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Deeper than Skin: The Art and Mythology of Samoan Tattoo

Posted by Jordan Tennenbaum on

Tattoo, known as Pe’a in Samoa, is an ancient art deeply rooted in Polynesian culture and history that has permeated beyond the waters of the Pacific Ocean into the lives of people from various corners of the world. From the bodies of bikers and basketball players to indigenous people from far reaching societies, tattoos have incredible importance and value for our world. In Samoa, tattoos are considered sacred, and incredibly important for denoting rank, courage, and community. Though some of the tradition behind Pe’a is mysterious, we are able to understand the relationship ofthe ritual of tattoo within the context of the Samoan myth of Taema and Tilafaiga, as an intrinsic part of culture, history, and art.


The islanders of Samoa regard tattooing as a very serious and spiritual art form, and therefore must be practiced by masters who pass down their skills and techniques to following generations. Masters, known to Samoans as tufuga, are incredibly focused and trained members of the community who dedicate their entire life to embedding ink into skin. They generally give tattoos to men of a higher social standing, yet they only give tattoos if they are heavily compensated with jade, weapons, mats, or wooden carvings. In addition, masters make sure that tattoos are given to the right people at the right time under very specific traditions in order to preserve a positive sense of spirituality. Often times masters will recommend that their subjects refrain from eating certain foods or participate in a specific activity in order to appease the spirits. Because the job of tattooing is so complex and time-consuming, masters will often have assistants to mix ink, clean instruments, keep skin taught, restrain movement, and wipe away any blood. As the assistants watch and learn, they slowly work their way towards becoming tattoo masters themselves. These masters are essentially storytellers for the Samoan people because their tattoos often include elements of family history, cultural history, and spirituality displayed through various forms of design and motif.

The tattoos that Samoans adorn themselves with share some very beautiful yet specific cultural motifs. These motifs include lines, triangles, animals, circles, and other geometric patters. The design and location of ink that people receive vary based on many different factors, but the main separation between tattoos is gender. Traditionally, men get their legs, stomach, back, butt, and groin tattooed, whereas women get a lighter and more feminine design wrapped around their legs. Each symbol, depending on where it is placed on the body, can denote family lineage, migratory patterns, spirits, and deities. While the tattoos generally are focused on the thighs and midsection of a body, each tattoo tells a completely different story, yet it can be a painful and delicate process to undergo.

The actual way in which masters tattoo is through the use of sharpened bones or teeth arranged linearly on a comb-like stick called an autapulu, which is struck by a sausau, a wooden rod that acts as a light mallet. When used together, the two tools fashion a manual ink gun in order to embed ink into the skin in specific patters. These tattoos, in theory, should take about ten days, giving five days of tattooing with five days of rest in order to reduce inflammation. As the master strikes the autapulu, he moves it vertically and horizontally to create lines, patterns, and symbols. In addition to the autapulu, the aumogo can be used in order to make smaller and more detailed marks on the body. Starting from the back and wrapping around to the abdomen down to the thighs and groin, finishing with the navel, the most painful part, the tattoo begins to take shape, and the person getting the tattoo begins their right of passage.

Tattooing is very sacred for Samoans because it is seen as a religious and spiritual rite of passage for young males, and sometimes females. On the islands of Samoa, one is considered naked without a tattoo, and enduring the pain and stress of the tattoo is a way in which many young men and women prove their courage and step into adulthood. Similarly to the B’nei Mitzvah, the Jewish tradition of becoming an adult male or female by dedicating time to understand the history of their people, Samoans become adults by spending time and completing a very challenging task in order to be accepted as someone who can act as an adult, take responsibility, and carry on the family lineage.

While the ritual of tattooing is as a single entity of Samoan culture, it is important to understand it in the context of myth in order to better understand the tattoo’s relationship to Samoan society. The myth of Taema and Tilafaiga tells the story of Siamese twins joined at the back who travel to various Samoan islands under the blessing of their father. During their travels, they become disconnect by a sharp canoe while swimming, learn the art of tattooing from two Fijians named Tufou and Filelei, and spread it throughout the Polynesian islands. While on their trip, they were taught a song in which the women are tattooed, not the men, yet after diving for a clam, they mixed up the words so that the men are tattooed, not the women (even though today, both genders receive traditional tattoos). While this myth can seem very basic, there are some elements to the myth that can help us understand the ritual of tattoo.

Through careful analysis using William R. Smith’s Myth Ritual Theory, this myth can help us to greater understand some aspects Samoan culture. First, this myth can be used to better understand Samoa’s polytheistic religion. Given the fact that we know Samoan religion has two gods of tattoo, it is fair to assume that they have gods for other aspects of their society. Because Taema and Tilafaiga are considered as the two gods of tattoo, it is clear that Samoan society places great value on tattoos, including the process of getting them, their meaning, and their historical significance. In a society where there is a supreme god, followed by gods for war, earthquakes, rain, harvest, and villages, it is clear that denoting two gods for tattoos shows how important tattooing is for Samoans.

Next, we can understand a bit about the significance of numbers in Samoa. In classic Samoan mythology, there is often reference to the number two, especially in terms of tattooing and the rituals surrounding it. First, Samoa has two types of Gods: Gods of human origin, called aitu, and Gods of non-human orgin, called atua. Next, the myth shares the story of two sisters, who make two clubs, and meet two tattoo masters in Fiji. While in this one story it is clear how present the number two is, it is also present in the actual ritual of tattoo. There always has to be at least two people being tattooed at once, the master uses two tools at once, and always has at least one assistant, meaning that two must be working at all times. Samoa is a very communal society, in which many people sleep in the same house, or participate in activities or rituals together. While two people do not necessarily connote an entire community, the number two is more of a figurative representation of unity, not being alone, and surrounding oneself with family, friends, and important community members. By analyzing the myth of Taema and Tilafaiga, we can see how important togetherness is in Samoa, which is also clearly present in the act of receiving ones Pe’a.

The relationship between the myth of Taema and Tilafaiga and the ritual of tattooing is one that is very close. Even though tattoos are a man made invention, they are closely interwoven with various elements of Samoan mythology. The myth tells us how tattooing is practiced physically, where it came from, and the cultural and societal importance of tattoos for Samoans. Even though this is a myth that was passed down orally for generations, and therefore is subject to change, the fact that a myth about tattoos is still prevalent and relevant in Samoan culture shows us that this myth, and ritual, have together withstood the test of time. Tattoos are still practiced and revered in the same way today that they were thousands of years ago when this myth was created, and because of that, we can understand how the fabric of myth and ritual has become interwoven together in Samoan life.

Whether the myth or ritual of the ancient art of tattooing came first in this analysis is unimportant, but what is important is the intrinsic relationship between the myth of Taema and Tilafaiga and the actual art of tattooing. It does not matter which came first, because either way, both myth and ritual are two intertwined threads of Samoan culture that need to be understood on an individual basis, yet viewed as part of a cultural quilt. This myth gives us a small glimpse into the lives of the people of Samoa, including their landscape, religion, and values, while the physical manifestation of tattooing shows us the status of Samoans in a greater community, the importance of certain community figures, and a way in which people can become adults. Both ritual and myth are incredibly important when it comes to learning about Samoan culture because each piece is half of the puzzle. By analyzing both mythology and tattooing, we are able to see another culture through a more encompassing, and more detailed lens.


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  4. "The Meaning of Ta Tau - Samoan Tattoing - Australian Museum." The Meaning of Ta Tau - Samoan Tattoing - Australian Museum. N.p., 8 Aug. 2012. Web. 20 Sept. 2013.
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  7. "Skin Stories: The Art and Culture of Polynesian Tattoo." PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 20 Sept. 2013.


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  • I loved how you stressed the fact that the tribal tattoos done by Samoa tribes are not taken lightly. I think it is a little sad that so many people have turned the process into a trend and have gotten them without knowing anything about Samoan culture. Thank you for also including the sources to your information!

    Luke Yancey on

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