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.


  1. Hey this is a very good read....keep up the knowledge and the research....

  2. Tattoo is very popular in the young generation. Tufunga Tatatau gives us a traditional sense. Thanks for these lot of information……..

  3. wow this is a good read. thanks tokoua! It's great to learn more about Tongan culture and tatatau. So hard this find this kind of information. Malo aupito masi'i.