Thursday, October 28, 2010

Tatatau Ma 'ae Kakai Fefine - Women's Tattooing

Women's Tattoo
I've had a number of requests about women's tattooing tradition in Tonga. I've been researching and looking through old books trying to gather as much info on the subject.

So let's start with the basics. Women were tattooed in Tonga before the entire practice of tattooing was outlawed. The extent of tattooing women in Tonga is not known entirely because not much was ever written. But here's what is known:

  • Women often received ornamental tattoos around their fingers, hands, and wrists. These were often done for aesthetics and for helping to cure ailments such as types of arthritis and other joint pains.
  • Women were also known to receive markings along their shoulder area and across the lower back. These were also decorative and some sketches resembled strands of maile and other kakala fakatonga or Tongan plants that represented the ultimate forms of beauty.
  • Anecdotally, my mother told me a story of a woman in Tonga named Mele Tatafu who had an extensive tattoo across her back. As told by my mom, she was hanging laundry with Mele one day when her tupenu slipped revealing a large and intricate tattoo that covered her back and extending further down towards her butt. My mom being young couldn't recall the designs but also sensed that Mele was not wanting to talk about it. From my mom's vague recollection, she said that it was very intricate with many block like prints and makohikohi or scratch like patterns.
I will be writing more on this subject soon as I look through and compile more info. If you have your own stories and want to share, please feel free to share them and I will post it.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Tribes and Tribal Tattoos

The word "Tribal" has been used to describe island tattoos that are now in fashion. When referring to a Tongan or Samoan or most other Pacific Island tattoos, the word "Tribal" is incorrect. Referring to Islanders as living in 'tribes' is a racist notion used to separate people according to how civilized they are.

Tongans never lived in tribes and their tattooing practices weren't practiced within a tribal context, so do not refer to them as "tribal tattoos".

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Tu'i Tonga & Tu'i Kanokupolu

Tonga has undergone several major social changes over the last millennium, which created a complex system of social and family ranking. Prior to the adoption of Western law and government, Tongan society was stratified into 3 classes: Eiki, Tu'a, and Hopoate (High chiefs/Gods, Commoners, and Slaves).

The Tu'i Tonga
The highest ranking and oldest chiefly title in Tonga belongs to the Tu'i Tonga. The Tu'i Tonga line began around 950AD with the last Tu'i Tonga title being bestowed on Laufilitonga in the 1800's. The Tu'i Tonga line was eventually folded in with the current ruling dynasty by Taufa'ahau Tupou I and later consolidated by the late Queen Salote through her marriage to Tungi Mailefihi.

The first Tu'i Tonga was 'Aho'eitu, who was the son of Tangaloa'eitumatupu'a and Va'epopua. He created and instituted this sacred line which eventually led to the creation of two subsequent dynasties--the Tu'i Ha'atakalaua and the Tu'i Kanokupolu. These dynasties would control the direct authority over Tonga, rendering the Tu'i Tonga as toputapu - sacred and deified. This meant that no Tongan was allowed to touch or look upon the Tu'i Tonga unless he/she had divine responsibilities to this chiefly line. This sacred divinity meant that those belonging to the Tu'i Tonga line were tattooed on rare, significant occasions. For the most part, they were never tattooed. Several accounts detail Tu'i Tonga that were tattooed:
  • During the 1800s, Tonga was undergoing radical changes, both in power and culture. This was largely due to the growing Kanokupolu dynasty and Christianity. The Tu'i Tonga, Fatafehi Fuanunuiava, vowed to break custom in rebellion against chiefs who were dismantling the Tu'i Tonga's power. In his rebellion, he broke the tapu on his body and got a Malofie. The process was completed in Samoa in two sessions, which gave him the nickname "Fakauakimanuka" commemorating the completion of his tatatau within the two journeys. The first trip was to Manono to begin the process. The second and final journey was to Manu'a where the tattoo was finally completed. On both occasions, the tattooers' bodies were said to have swollen up. Eventually, both died as a result of 'wounding' the Tu'i Tonga's sacred body. Upon completion of the tatatau, two 'ie toga (Samoan fine mats) were given to Fatafehi to commemorate the event and as a gesture of respect to the Tu'i Tonga high sacred rank.
  • Fakana'ana'a was the 34th Tu'i Tonga. It is said that he was tattooed on the island of Mo'ungaone in Ha'apai using unconventional tattooing methods of the time.

The Tu'i Ha'atakalaua

For a short period, the Tu'i Ha'atakalaua was created, and the position of Hau - a chief who directed the affairs of governing his people - was created. The Tu'i Tonga title at this point became less involved with the direct affairs of governing, and the 'inasi, or honoring/offerings of first harvest, became a ritual part of honoring the Tu'i Tonga legacy. The Tu'i Ha'atakalaua followed much of the traditions of the Tu'i Tonga and were not tattooed as well.

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 the ruling Tu'i Ha'atakalaua and Samoan mother named Limapo (known also by her Tongan name, Tohu'ia). In keeping with the Samoan traditions of its maternal heritage, the Tu'i Kanokupolu instituted the malofie as a mark of chiefly status, and perpetuated the traditions of being tattooed only by a Samoan Tufuga. This was also a gesture to connect with his mother's Upolu heritage.
  • Mata'eleha'amea was the 4th Tu'i Kanokupolu. It is said that when he received his malofie, his backside was untattooed which earned him the nickname Mata'ele'usitea.
  • Taufa'ahau Tupou I went to Samoa and completed a full malofie in one day. He also had the tip of his penis tattooed completely black to show his ability to withstand pain.
  • Chief Vaha'i also wore a Malofie that was completed by a Samoan tufuga tatatau.

Throughout this change in power amongst the chiefly families in Tonga, commoners were continuing the tattoo traditions which had been practiced from long before. It was not till traditional tattooing was completely outlawed in 1839 that Tongans finally began abandoning this longstanding practice. Tongans chiefs and commoners who wanted a tattoo would soon have to travel to Samoa to have one completed. Ultimately, Savai'i tattooing families gained much from this new law as many were paid with fine mats, ngatu, and other forms of cultural payment for the tattoo received.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Tufunga Tatatau

In traditional Tongan society, there were professional classes of skilled men and women who held different societal roles. These roles could be hereditary or not. Collectively the were known as Ha'a Tufunga or a class of skilled professionals. Some hereditary roles for men included:

  • Tufunga Fou Vaka: Canoe builders for long or short sea voyages
  • Tufunga Fono Lei: Makers of whale-tooth body ornaments
  • Tufunga Nima Tapu: Overseers of funeral rites ensuring proper burial protocols were followed
  • Tufunga Ta Maka: Stone masons or stone vault makers
  • Tufunga Sia Kupenga: Net makers for fishing and other sea expeditions
  • Tufunga Toutai: Skilled Tongan fishermen who had a vast knowledge of the ocean, tides, sea life, and the sky
  • Tufunga Langa Fale: Those who were skilled in constructing large social and spiritual houses
  • Tufunga Lalava: Individuals trained in traditional lashing of houses

Other social roles could be hereditary or not:
  • Tufunga Tongi Akau: Carvers of traditional war clubs and engraving
  • Tufunga Tele Kava: Barbers or shavers who used shell for shaving
  • Tufunga Tatatau: Men who performed the art of traditional tattooing

Additionally there were specialized societal roles that governed the physical and metaphysical:
  • Kau Faito'o: Male and Female individuals skilled in traditional healing, massage, and curing other body ailments
  • Kau Taula: Traditional male or female spiritual priests of the old religion who served as vessels between the seen and unseen world
The list goes on describing various professions that made up the Tongan material/social culture. However, what we will focus on is the Tufunga Tatatau role and it's importance. Unlike Samoa where there were specific families that held divine rites to tatatau, Tonga, on the other hand did not maintain this criteria for tufunga tatatau. A tufunga tatatau was usually a very skilled artist and had learned from another tufunga tatatau - whether blood related or not. Tufunga tatatau were known throughout the various islands that now make up the Kingdom of Tonga: Ha'apai, Vava'u, Eua, Tongatapu, etc.

Despite Tonga and Samoa sharing many similarities, there were distinct differences in tattooing traditions between the two cultures. In Samoa, the Malofie was considered the ultimate mark of social rank and obligation to the family and community. In Tonga, tatatau did not take on such heavy societal obligations. However, Tongan social structure at the time dictated tattooing practices for the different social classes. For example:

  • 1) High chiefs of the Tu'i Kanokupolu line were tattooed by a Samoan tufuga due to Tongan customs of tapu and a lineage that stems from Samoa.

  • 2) Priests, or Taula, tattooed specific patterns on designated parts of their body as a means for honoring a deity sacred to a village or family. One example were taula's that tattooed Veka or Kalae or Tavake patterns on their throats and hands.

  • 3) A tatatau of Samoan origin was considered more esteemed than one completed by a Tongan tufunga. This was largely due to the origins of chiefly lineages in Tonga connecting to Manu'a and Upolu; and because of a divine birthright bestowed on certain Samoan tattoo families like Su'a.

A different way of looking at it would be to classify Tatatau into two realms:

1) 'Eiki: These who were chiefs of divine birth, direct descendants of the Tu'i Tonga line. These individuals were considered so sacred that they were never tattooed because their body was untouchable by anyone (Tapu).
There were also chiefs who fell into this category considered lesser chiefs, but were still of divine descent. These were the Tu'ikanokupolu chiefs who trace their origins from 'Upolu in Samoa. They brought with them and institutionalized the Malofie as a part of Tongan culture and their reign. The only people allowed to tattoo them were member's of the Su'a Suluape family. These chiefs were reserved exclusive rights to these tattoos to set them apart from commoners. At times championed warriors would also be bestowed with a Malofie to distinguish their mana and favor.

2) Tu'a: The rest of Tongan society was made up of commoners who were of no direct chiefly blood lines. They were tattooed by tufunga tatatau who lived in Tonga and abroad. These tattoos were similar to the Malofie but also had common ties to tattooing elsewhere in the Pacific such as Tokelau, Uvea, Rotuma, etc. These tattoos varied in size and structure and were mostly clothed on warriors and those who could afford them. Priests and women also tattooed themselves on various parts of their body for adornment, religious, and medical reasons.

For most Tongan commoners, getting a tatatau had a lot to do with personal choice. Tongan tattooing was practiced more for aesthetics and social acceptance. George Vason, one of the few missionaries to get a tatatau, explained that he was teased by Tongan men and ridiculed for not having one. A man who was not tattooed was considered 'naked' and undesirable by Tongan standards. It was just as much as symbol of masculinity as it was a division between boyhood and manhood. Tattooing was very common throughout the Tongan kingdom. It was not considered a sacred practice reserved only for high ranking chiefs as it was in Samoa.

Traditionally a person desiring a tatatau would discuss with the tufunga designs and meanings that were to be later etched on skin. Ultimately, it was the tufunga, with his knowledge of tatatau, that would decide on the overall placement and look of the tatatau according to standard protocols. The process could take months to complete and compensation came in the form of food and other cultural goods. Tufunga tatatau fashioned their tools according to traditional methods shared by most pacific islanders.

Several combs and tattooing implements were collected by Europeans during their voyages through Tonga. Some have been preserved in museums, but most have disintegrated with time. There were different size and types of combs with various names. Most often the names of each style/type of comb was descriptive of it's function.

Sunday, March 7, 2010


I just needed to clear this up with today's blog since several people have written me regarding this issue. It is obvious that they did NOT read the blogs because I do not say anywhere that tongans invented traditional tattooing.

Just to clear things up AGAIN. Samoa is the only recognized island in the Polynesian island group to have continued traditional tattooing to the present day. There are tufuga tatau families in Upolu that have passed on the tradition from generation to generation. Although tattooing is outlawed in Samoa, it is still practiced with moderate interference by the law.

Tonga once practiced traditional tattooing, but it was outlawed in 1839 by the Tongan government because it was considered unnatural in the Christian world. Despite the outlawing of tatatau in Tonga, Tongan chiefs would still travel to Samoa (as they had done for centuries) to get tattooed by one of the tufuga tatau.

The other issue that has come up is "who was first to practice tattooing". The answer - "I don't know?" But if you want to believe that Samoans were the first, then so be it. If you understand that culture and traditions are handed down from generation to generation, then the beginning of tattooing predates beyond Samoa to earlier cultures beyond the Pacific. Tattooing has been around for thousands of years. Egyptians tattooed, Indians also tattooed their bodies; early Europeans had extensive tattoos across their body. Tattooing is not a Polynesian/Pacific Island invention. Samoa has their own unique tattoo tradition that has developed over hundreds of years to become uniquely identifiable as Samoan. But the same holds true for other Pacific Islands. So to say that Samoa or Tonga was first to tattoo or develop Pacific Island tattooing is basically meaningless to what this blog is about. I am just trying to spread the knowledge that Tonga had a tattoo tradition that is now non-existant. A revival of this knowledge is ongoing, but it will never supersede Samoan traditional tattooing. Please understand that this is not my intention and Tongans would NEVER say that tattooing is a Tongan invention. It is understood by every Tongan that tatau is a unique identity of being Samoan. Enough with the rivalry between who's better than who. I do not live in that world, so keep it out of mine.