condensed discuss document expanded export feedback print share remove reset document_white enquire_white export_white report_white
Explore topics
discuss document export feedback print share

The art of Samoa​n tātatau and tatau​ (tattooing and tattoo)

By Toluma‘anave Barbara Makuati-Afitu

O le fa‘atufugaga o le tatau ua ta‘oto a o se alao‘o i tu ma aga a Sāmoa. O se tasi o sāuniga aloaia, paia ma mamalu mo so‘o se Sāmoa e na te talia ai le mālōfie mo tama tane, a o le malu mo tama‘ita‘i.

The tradition of tātatau and tatau is truly embedded in Samoan custom. One of the most sacred rites of passage for any Samoan is to receive a malofie or pe‘a for men and a malu for women.

A set of tātatau tools and instruments made by the late Tufuga tātatau Su‘a Sulu‘ape Paulo II. Purchased from Su‘a Sulu‘ape Paulo II, 1991.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. Top row: L to R: 53810.1, 53810.1, 53808.1 Bottom row L to R: 53807, 53806.

A gift handed down through generations

I lo‘u tuputupu a‘e sa ‘ou fa‘alogo ai  i tala ese‘ese e uiga i le taunuu atu o le tatau i Sāmoa. Sa ‘ou fiafia tele i le tala i le māsaga teine o Taemā ma Tilafaigā na fe‘ausi mai i Fiti e faimeaalofa ai i le tātatau/tatau i tama‘ita‘i. E fa‘apea le talatu‘u, o nisi e le‘i mānana‘o e fa‘asoa atu le tatau ma, na fa‘ataulāituina le ‘auso tama‘ita‘i ina ia o‘o atu i le taimi e taunu‘u atu ai i Sāmoa ua la foa‘iina atu i tama tane le fa‘atinoga o le tatau.

E tusa ai i tū ma aga fa‘a‘ātisi i le tāina o le tatau, a lē o se tomai fa‘ameaalofa po o se tāleni tu‘ufa‘asolo mai i se sauniga fa‘apitoa e tu‘ualoā‘ia atu ai i se Tufuga (e fa‘apea le tala o latou na fa‘amanuiaina e mafai ona sa‘ili atu lo latou gafa i tua atu iā Taemā po o Tilafaigā).

Growing up I heard different stories about how tatau (tattoo) came to Sāmoa. My favourite was of the twin sisters Taema and Tilafaiga who swam from Fiji to gift the tātatau/tatau to women. Legend has it some did not want to share the tatau and bewitched the sisters so that by the time they arrived in Sāmoa they gifted men the practice of tatau instead.

Traditionally the artistry of tātatau is either bestowed or handed down with a ceremony presenting you as a Tufuga (it is said that those blessed can trace their genealogy back to Taema or Tilafaiga). 

Listen to Barbara read this story in Samoan

Tufuga tātatau, masters of tātatau

O le ‘āiga o Sā Sulu‘ape, o lo latou fa‘avae i le lalolagi e aofia ai Sāmoa ma Aotearoa i Niu Sila, o i latou o Tufuga tātatau, o fa‘auluuluga o le ‘aiga tātatau. O le pusa lea, o le seti o meafaigaluega e tā ai tatau, o au mo le faiva tā tatau na saunia e Su‘a Sulu‘ape Paulo II.

The Sulu‘ape family, based all over the world including Sāmoa and Aotearoa New Zealand, are Tufuga tātatau, masters of tātatau. In the Auckland Museum collection is set of tātatau tools and instruments made by the late Su‘a Sulu‘ape Paulo II.

Samoan tātatau and tatau at the Pacific Arts Association XII International Symposium 2016

Ipu lama (mortar) and Tu‘i (pestle). Purchased from Su‘a Sulu‘ape Paulo II, 1991.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. 53808.1 and 53808.2.

In March 2016 Su‘a Sulu‘ape Paulo II. II's nephew, Su‘a Sulu‘ape Paulo Junior, attended the Pacific Arts Association XII International Symposium where he worked on the malu of Yolande Ah Chong. Tufuga tātatau work with a number of tattooing tools and instruments.

The late Su‘a Sulu‘ape Paulo II's tātatau tools and instruments include a wooden sausau (tattooing mallet) and ‘au (tattooing combs) made from wood, turtle shell, pig's tusk and nylon binding.

Nifo o le pua‘a (pig's tusk) are used to make the serrated cutting edge of tattooing tools and vatu‘e (sea urchin spine) is used as a file for the shaping of tattooing tools. A tu‘i (pestle) is used to grind the tattoo pigment which is then placed inside a ipu lama or coconut shell cup.

‘Au (tattooing comb). Purchased from Su‘a Sulu‘ape Paulo II, 1991.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. 53803.

Toluma‘anave Barbara Makuati-Afitu

O Toluma‘anave Barbara Makuati-Afitu o ia o le Community Engagement Facilitator mo le Pacific Collection Access Project. O lana matāfaioi o le silasila toto‘a i le vā (o le vāfealoa‘i po o le Pacific Collection Access Project o le va e feso‘ota‘i ai) I le vā ma le aofaga a le Pasefika ma le komiuniti ma le Auckland Museum i le fausia lea o so‘otaga ma fuafua fa‘atasi ma fofoa fa‘atasi ni ta‘iala mo lea feagaiga. E auala atu i lea feagaiga, o le Museum o le a tauilo i latou e fa‘apitoa le tōfā mamao i tū ma aga fa‘aleaganu‘u, e le gata i le fesoasoani e fa‘ailoa a matou aofaga ae fa‘ailoa aloa‘ia atu a tatou measina i le fa‘amatala atu ma toe fa‘aleo atu.

O Barbara e fiafia e faailoa atu ona nu‘u o Safotu, Salelavalu, Lefaga, Saleufi ma Ululoloa. O Barbara ua tu‘uina atu i ai le faaaloalo i lona tau‘aveina o le suafa matai o lona tua‘ā o Toluma‘anave mai I Lefaga, Sāmoa. E maua le avanoa i so‘o se taimi e te fa‘afeso‘ota‘ia ai o ia e lesitala ai oe pe a e naunau i le Pacific Collection Access Project.

Toluma‘anave Barbara Makuati-Afitu is the Community Engagement Facilitator for the Pacific Collection Access Project. Her role is to honour the vā (relationship to or space that relates) between our Pacific collections and communities and the Auckland Museum by building relationships and co-designing and co-creating the kaupapa (principles) of this engagement. Through this engagement, the Museum identifies key cultural knowledge holders who not only help to inform our collection but honour our taonga by giving them their reo and voice back.

Barbara proudly comes from Safotu, Salelavalu, Lefaga, Saleufi and Ululoloa.  She is honoured to carry her grandfather’s matai name of Toluma‘anave from Lefaga, Sāmoa. Feel free to contact her if you are interested in registering your interest in the Pacific Collection Access Project.

Translated by Muliagatele Vavao Fetui.


Cite this article

Makuati-Afitu, Barbara. The art of Samoa​n tātatau and tatau​ (tattooing and tattoo). Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 25 May 2016. Updated: 20 June 2016.
URL: www.aucklandmuseum.com/collections-research/collections/topics/the-art-of-samoa​n-tatau​-tattoo

Related objects

Discuss this topic

Join the discussion about this article by posting your response on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram using the hashtag #amdiscuss

Support the collection

Help us do more. Donate now and be part of your Museum’s journey to stimulate inspiration, learning and enjoyment.