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It seems like everybody’s got an opinion about the Samoan tattoo – who should be getting them, how they should be given, how they’re meant to be worn or displayed, etc. While tattoos in general are very popular, Polynesia is often credited as the origin of this kind of body art, and as Samoans, we feel a certain obligation to the craft that is such a huge part of our cultural heritage.
A few years ago, I took an advanced Samoan language and culture class with the late Afioga Tofaeono Tanuvasa Tavale.
Each extended family will have at least one (official) taupou, but in a village, a family’s ranking determines how much authority each taupou has over village affairs.
This means that being a taupou in your own family is one thing, but being the highest ranking taupou in the village is something else altogether.
(Like how Disney re-packages fairy-tales for children.) The sisters in this story were actually demigods, Siamese twins named Taema and Tilafaiga.
Because of the ‘Fiti’ reference, it’s commonly thought the tattoo was a gift to them from chiefs in Fiji.
But it is a piece of art so highly valued in our culture that to be allowed to receive one is a gift.
The story is beautifully preserved in the traditional, chant-like song: O le Vi’i o le Tatau Samoa.
Says the song (a loose translation): This is what we know of how the art of tattoo came to Samoa Two women (sisters) swam across the deep ocean from Fiti They carried a basket with them (filled with tatau equipment) and repeatedly chanted the song: ‘Only women receive tattoos, not men’ The reason men receive tattoos today is that their song was sung incorrectly They arrived to the coast of Falealupo and encountered a huge faisua They dove into the water for it and when they surfaced again they began singing that it is men who receive tattoos and not women This song, which continues on to talk about enduring the pain of a tattoo for the sake of pride in your culture, is a great way to begin learning about tatau, but Tanuvasa taught us that it only tells a very simple version of its true, often controversial origin story.
I loved sitting in his class, listening to his stories about old Samoa, absorbing his profound wisdom about the Fa’asamoa – but I was probably the least knowledgeable of all his students. I had so many questions, and with great enthusiasm he helped me to understand.
I was the only one who would reply to him in English when he asked a question. In my time with Tanuvasa, this is what I learned about the Samoan tattoo: We call it ‘Tatau‘, and according to legend, it was brought to Samoa by two sisters.
When they work hard and prove themselves honorable, they may find favour in the eyes of their elders, and might even be offered the opportunity to be tattooed.