Thursday, October 15, 2009

Tatatau - Tongan Tattooing... So Where's the Proof?

Many people have written me criticisms and accusations that I'm making up everything on the site. Please read the "Historical Observations" page which cites pretty much anything that was written about Tongan tattoos within the last 500 years. And if you still don't believe it, go look up those sources yourself and make your own conclusions. It's a little hard to dispute accounts written hundreds of years ago by observers who had no reason to make up stories about what they saw.

Here are some facts about the tatatau:

Tatatau is made up of two Tongan words, Ta (to strike) and Tatau (similar, repeated); literally 'to strike repeatedly' such as a tufunga tatatau would do with the hau as he 'tapped' the tattoo onto a person. The word tatau has different meanings in other Pacific Island languages, and may differ greatly from the Tongan meaning. However, tatau is a word that used in everyday Tongan speech to refer to something that is the same or similar, e.g., 'Ai pe ke sipinga tatau - Just make the patterns the same. In its poetic or aesthetic form, ta also refers to time or a status of time, and tatau can invoke a sense of complete symmetry or both sides being equal inside and out. In this thought, tatatau could also be interpreted as the state of complete balance in all things.

Tufunga was a person skilled in a particular Tongan craft or material profession. Tufunga also referred to material arts manufactured mostly by men as opposed to nimamea'a which were fine arts mostly made by women. These professions could be hereditary or non hereditary. In Tongan, the word Tufunga does not take on the same intensity as it does in other islands like Samoa (Tufuga), Aotearoa (Tohunga), Marquesas (Tohu'a) or Hawai'i (Kahuna). The word tufunga simply designates a professional, societal role. For instance, there were:

  • Tufunga Toutai ika - skilled Tongan fishermen;
  • Tufunga Ta Maka - makers of stone vaults for the burial of chiefs;
  • Tufunga Fo'u Vaka - canoe builders;
  • Tufunga Ta Tatau - traditional tattooists, and so on.
Tufunga were the fabric of Tongan society, artisans that created the material Tongan identity through their skills.

1839 was the year that King Siaosi Tupou I began devising laws that would eventually outlaw and eradicate traditional Tongan tattooing. After his conversion to Christianity, many traditional practices that were not favored by Christian values were deemed unnecessary, heathenistic, or pagan; even though he himself had been tattooed in the traditional manner. Though the practice of tatatau quickly vanished in Tonga, Tongan chiefs, especially those of the Kanokupolu line, continued to travel to Upolu and Savai'i to get tattooed. Samoa had not abandoned the practice, and Tongan chiefs, because of their status, still felt somewhat exempt by the new laws/codes that now governed regular Tongan society.

Besides traditional tattooing, other cultural practices soon disappeared such as:

  • Po me'e - celebrations that culminated in open sexual encounters;
  • Tutu'u nima - the act of cutting off a finger after a ranking individual had passed away;
  • Tumomosi - burning beauty marks on the body with pieces of rolled ngatu;
  • Fangatua - social boxing and wrestling tournaments performed by men and women.
The knowledge of these traditions barely exist today as they have either been outlawed for over a hundred years, or the practice simply stopped all together because they had no more signficance to Tongan people.

So how come Samoa was able to keep traditional tattooing alive and Tonga wasn't?

First let’s make it clear that both Tongan and Samoan cultures have lost many of their old traditions, but other traditions remain intact much is as it was in pre-Christian times. It's not so much a matter of which island is more traditional, but rather, what we can learn from each other to rekindle our lost traditions.

After a long period of civil war and infighting amongst ruling chiefs of Tongatapu, Eua, Ha'apai, Vava'u, and Niua were united under one national Monarchy in the 1800's, it became easy to control the infrastructure of Tongan society with laws that were enforced by district high chiefs and lower ranking village chiefs. These chiefs had hereditary ties to the ruling Monarch and were obligated both by rule and by deeply embedded Tongan values of service to the king (mateaki). These island groups were nationalized and established as a country under the name "Tonga". The work of missionaries to convert chiefs continued, subsequently converting the people of the new kingdom to Christianity. With the new reformed central government, Tongans adapted to suit the desires of the new Christian Monarchy and Christian values.

Samoa, on the other hand was never a unified country under one ruling dynasty since the Tui Manu’a reign prior to 900AD. Each village had a high chief that governed the people who lived within the village. Each village adapted to the introduction of Christianity and westernized ideas according to the desires of their chief(s). This made it hard for Christian missionaries to enforce widespread laws across all of Samoa. Each village ultimately shaped the new changes for themselves rather than it be governed by a singular lawmaker.

Ultimately, foreign imperialist powers intervened, and Britain and the US divided Samoa into two separate nations (Western Samoa [now independent Samoa], and American Samoa). Work ensued with various village chiefs to create a westernized, central government for each nation. By this time, Christianity had been adopted as the common religion of each village, but because high chiefs still maintained control, various cultural practices (such as tattooing) remained strong in certain villages, while in other villages they were no longer practiced or had evolved with the new Christian religion. By the 1900's, traditional tattooing was only practiced by several tufuga tatau families in Western Samoa, and became restricted to the sons of village chiefs rather than a rite of passage for every Samoan boy entering into manhood.

As cultures adapted to westernization and modernization, stories, values, and knowledge soon disappears from the framework of that society. This inevitably continues to the present day in the Pacific. It is a gradual process that fades with each generation. If it reaches the point of extinction, it then becomes easy for us to question if it really existed at all?

In 1999 I was fortunate to spend 2 weeks on Rapa Nui. I was amazed at the enormous Moai statues that were carved and spread out across the island's landscape. However, the Rapa Nui people had no recollection of how these were made, why some of them were made, and how they moved these huge megaliths across the island. One of these alter of statues (ahu) was called Tongariki, which an elder explained to me was built by a chief from Tonga. The Rapa Nui also had a written hieroglyphic language called Rongorongo which is no longer understood by its people. Even though the statues and the tablets of rongorongo still physically exist, all knowledge of these two distinct traditions has completely disappeared.

This is where Tonga is at with the tatatau. Many Tongans and non-Tongans now question whether it really existed despite documented proof and plain old common sense. As we now enter an era of globalization, what traditions will no longer exist in a hundred years? It becomes ever more important to utilize modern mediums such as the internet to promote and perpetuate anything and everything that is Tongan for future generations.

Ahu Tongariki


  1. I think its awesome the research and effort you've put into tongan tatataus. keep up the gud work !! Where can we see your work?

  2. YEAH dude i so agree with the comment posted above! this is awesome work! keep it up, cause man we so need to educate ourselves in the TRUE history of our people and the story of how this history began to change due to colonisation!!! Even though Tonga was never colonised as such! You can still see the evidence of how ignorant some cultures can be to another! Instead of helping we can sometimes do more damage then we know it! & only time will tell the extent of this damage!!!! What has been striped? Or would stolen be the accurate word?? I don’t know about you! but in reading this article its apparent to me that the notion of doing good for another culture could ultimately alter their destiny and the TRUE culture that exists today!!!

  3. Much Respect for the research etc.....

    But from my knowledge Tongans traveled to Samoa to get the Tatau it was never a Tongan tradition to get tatted. Tongans traveled to Samoa to get the Tatau went back to Tonga and called it Tatatau etc.....

  4. very similar to the samoan tatau,like do you do ceremonies on compleetion and does it bring shame to the fsmily if not completed?is there rituals that you have to follow aswell like us samoans do,i like the tongan design,im just interested thats all,looks good on you man,well done

  5. Thanks for commenting. Unfortunately because it's not a continued tradition like in Samoa, there is no formal ritual with Tongan tattooing that is practiced. The tatau that we have was completed by Suluape Petelo and was followed by a traditional Samoan blessing - Sama.

  6. In response to the anonymous comment on Dec. 24th, 2009. Tonga has a hierarchical society with different levels of respect for individual based on their societal and family ranking. There are also longstanding genealogical ties between Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji. It would take another whole blog to explain how Tongan society practices these different forms of respect and tapu, and how they tie in with Samoa and Fiji.

    So to answer your question, basically the highest ranking individuals in Tongan society were considered sacred and untouchable by Tongans. Because of chiefly and familial relations with Samoa, these high ranking chiefs could only be tattooed by a Tufuga of Samoa.

    Tongan commoners, Tu'a, did not hold that level of sacredness and were not considered tapu. Therefore, they were tattooed by other Tongans who were tufunga tatatau.

    As for Tongans bringing back the word 'tatatau' from Samoa.. This is a 'who came first' argument that has no relevance to this blog. The traditional Samoan word is Malofie not tatau. Why didn't Tongans use this instead? Tongan and Samoan language goes back thousands of years to a root language -- that's why they're so similar with 70% of words being the same.

  7. haay . i really like and appreciate all the effort that you have put in to this . I had an argue with my mom if Tongans have a traditional tatoo because she said, when she grew up people that have tatoo shows that they just came out from jail or something. but then now i understand how we (TONGANS)lost our traditional tatoo. This is really something that i`ve never dreamed of knowing Hhaa . anneway its really good to know about all that . =D Cheers!

  8. Love your work - detailed, informative, factual - excellent stuff! Just a few years ago it was hard to find any information on Tongan tatatau, so thank you for this blog and for sharing your research and knowledge. Much respect. 'Ofa atu.

  9. hey thanks for the info. i'm scheduled to get my tongan tatau or pe'a in september by one of the suluape brothers. I'm taking the journey with my samoan brother so it's going to be real special. I'm proud to be able to take this journey because there r only 7 Tongan tataus in the world. Thank u again and keep up the great work.God bless

  10. at comment on July 10. Congrats on your journey to get your vaka completed. Just curious though, I know of only 5 individuals who wear the traditional tongan tattoo, wondering who the other two might be?

  11. Awesome to see your enthusiasm for our lost art. I first saw this a few years ago, and I'm now resigned to being one of you few.
    I have many questions starting with, are there any tongans doing tatatau yet?
    I bought a book in Tonga in January of this year called "Essays on Tongan History part 1" which you might be interested in. It has an interesting section on Tatatau around page 114.
    I have some other questions, maybe too sensitive to display on your forum.. would you be available to communicate with me privately?
    If so my addy is

  12. Hi where can i get a tongan pe'a im tonngan how much does it cost