine. My father is an artist, who has been living in Melbourne since 1951, so I suppose the love of art is in my genes. I have been painting since about 1979. Family commitments, raising three sons and teaching dominated my twenties. In the 1980s, I attended art classes with an Italian maestro, Ernesto Coter, who has lived here in Samoa for many years. During this early period I exhibited in some group shows in Samoa and New Zealand and had two solo exhibitions of paintings. However, in 1989-1990 and again in 1993-1997 my family moved to Sydney for study leave – my husband to complete his Doctorate and I a Master in Visual Art. It was also during this time that I becam an Australian citizen.

For my Master’s degree, I studied Samoan Body Tattooing. I was interested in people’s use of cultural symbols to express identity and nationalism. Stamps of identity torn into the very flesh of the skin fascinated me. This notion of identity is central to my belief that the Samoans having tattoos in Samoa, New Zealand, Australia, and America do so because the tattoo gives them a sense of their Samoan identity, and cultural roots. I see tattooing as the most profound, intimate, and painful way an individual could say “I am a Samoan and I am proud of it!”

A brief background to Samoan body tattooing

Tattooing links the individual to his/her culture or race and is deeply imbedded into the cultural psyche of the Samoan people. Samoans do not use the word tattoo. They and many other Polynesians use the word tatau (body tattoo). Tatau is likely to have been made up of ta, to draw and toua meaning spirit. The word tatau therefore links the art of tattoo with the spiritual world, and the after world. Another possible explanation for the word tattoo in Samoan is ta, to beat or to wound, and tau, to fight, linking tattooing originally as a sign of warrior status. These definitions give an indication of the status of tattooing in Samoa. In Polynesia the art of tattooing was and still is a sacred undertaking. At the end of the process the recipient is bestowed with mana (sacred power) that is more spiritual than earthly.

Who is tattooed?

In Western societies tattooing is considered to be a characteristic of marginal groups, but in countries where tattooing follows traditional beliefs and practices it is integrated as an essential element of the main cultural practice. In traditional, communal societies such as Samoa, tattooing of both males and females signifies a strong connection to traditional life styles. Tattooing is an important ritual in the life cycle of the individual. Having the pe’a (male body tattoo) enhances the individual’s self esteem while performing his tautua (service to family and village) and learning about the cultural and ceremonial life of his society. When and if the recipient becomes a matai (holder of traditional chiefly title), he will display part of his tattoo during important ceremonies, where the tattoo will signify his status and pride in his traditional way of life. The malu (female body tattoo) was traditionally given to the village taupou (daugther of paramount chief). Although she may perform her duties without a malu she is considered to have more mana if she wears the traditional tattoo. The tattoo protects the wearer from evil spirits and is an important part of the ceremonial life of the individual, providing them with mana. Today anyone can be tattooed but the cultural significance is still there.

Samoan method of tattooing:

In Samoa tattooing is done using traditional tools developed over many years. Small hoe-like instruments are fashioned by the tufuga ta tatau (tattoo artist), originally made from beef bone, bores teeth, and prized tools were formed from human bones. The cutting tools are different widths depending on the size of the surface to be worked on, normally four sizes are used. The instrument consists of a short handle of bamboo or wood and a finely chiselled comb. The comb is made from a piece of turtle shell which is tied at right angles with coconut husk fibres. Tied on at the wide end of this piece of turtle shell were pointed little combs of bone. Today any bone is used and perspex is favoured as it is easier to clean. A small wooden mallet about the width of a finger is used to tap the tattoo tool. Traditionally the dye was made from a small nut called lama that was burned and mixed with water. Today the ink is made from the soot of burnt kerosene.

The individuals being tattooed are always done in pairs. This is good mana, and few would consider being tattooed alone. This has meant that the tufuga works on one individual until he needs a rest and then he moves on to the partner and so forth. To complete a full body pe’a can take more than eight sessions. These sessions can be done over eight consecutive days or more usually an individual will be done one or two days a week allowing time for the swelling and healing process to occur before the next session.

This has implications for hygiene practices in today’s world of transmittable diseases such as HIV. In spite of the risk of aids there is minimal change in traditional cleaning practices. One concession is that tufuga wears rubber gloves. But tools are still shared and the basic cleaning procedure is to scrub the them in a bucket of cold water with an old tooth- brush. A non- sterile rag is used to wipe the blood away. The tufuga works with the aid of two assistants who stretch the skin as it is beaten, these men also wipe the blood away. At a Tattoo Seminar held in Samoa in September 1998 Samoan tufuga, Paulo Suluape, gave demonstrations of the correct cleaning procedures which he has adopted in Auckland and Australia when he tattoos. He is gravely concerned at the lack of vigilance shown by his fellow tufuga in Samoa but realises traditional methods are hard to shift. Besides, the local tufuga cannot afford to provide the proper sterilisation, even if it was available on island.

Description of my tattoos

I have two small Samoan tattoo’s, one around my wrist and the other around my ankle, each about 2½ cm wide. The symbols represent protection, security, rest, and peace, holding the family together, the motherly role. My wrist taulima (arm band) was done in 1992, at the same time as my son and a friend had their upper arm taulima. We were leaving Samoa for our second study leave in Australia. It was very meaningful to my son and me as we were feeling very unsure of going back to Australia and it meant to us a part of Samoa would always be with us. We did not tell my husband we were getting tattooed as he has always wanted one but is extremely scared of needles and pain. So we arranged for the tufuga to come to our house and the three of us were tattooed at the same time. It was done in the traditional way and was quite painful but a very special occasion for us all.

In September 1996 I attended the 7th South Pacific Arts festival in Apia. During this time I was doing research on tattooing and participating in ceremonies, interviewing people and so it was natural that I would want another tattoo. This time my sister-in-law was my partner. She had a wrist taulima done while I had an angle tauvae, (foot band) on my right ankle. My tauvae took some months to heal, and it was quite seriously infected. I tried 5 different antibiotics and the professor of medicine where I was working in Sydney was quite worried that the deep set infection could get gangrenous. I ended up with part of it removed due to a skin cancer that developed. It was quite scary. This unsighly scar on my tauvae was re-tattooed last year using needles.

The whole experience with my tauvae has made me very slow to consider having the full malu done. However I am still contemplating getting one. Samoan tufuga, Paulo Suluape, working in New Zealand is encouraging me to do this as a final connection with the art of tattooing. I will have to deal with Paulo Suluape as he uses modern cleaning methods with his tools. But for obvious reasons I will seek medical advice before doing so.

I also wear a Hawaiian tattoo on my upper right arm. This tattoo is about 9 cm round and represents the trade winds and oceans of the Pacific. The Hawaiian tufuga, Keone Numes, said it symbolises how I am navigating the Pacific. This tattoo was done using modern needles and was not at all painful, healing immediately. All tattoos are dark blue/black, angular in design and linear.

I designed a contemporary tattoo for my oldest son, Setu, which we call Manatua Aiga, (remembering family). I have since made this into a large woodcut and painting. In 1997 my family was leaving Sydney to return to Samoa while  Setu was to stay on in Australia. This tattoo was to be a reminder of his family and his Samoan culture. Setu’s tattoo is based on symbols of the pe’a and malu with each member of his family represented in the design. Again, we see a change from tradition in that Setu’s tattoo was done in a tattoo parlour in Newton Sydney using European style needles and inks. While the design of the tattoo is contemporary, I have used traditional symbols in the composition. This tattoo has for Setu strong spiritual and emotional connections with his family. Setu made the following comments concerning his tattoo, which covers his entire right forearm (Figure. 1)

“I always wanted to get my tattoo design made by my mother, based on Samoan tattoos and symbols. I wanted my tattoo to be a symbol of respect and love for the past and the future. The band around the top contains five large bird’s footprints, one bird for each member of my family; this depicts the journeys we take in life. I feel closer to my family for having this done, and also closer to Samoa, which sometimes seems very distant.”

During Christmas of 1997 my second son, Masina, had a taulima done on his forearm while Setu had a tauvae done on his calf. Thses were done by a local ‘commercial’ tattooist using needles. His designs are contemporary bands combining traditional symbols in a variety of ways. I arranged for 5 members of our family to get tattooed first thing in the morning as I knew the tattooist did not change his needles properly. The cleaning procedures were grossly inadequate consisting of a jar with some old solution which he whizzed the needle through for a few seconds. As these quick tattoos seemed very popular with young Samoans and tourists and with little if any industry controls, I am deeply concerned about the health risks involved. Overall, I am not very pleased with the results of these tattoos which were very roughly done and the colour could soon fade. There was no comparison between this method and the way our original tattoos were done. With the traditional method one feels a real sense of occasion and the mana of the ritual.

Traditional symbols in my artwork

The use of traditional symbols, and how they express cultural identity is a concept that is central to my art. These ancient symbols and beliefs are important to the Pacific people especially as migration has hugely affected these island communities. Isolated in foreign societies and away from their homelands these symbols maintain a link to the past. My works examine the topics of marginalisation, post-colonialism, tradition, and change, women’s’ role in a patriarchal society, myth, ritual, the environment, and political issues. I recall past stories, oratory, and traditional iconography and develop my own symbols and iconography as I communicate about the culture and the society in which I live. I caution for cultural changes to be made wisely and at the same time I challenge some attitudes I cannot accept. Through myth and proverb I tell of love and sex, rituals and myths, colonialism and despair, and celebrate the growing sense of nationalism and cultural pride coming though the Pacific.

In the installation Taema ma Tilafaiga, I illustrate the mythological story of tattooing (Figure 2). I sanction the importance of the myth of the Siamese twins Taema and Tilafaiga, when I print their tattooed bodies alongside two heavily tattooed male figures. These figures represent the two Fijian men who taught the twins the art of tattooing. Intertwined between all four figures are symbols from both the male and the female tattoos. Taema ma Tilafaiga consists of three large woodcuts carved into doors, and printed on muslin. The installation was on display at the ‘Talofa Samoa Sudsee’ exhibition at the Museum fur Volkerkunde in Frankfurt am Main.

Samoans strongly believe that the tattooed person is protected by some spiritual force, is bestowed with mana, and is thereby less vulnerable to harm. The recipient is made stronger for having a tattoo. He can deflect the worldly obstacles that may harm him; he is more powerful than his foe. The pain endured while undergoing the tattoo is well worth the benefits in terms of personal protection; it acts as personal armour. This concept inspired my wood engraving, Pe’a (Figure 3). The protective symbolism of the tattooed skin enfolds the individual from dangers of the spirit world, which to this day surround the society. These beliefs still hold in spite of decades of Christianity trying to eradicate these ancient associations. This symbolic protection is also important for the individual for the after life.

The tattoo is the sign of such maturity, where the process and ritual involved mark the male individual’s separation from the mother/child status. He is initiation into the male/adult social hierarchy. My wood engraving, Pute (navel) (Figure 4), celebrates this notion where the navel is the last part of the male tattoo to be done, thus erasing through decorating it, the males last sign of his bond with his mother, his navel. Tattooing played a part of the libidinal life of the Samoans. Tattooing and sexuality were inseparable. The concept of sexual maturity and attraction and continuation of lineage is behind the woodcut titled Ua o’o gafa (Figure 5), and the wood engraving Malu (Figure 6), which celebrates the female tattoo. Traditionally it denoted the approach of sexual maturity and social rank of her family, but today this interpretation has a wider interpretation.

Samoan society is based on the matai system which maintains social order and allocates the limited available resources. This system has served the people for thousands of years as individuals live clearly defined roles in a stratified social structure. Samoan society is carefully organised still along these traditional lines. Through his tautua a young man learns the oral skills and history of his culture. Once he has matured, he could then become a chief. The Samoan gaining of power through service is an interesting concept that has fascinated me as a European living in that culture. It is a powerful force that has inspired my second installation, titled, Tautua-Pule-Mana, (Figure 6). The fale is the place of ritual and authority, and I have printed 16 long pillars of material to symbolise the fale poles. The pillars are arranged in an oval format, symbolic of the shape of the Samoan meeting house where the village fono (council of matai) is conducted and all-important political decisions are made. The installation is about the maintenance and acquisition of power and authority through the art of tattooing, but more importantly, it captures the importance of mana.

Final Remarks

Tattooing in Samoa enhances social standing. It is clearly linked today to asserting pride in national and cultural identity. It is for some an intensely spiritual undertaking giving them an enormous sense of confidence and wholeness. The resurgence of tattooing in the Pacific region reveals a tremendous interest in the body art, and a greater variety in styles of tattoo worn on the arms and legs. The style of the Samoan full body tattoo for men and women remains as it was in ancient times. Sadly today much of the knowledge about the meaning of the individual symbols has been lost. I hope through seminars and discussion this knowledge will eventually be recorded.

My art reflects a strong link to tattooing, in use of symbols and the psychological aspects of Samoan tattooing. I examine the social and cultural importance of tattooing while also discussing questions of shifting identities and dislocation. While my art works discuss topics specific to Samoa, I feel they have a wider application as dislocation, change and tradition, tattooing and cultural symbols, connect to, inspire and fascinate, so many peoples in all parts of the world.

Glossary of Samoan words and phrases

aiga extended family

fale traditional Samoan house

fono council of village matai

malu female upper arm body tattoo

mana sacred power

matai holder of traditional title, leader of the aiga

Manatua Aiga remember family

palagi person of European origin

pule authority

pute navel

pe’a male body tattoo

Taema ma Tilifaiga       the Samoan twin Godesses that brought tattooing to Samoa

taulima arm band

taupou daughter of paramount chief

tatau body tattoo

tautua service to family and village

tauvae leg band

tufuga craftsman – in this instance of tattooing, tufuga ta tatau

Ua oo gafa                    the lineage is assured

List of Figures

Figure 1: Manatua Aiga

Figure 2: Taema ma Tilafaiga

Figure 3::Pe’a

Figure 4: Pute

Figure 5: Ua oo gafa

Figure 6: Malu

Traditional Samoan Tattooing In Contemporary Pacifis art, (a personal account of a journey into another culture).

English Copy.

Published in Tatowier Magazin.

Germany. August 1999.

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