28 May 2023

Watch - Tautua: Inked in Service

12:29 pm on 28 May 2023

A new RNZ documentary highlighting the transformative process of receiving the traditional Samoan malofie has been released.

Watch it here:

In Tautua: Inked in Service, RNZ social media journalist Faivaeselopepe Anric Sitanilei showcases his journey to getting the tatau over two weeks in December last year from tufuga (traditional samoan tattooist) Su'a Paulo Junior Suluape.

Along the way, Sitanilei, who also wrote and directed the documentary, speaks to people at his family home in the village of Toamua.

"I wanted to share my story to showcase the tatau, and to show our audience that they're not just tattoos, that receiving the tatau is a privilege, an honour and can be a spiritual experience."

Meraz Parker Potoi of MP Studio Samoa contributed as editor and main camera operator.

Its release comes as celebrations for Samoan Language Week begin.

traditional Samoan tattoo combs

traditional Samoan tattoo combs, known in Samoan as the 'au Photo: Supplied / Meraz Parker-Potoi

Explainer: The cultural significance of the Samoan tatau

By Faivaeselopepe Anric Sitanilei

The traditional Samoan tattoo goes by many names, it's called the tatau, malofie and known colloquially as the pe'a, while the traditional female tattoo is known as the malu.

It holds deep cultural and historical significance in the Samoan culture. It is a traditional form of body art that has been practiced for centuries and continues to be a cherished part of Samoan culture.

The tatau represents not only a beautiful work of art but also serves as a symbol of identity, heritage, and personal achievements.

Male and female tatau photographed by Li‘aifaiva Imo Levi liaifaiva Photo:

The art of tatau is deeply rooted in Samoan mythology, social structure, and pre-colonial spirituality. The origins of the tatau are recalled in the legend of Taemā and Tilafaigā, two Siamese twin demigoddesses who swam from the islands of Fiji bringing knowledge of tatau and the tools of the trade of Samoa.

It is a complex and intricate process that involves the use of various tools and techniques. Traditionally, the tatau is done by skilled tattooists known as tufuga ta tatau who have undergone years of rigorous training and apprenticeship.

Velvet Crescent Ōtara, South Auckland in 1991. Fatu Feu‘u. Tufuga tātatau Su‘a Sulu‘ape Paulo.

Velvet Crescent Ōtara, South Auckland in 1991. Fatu Feu‘u. Tufuga tātatau Su‘a Sulu‘ape Paulo. Photo: Supplied / Mark Adams

While the structure of the tatau is uniform across all those who wear it, the designs, patterns, and motifs on each tatau is unique to the individual and is carefully crafted by the tufuga to tell their personal story. The motifs and patterns used in the tattoo reflect the individual's genealogy and experiences.

The tattooing process is often seen as a rite of passage, marking significant milestones in a person's life such as reaching adulthood, marriage, or achieving a particular social status. Some even hold the tatau as one's preparation for entering le saofa'iga a matai (the village council of chiefs).

In Samoan society, the tatau holds a position of profound respect and honour. It is considered a symbol of strength, bravery, and resilience. The process of receiving the tatau is intense and requires the person to endure significant pain and discomfort. This endurance is seen as a testament to their courage and ability to withstand challenges in life.

Li‘aifaiva Imo Levi liaifaiva, 2016-17.

Li‘aifaiva Imo Levi liaifaiva, 2016-17. Photo: Supplied

The tatau also plays a crucial role in preserving Samoan cultural heritage. It serves as a visual reminder of the community's shared history, values, and traditions. The tattooing ceremonies are often accompanied by rituals, prayers, and singing, creating a profound spiritual connection between the individual, their ancestors, and the ancient gods of Samoa.

The tatau has gained recognition beyond the Samoan islands and has become a symbol of Polynesian culture worldwide, influencing tattooing practices in other Pacific Island nations and has also found popularity among tattoo enthusiasts around the globe.

RNZ staff members showcase their traditional Samoan tatau

TAHI presenter So'omalo Iteni Schwalger, RNZ Pacific Waves presenter Susana Suisuiki, and RNZ Social Media Journalist Faivaeselopepe Anric Sitanilei showcase their tatau Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

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