Tatau – By Zaria


Hi my name is Zaria, and I have decided to go back in time to discover, and retell a myth that was told to the children in samoan called Tatau. This myth is about twin sisters called Taema and Telafae’nga travelling to visit a relative married to Te fiti. They received a basket of tattoo products. They thought of tattooing the women and not the men as the women were allowed and men weren’t. As that was the rule for the people of samoan, if they wanted to receive tattoos from Fiji. 

The sister’s, Taema and Telafae’nga left Fiji and went to the Samona islands, tattooing the women and not the men. When they surfaced Taema was the Goddess of swimming and Tilafaiga was the goddess of canoeing. Tatau samoa history was passed down by songs long before the missionary arrived on the island, legends and myths tell the story.

Samoan tattoos, or tatau, is a tradition that goes back for centuries. I always thought that meant that the symbols used would be the same over the years, but further study has shown me that tatau can evolve just as much as clothes do over time.  Not only that, but the interpretation of each symbol or section, while keeping similar meanings, can vary from artist to artist.

I think it is also interesting to note that it is considered disrespectful to copy another person’s tattoo and tattoo artists usually refuse to do so. Each tattoo, whether traditional or not, refers to the recipient’s family history, accomplishments, and responsibilities. Meaning, each tattoo is unique to that person! It’s no wonder that tatau are seen as being sacred and something to be treated with respect!

A tatau represents the recipient’s heritage, personal history, present, and future.  Their tatau represents everything that makes them who they are as well as who they will be!  It also represents their family and the community they belong to.  The pain of receiving the tatau, that was also endured by generations of Samoans before them, brings the recipient closer to their ancestors and creates an inseparable bond between him or her and their family.

The origin of the Samoan tatau is believed to have been introduced to the Samoa islands by two Fiji women, who came ashore with the tools and knowledge of tattooing. The tale proclaimed that the two sisters sang a song, which chanted that women are only to be tattooed, but as they neared the beach shores, the song mistakenly became reversed, indicating that only the men will be tattooed. 

At first no one was interested in their art and skills. It was difficult to convince anyone to give them a chance. But finally one of the Samoan chiefs decided to give these women the opportunity by offering himself to the whole ordeal of getting a tatau. Soon the art of tatau became a family tradition that spread throughout the culture.


The artwork and designs go beyond being skin deep, there is history and deep meanings behind them. The tattoo and designs of the Samoa islands represents community, power, status, respect, honour, and is a mark of pride that is only to be worn by Samoans. For those who have no cultural influence or heritage background it is an act of disrespect to display their symbols and designs.


The Samoan word for tattoo came from the Polynesian language. The word tatau originates from the tapping sounds of the tool made during tattooing. This primitive tattoo tool was made of bone or boar husk sharpened into a comb style shape with serrated teeth like needles. It was then attached to a small piece of sea turtle shell that was connected to a wooden handle. Several of these tools are made with different comb sizes for use for small or thick lines.

The ink or pigment used in the tatau rituals is made from the candle nut or lama nut. These nuts were placed on a hot fire to smoulder and a coconut shell was placed on top collecting the soot that came from the nuts. Once there is enough, the soot is mixed with sugar water. 

The Samoan tattoo artist is known as the Tafuga. He is responsible for the execution of the design and the tattooing sessions. Traditionally, only descendants of a Tafuga can continue on with the practice of tattooing. The father passes his skills and knowledge on ensuring that the tatau ritual continues.

The Samoan tradition of applying tattoo, or tatau, by hand,has long been defined by rank and title, with chiefs and their assistants, descending from notable families in the proper birth order. The tattooing ceremonies for young chiefs, typically conducted at the onset of puberty, were elaborate affairs and were a key part of their ascendance to a leadership role.

The Samoan tatau is very unique in the world firstly because of its history and as a lot of people know it’s the only Polynesian archipelago where it has had a continuous practice and has been continuously undertaken despite the presence of missionaries.  “So that’s what we wanted to understand – how come only in Samoa? What were the historical circumstances that explain the continuity of this practice?” Sebastian said.

Sean said for him just on a pure, practise level it’s distinctive through its tools and hand tapping technique. “It’s important to me as a Samoan because it’s been a way or a medium through which to explore Samoa’s history and culture and how it’s changed over a few centuries, several centuries over 3,000 years. So tatau is a medium that allows me and hopefully other readers of the book to understand that.”

Decades of work has gone into the comprehensive exploration of the history and shifting social contexts of the malofie in this beautiful hardcover edition.  Archival information sources from around the world and historic photographs sit side by side with contemporary pop cultural references of tatau in the modern day, in this important record of the journey of tatau.

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