Samoan Tattoos with Meanings and Their Powerful Significance
If you happen to watch WWE, the Oklahoma City Thunder or even just glimpsed at The Rock, you may have noticed those enchanting black patterns adorning the bodies of some of them. Some will call these tribal tattoos, but if we’re really into details they are actually Polynesian tattoos or, at the very least, inspired by Polynesian tattoos. And when it comes to Polynesian tattoos, the ‘tatau’ or Samoan tattoo is one of the most popular.
The art of tatau is believed to have started two centuries ago. From the traditional, and extremely painful, way of doing it, the art was spread to the world and is now available through the modern way of tattooing. But the Samoan tattoo is not just an art, it is history and a culture.
What is tatau?
Samoan tattoos, or tatau in the Samoan language, is a very important part of Samoan culture and history. Tataus are done by tufuga ta tatau and they are considered as having high standings in the Samoan society. They are a symbol of status and rank and is worn by both men and women. Almost all of the men wear tatau and the patterns worn by them are usually larger, referred to as pe’a, than those worn by the women, which are called malu.
For some, Samoan tattoos may just be beautiful patterns. For Samoans, tatau is a way of life. It is literally a visual representation of one’s life and the pain one suffered to get the tatau along with undergoing the extensive and painful process of getting the tatau itself.
The art of tatau dates back to more than 2000 years and the tradition is well-preserved by Samoans. It is an important part of their identity. Some people might say that that’s very primitive but the beauty and rich history of Samoan tattoos are beyond words and the fact that it’s still alive today is a testament to that and how much Samoans value it.
The legend behind tatau
There is a legend in Samoa about how the practice of tattooing began. The legend says that the art was brought to them by two sisters from Fiti (sometimes the story says Fiji), carrying equipment for tattooing, who sang about tattooing being for women and not for men. One thing led to another and then, in the end, the song became incorrect and changed to tattooing being for men and not for women.
Meaning behind Samoan tattoos
If you look closely at Samoan tattoos, you will see that each of them has repeating symbols. Each of these symbols hold different meanings and each combination brings out a unique story. Basically, every symbol may represent something about:
- Protection from evil
As for the symbols used in the art of Samoan tattoos, they mostly include the following:
- Shark teeth
Again, the interpretation of each Samoan tattoo does not simply rely on which symbols are present in the pattern. Each pattern is unique because you also have to put into consideration which symbol is the dominant one, the patterns that are repeated and how they are connected to each other.
For example, a single enata has a completely different meaning to an enata pattern. The single enata may mean a man, a woman or a god while an enata pattern may mean sky. In fact, one symbol may mean something completely different from one person’s tatau to another’s.
Samoan tattoos are very intricate and quite large since they, again, tell the story of the person wearing them. Because of that, it is very important to choose a part of the body where a larger tattoo will fit. Mostly, the most sensible places to put a tatau are as follows:
- Under the breast
Once a tatau is started, it has to be finished. That does not mean that the tufuga ta tatau has to finish the tatau in one sitting, in fact, they usually give parts of the tatau time to heal before they continue it. However, the tatau has to be finished at all costs.
A person whose tatau wasn’t finished will bear the mark of cowardice, pala’ai, and bring shame to himself and his family.
When it comes to traditional Samoan tattoos for the males, the pe’a, the placement of the tatau will also vary the tatau. Depending on where the tattoo is placed, it will have a different name.
- Saemutu- top of the thigh
- Umaga- on the navel and abdomen
- O le Taga Tapulu- mid portion of the back
- Aso Fa’aifo- the buttocks and wraps the groin
- Tafito- covers the penis
- Tafumiti- scrotum
- Tasele- covers the perineum
Samoan tattoos have gained much popularity in the past few years. More and more people outside Samoa want to ink the same patterns on their body. But unlike the traditional tatau, these tattoos incorporate elements other than the prevalent angular geometric designs of authentic Samoan tattoos.
Modern Samoan tattoos are often worn on calves, upper arms and other parts of the bodies that do not follow the tradition of pe’a.
Where and how to get it
Samoan tattoos are teeming with culture and history. Like any other form of expression of pride in someone’s culture, Samoan tattoos must be afforded the respect it deserves. Of course, that does not necessarily mean that one can’t get a Samoan tattoo when they are not Samoan.
Really, anyone who wants to get a Samoan tattoo can get one. You do not even need to know what your tattoo means to get one, but it will not hurt to pay respects where it is due and appreciate the deeper meaning of each line and curve of the tatau. To put it simply, the art of tatau is not only for the Samoans but it is theirs and the least outsiders can do is respect it.
There are two ways of getting a Samoan tattoo- the traditional way and the modern way.
Again, tatau is a big part of Samoan history, culture, and tradition. So you can rest assured that getting a Samoan tattoo is not an easy task. It is worth every single bit of effort on your part, though, since what you will get after everything is an authentic tatau.
Samoan tattoos are visual representations of the life of the person wearing it. They depict each person’s journey and who that person is to their society. In other words, Samoan tattoos are not given just for the sake of getting a tattoo. It stands for something and serves as a map of someone’s life.
So imagine what it would mean for someone who is not a part of their society. Of course, if a person who isn’t Samoan wants to get an authentic tatau that person has to go through certain tasks to be accepted into their fold, which usually takes years. Once that person is accepted, that is the only time when he or she can get a tatau.
While tattooing has come a long way and now uses tattoo guns, authentic Samoan tattoos are still given using the old way. That is right, traditional Samoan tattoos still use tattoo combs. No needles and buzzing tattoo guns here!
The tufuga ta tatau still ink the patterns on to the skin of a person by repeatedly pounding the stick where the tattoo comb with ink (derived from burnt shell ashes) is attached to the skin using a mallet. This process does what a tattoo gun does, forcing the ink into the skin to make the tattoo. You could say that the traditional tatau is not simply a walk to the nearest tattoo shop but a ritual that is years in the making.
As we have pointed out earlier, the popularity of Samoan tattoos had been steadily rising in the last few years. Because of this, a lot of tattoo artists can give you a Samoan tattoo. The modern way of getting a Samoan tattoo is very simple and does not differ much from getting any other tattoo.
The road to a Samoan tattoo does not stop with the process of tattooing. From the time the tattoo is completed, which takes a while depending on how big the tattoo is, it may take up to a year until it heals fully. Don’t worry, though, it usually only takes half of that for the intricate patterns to appear in its entirety.
If the tatau is made using tattoo combs, you will need to massage it thrice daily. This will make sure that any impurities are worked out of the skin. It also needs to be washed with salt water but you should never soak it, that will only impede the healing.