27 Feb 2020

The art of Samoan tatau: Maintaining safe tattooing practices

6:49 am on 27 February 2020

A New Zealand-based Pasifika group has created a guide for those undergoing the traditional tatau, which outlines safe, hygenic practices while also incorporating both the cultural and spiritual aspects.

The tatau is a process rich in ritual using traditional techniques but, in some cases, it can lead to contamination and infection.

That's prompted Le Va to release a guide, The Art of Safe Tatau.

Pe'a of So'omalo Iteni Schwalger

Pe'a of So'omalo Iteni Schwalger Photo: Supplied

In Auckland, people who provide any tattoo service need to be licensed by Auckland Council, and comply with minimum standards in the Health and Hygiene Bylaw 2013, to ensure appropriate hygiene and good health practices are in place.

However, the current bylaw currently does not acknowledge that there is a difference between a cultural tattoo (Samoan Tatau) as opposed to a commercial one.

The tatau meaning "to mark" is a longstanding traditional Samoan practice. For men, it is the pe'a, dense tattooing which completely covers the lower body from waist to knee.

The malu is the equivalent tattoo for women and covers the legs from the upper thigh to behind the knee, but is not as dense as the pe'a.

'It's like a history book'

Cultural consultant Mary Autagavaia said it had been a work in progress trying to educate the sacredness of the tatau to the council.

"Through the consultations, we tried to explain to council that the tatau is about our life. When you look at the tatau itself, the way that we do it and the manner in which it is done, and the actual manifestations of the tattooing on the body, it's like a history book."

"The tatau can educate people on the history of one's family, of their background and what they do. It's very much part of our lives. It's about the way we live our lives, so to treat the tatau as a commercial product would not do it justice."

The first ever workshop held in Auckland last year was attended by Tufuga ta tatau or master tattooists from both Samoa and New Zealand, Auckland Council, Le Va and health practitioners.

"It was a historical moment, to have tattooists from Samoa, Australia and New Zealand come together to have that conversation about safe customary practices," said Ms Autagavaia.

"All the tatau craftsmen agreed that they want their people to be safe.

"The craftsmen wanted people to be educated around the art of tatau, but they also agreed that the community had to take some responsibility such as researching into their tufuga, ask questions about the health and safety, educate themselves on the cultural protection aspects to follow.

"Traditionally the tufuga learns the master tufuga within their family lineage or through an apprenticeship with a master tufuga and then carried on for generations. To have a meeting with the craftmens present to talk about their craft and skill was a first."

So'omalo Iteni Schwalger in Samoa after getting his pe'a done.

So'omalo Iteni Schwalger in Samoa after getting his pe'a done. Photo: Supplied

Josephine Samuelu is a registered nurse who was present at the workshop to advise on safe hygienic practices and why it was important.

"Safety of our people is the most important reason as to why we need guidelines, to ensure our traditional practice continues for the next 3000 years.

"Our people need to be aware of what they are getting themselves into when getting their tatau. There is not a lot of information going around to ensure that there is no infection and if so, what precautions need to be taken.

"The traditional practice is still the same, but the environment has changed.

"Pacific people have the poorest health statistics in New Zealand such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, so because the environment has changed, it is important for the tufuga to be aware of those changes so that they can see what adjustments they need to make to maintain a safe practice while continuing on the tradition.

"I was about to gather data around infection caused by the traditional tatau and when you compare it with surgery that is performed in a similar way with an open wound, the infection rates by traditional tatau is less."

Ms Samuelu said another crucial thing that people needed to be aware of was the traditional rules when going for your tatau.

"Navigating our cultural knowledge and tradition as well as including the western thinking of infection control or health and hygiene, for Samoans it is about the whole well-being. It is not just the person getting the tatau, but their families as well.

"When we talk about infection by the traditional tatau, we have to look at everything that has occurred with the individual and the family. It is important that the client listens to their tufuga's instructions.

"Things like sleeping on a fala or a traditional pandanus woven mat because the ventilation is better than a mattress. Not going out in the sun, but using an umbrella if you do to protect the open wound. Having your family constantly praying with you and a family member stay with you as it is told that if you are alone, the spirit may take you away.

"The tufuga should also be advising their client to seek medical help if the infection gets worse and the client has taken on board the cultural rules thoroughly."

So'omalo Iteni Schwalger from Niu FM showcasing his pe'a he got done in Samoa.

So'omalo Iteni Schwalger from Niu FM showcasing his pe'a he got done in Samoa. Photo: Supplied

'This is for my grandfather'

Radio broadcaster So'omalo Iteni Schwalger went to Samoa in the beginning of the year to get his pe'a done.

So'omalo was next in line in his family to get his tatau done and he wanted his grandparents to see it.

"My grandparents are getting older and they mean a lot to me, so I did this for them and that's a huge honour."

So'omalo said he had concerns about how safe the traditional practice would be beforehand, but was reassured when he met with his Tufuga who explained the procedure.

"The hygiene standards were so high. Everyone was washing their hands before they put their gloves on. The gloves were stored in plastic containers, so they were kept away from anything.

"Any time that any of my tattoo had to be laid on the floor they would lay out plastic sheets. We watched them sterilise the needles at the end of the day."

So'omalo said he was well informed as to how to care for his new tattoo - including how to clean it thoroughly to avoid infection.