Thursday, October 15, 2009

Tatatau - Tongan Tattooing... What One Must Know

Prior to receiving my tatatau by Su'a Suluape Petelo, I was fortunate to sit and talk with him about his practice, and also participate in an exchange of knowledge. The following were things that he conveyed during conversations in 2002 and 2003 about the traditional Samoan Malofie.

Malofie is the true Samoan terminology for a traditional Samoan tatau. It was never called a pe'a until recent times; around the 1800s anthropologists and other researchers began to ask questions about it and according to Suluape, it was then that men wearing the pe'a started referring to it as a pe'a. In actuality, the pe'a is a very small pattern that is tattooed on the lower part of the back, right about the tailbone area. Pe'a patterns symbolize the fruit bat of Samoa. He wasn't sure how this word became the predominant word for Malofie. There was also the notion that a man with a completed Malofie resembled a pe'a with it's wings closed - the head being the male genitals. To this day, pe'a remains the common term associated with a traditional Samoan tattoo.

Peka does not translate as easy into Tongan as pe'a does in Samoan. Because Samoans have been using the word pe'a to refer to their tattoo(s), it is generally accepted and non-offensive. However, to refer to something or someone as peka in Tongan can be misconstrued as derogatory, and hence, may cause much offense to Tongans. The indigenous Tongan word for tattoos and tattooing is Tatatau.

Tattooing tools are truly sacred and are passed on to an apprentice by the tufuga when the tufuga deems it appropriate. The apprentice must serve the tufuga at every moment and absorb everything that is spoken by the tufuga before he is deemed worthy to receive his own tools. This includes understanding the stories that accompany the tattooing, the specific construction of the tattoo, and how to each session is devised according to longstanding traditions. This also includes understanding the techniques of using the Au and Sausau (the traditional tattoo comb tool and tapping stick - called Hau and Hahau/Sausau in Tongan) and the science of stretching the skin when tattooing - toho kili or fusi kili.

Once given the tools, the apprentice is bestowed the Suluape title, and is required to perform a certain number of tattoos and remain in the service of the tufuga as an au koso (stretcher). He is also to understand how to conduct preparations for the ceremonial blessing or sama. Once the apprentice has completed a set number of tattoos and is able to construct and care for his own tools, he will then be bestowed the title of Su'a. Once a Su'a, he is then able to carry on tattooing and will begin carrying out the sacred sama ritual with each individuals he completes. This is overseen by the tufuga for a time until the apprentice is found able to fully carry out the tufuga tatau traditions solely.
With the advent of Westernized individualism and a culture of instant gratification, there have been some Samoan and other Pacific Island individuals who have attempted to bypass the above tradition and construct their own tools and tattoo without a cultural license to practice. Many of these tattooists are untrained, untitled, and unaware of the damage they may be causing to individuals who are attempting to reconnect with their culture.

There are individuals out there walking around with traditional tattoos that are crooked, poorly constructed, and strange looking with incorrect design placement. Furthermore, many of these tattooed individuals did not undergo proper preparations before the tattoo, nor did a receive a proper blessing after.

If you come across a traditional tattoo artist, it is important to find out who their teacher was, how long they apprenticed for and where did they get the tools from. This might offend the tattooist so sometimes relying on gut instincts is probably the best defense against these self-proclaimed tufuga.

Each person tattooed by a student of the Su'a Suluape clan also recieves the traditional family signature which occurs as the final marks on the body. These markings are very distinct to the this clan and anyone tattooed by the Su'a Suluape clan will recognize this mark when seen on another person. This is another way to ensure the tattooist autheticity.
From my last conversation wtih Su'a Suluape Petelo, he had only bestowed the Suluape title on 5 individuals, and the Su'a Suluape title on 3 individuals. This is important considering the amount of "traditional" tattoo artists that are growing in numbers in America, New Zealand, Samoa, and Australia.

What's the Big Deal?
Many have asked this as well. I hear comments like "we don't live in Samoa so why do we need to go through all that tradition crap?" In order to preserve the true integrity of wearing a traditional tattoo, you must respect the traditions that have held it together for hundreds of years. Naturally, the malofie has evolved from pre-western days as a result of each tattoo family; however, many modern day tattooists (both Islanders and non-Islanders) have taken it upon themselves to 'revolutionize' this sacred practice, turning it into a fad and popularity contest for the artist's own selfish recognition. This was never the intent of wearing a traditional tattoo. As Suluape tattooed individuals, he would remind them of their duty to take care of their family, being responsible to cultural tradtions, and knowing that you represent more than just yourself by wearing the malofie.


  1. Really great informative article ! I'm a tattooist in Germany and I usually refuse to do any traditional tattoos when people ask for them or come with a photo to get the same one.

    I read an article about a French tattooist working in Tenerife, who was also a student of Su'a Suluape Petelo, who wrote that it could also bring bad luck on the bearer of another's tatatau.

  2. Greetings Olivier! Thanks for writing! Yes a lot of that is going on.. especially with the easy access to pictures and other artwork on the internet. It's very uncreative and it's only intent is to be used to make a profit. If designers use them as inspirations to better there art (without copying) then that would be different. I do believe it will bring the person bad luck as the tattoo carries the mana meant for the original person, not for a reproduction.

  3. WOW i so loved reading all this info regarding the tradition behind tatatau (tongan tattooing)its awesome to see that this kind of very informative history can be shared with the greater community that lack understanding around this particualr topic (esp tongan people)!!!! speaking for myself that is LOL!!!! THANKYOU so much for making this available and i'll be sure to share this with my other brothers & sisters!!! malo aupito:)

  4. Wow, thanks heaps for this page, I didn't realise us tongans actually had something similar to the samoan malofie. Great info too. =)

  5. I am writing a paper on Samoan Tattoos, and am arguing that the term "rite of passage" that westerners have given it, is not the proper meaning to the process and reasons for receiving it. Growing up in Samoa, I always heard that one received the Malofie, or Pe'a as it is commonly referred to today, due to service to the aiga...I have known several men, from my village, that when their matai deemed their tautua sufficient, they were granted or allowed permission to receive this true?

  6. In response to anonymous comment on March 25. Yes you are VERY correct. I apologize and I will make that correction in the blog. Suluape did mention that. Thank you for your experiential insight and for taking the time to read through the blog and give critical feedback. I truly appreciate your feedback as it is only helps to improve knowledge. Best of luck with your paper! Malo 'aupito.

  7. malo auipito manulua, i am so proud of what u have done and am so eager to get the same tatatau,I like so many of us tongans am proud of our culture and wear my pride on my sleeve, I do though have always had a sense of something was missing from my culture and the way i was brought up, yes i was brought knowing who was in charge and what was said is the way it goes, strong christain and family values, but from the artistic side of our culture it was always printed on tapa mats, carvings and tattooing have only just recently boomed, but the real tribal sense of becoming a man, a warrior, thats what was missing the markings and the pain u must go thru to show who are, that is what it means to be tongan, or better still, its what makes us polynesians strive for our best and be proud of who and where we come from. Our markings on our bodies is what differs us from other polynesian countries however we carry the same meanings. I have a friend who is capable of doing the tatatau for me but not the traditional way, I am though really keen to get it done, it would make me have more of a belonging and sense of pride to carry the works of my heritage on my body as my ancestors did before me if it were done properly the tradional way, it is because of people like urself that inspire the up and coming generations to do the same and have the respect and honor to carry it on. I am clueless on how to reach or get in touch with Su'a Suluape Petelo and am prepared to travel to wherever he is to get this work done, if not I will look at getting done by my friend. If u could help me, please let me know.

  8. Sione, please email me and I can help you out. Thanks for your comment and for sharing your personal insight. Faka'apa'apa atu

  9. Kia ora Manulua,
    I'm so happy to see Tongan tatatau!! I was not brought up around my culture, but have had some work done on my body involving polynesian and maori brother is a artist(Ta moko)(we have different dads)so thats where my maori designs come in(my dad is Tongan)confusing eh!!..anyway I've been a single parent for years so I am Mum and Dad and the head of my family...for me my work on my body goes deeper than the is a part of me I don't have to explain to no body (not that I mind explaining)it says this is who I am, these are my roots, my heart and soul and I have the up most respect for my ancestors..Manulua can you tell me what can Tongan woman have done in the way of Tatatau?
    Thank you : )

  10. Malo e lelei Manulua

    Malo e ngaue malohi mei hena. Your blog is just awsome bro. Manulua kataki pe ki'i hu hala atu ho peesi but i just wanted to ask if you do Ta tatau n ladies too? You have opend my mind about how important our Tongan Ta tatau is. I live in a place where there are no Tongans at all(Dubai) and when i go back home to Tonga i always have the urge to get a tatoo but i want to get it the right way esp. with the blessings and the right markings. I feel soo proud to be living in a place where people dont know that we exist. When i tell them about Tonga they do get fascinated and i do love ma island my heart n my home but i do feel like im missing something. Reading your blog jst made me realise what can fullfil this empty space that i've been wanting to know about. Manulua i travel to NZ every month and am now ready to take on the journey of getting a traditional Tongan Ta tatau. I do hope that you can tatatau ladies. I really want to get it done the right way. Fakamolemole pe si'i fakahela'i ho taimi. Price dont matter ia ka au... Its Honour, Respect, Pride and proud of our little friendly island. Thats what i'm after... Please i need your advise n help in this.

    Tu'a 'ofa 'eiki atu

  11. Malo e lelei Manulua,

    Sorry not sure if my first post went through but Malo e ngaue lelei mei hena. Blog is just perfect and history is a good read. I'am learning many new things from your blog. Faka'ofo'ofa atu e histolia. Manulua just do you Tatau ladies? Tu'a 'ofa 'eiki atu.

  12. thank goodness tongans are finally realising the art of their traditional tattoos..back in 2006,i did a research project for school on traditional tattooing and imagine my dismay when i could barely find any info on traditional tongan tattoos,i had to expand my research topic to encompass certain Pacific islands instead on just focusing on my homeland!but now it seems that all the info are on male tattoos, so in repeatition of the above two comments, are there any traditional tongan tattoos for females??

  13. Just like the many comments above me i'd also just like to give a big thumbs up to you Manulua for the awesome insight into tongan and also samoan traditional tattooing. I must admit that I am guilty of getting a tatto just because of a want for a "look" and not because of a want to carry on tradition and culture. And to tell the truth, its really crooked and i constantly get mocked about it. I am real unhappy with the "sila" hence i dont feel as if i have a connection to my heritage and culture. Never the less I really hope I can get connected with a proper tattooist where i can do a tongan vaka proply.


  14. maulo aupito for making dis website...makes me feel so proud to be a tongan and where i come from. POLYNESIANNNNNN CHIIIIHUUUUU

  15. This is the first time I have read your blog and I am really glad to have done so. It is very informative and in depth with history and passion for the art of tatatau. As you may know Su'a Sulu'ape Aisea and I have been friends for a long time and served our apprenticeship together under Su'a. During which time I have had the pleasure to meet you and also attend your sama.
    I have always had a great respect for you and your knowledge and work, especially your research. It is really good to see that you as well as Su'a Sulu'ape Aisea really have lead the way and have pushed to revive Tongan Tatatau. Especially pointing out misconceptions about tatatau in Tonga, and also it's relationship with Samoa.
    I've learned a lot reading your blog and really appreciate all your hard work and effort. Love the blog uso, much respect to you. I will definitely keep up up to date with it. Happy New Year's!!!

    Best Regards,
    Sulu'ape Steve

  16. i wish your water mark didnt ruin most of the pictures. Phenomenal site my friend, this is the best resource ive found yet for ancient tongan research.

  17. The Tu'i Kanokupolu
    The Tu'i Kanokupolu title became the more dominant and powerful title during the 1500s and eventually overshadowed the direct authority of the Tu'i Ha'atakalaua. The first Tu'i Kanokupolu was Ngata who was born from a the ruling

    >>from a the ruling
    >a the ruling
    yound you a silly typo
    best of luck!