Samoan tatau is one of the few Polynesian tattoo styles that has been kept alive without westernization and outside influences. This continuous tradition spans over 3,000 years. The occupation of Tufuga Tatatau is passed down from father to son and thus kept rich and alive with tradition. The western word tattoo is actually derived from the Samoan word tatau. The word tatau comes from the sound made by the striking of the wooden sticks.

The men get their pe’a as they enter manhood. Pe’a represents a fruit eating bat also known as a flying fox. Not only does this geometric wrapping of the lower knee to upper thing, buttocks, and lower back decorate their bodies, but it symbolizes the transition into manhood and the acceptance of new responsibilities and duties within their community. The designs in the pe’a refer to the recipients family history, accomplishments, and responsibilities. The basic design is similar, but each Tufuga gives his own personal set of motifs.

Self-Portrait of Greg Semu - Photographed by Greg Semu 1995

The process of receiving full pe’a can take a month or two and is very intense.  It is accompanied by ceremony, celebration, and ritual. This ancient tradition is still very much alive today.

The women are tattooed from the knees to the tops of the thighs and the patterns cover less skin than the men’s pe’a.  These marking’s are called malu and offer protection, cultural identification, spiritual significance and adornment. This process had less ceremony for the common women. Often times the women’s thighs served as a practice canvas for the apprentices. Unless you were the daughter of a high chief and then an expert Tufuga was hired.

Here are some Samoan tattoos by Dave Rodriguez

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