Why are Samoan Tattoos Important?
Samoan Tattoos, called tatau in the Samoan language, are a type of Polynesian tattoo that became famous in popular culture from WWE or the Rock.
But way before tough-guy celebrities started getting Samoan tattoos, this was an ancient practice of immense importance to Samoan history and culture.
We will take a look at the history of Samoan tattoos, as well as their styles, designs, and meanings.
What Are Tatau?
Meaning ‘tattoo,’ tatau is one of the many words meaning tattoo in the Samoan language.
For example, the word ‘pe’a’ means ‘male tattoo’ and often refers to the dark charcoal-colored ink on the tatau.
The word for female tattoo is ‘malu‘, which also means to be protected.
Tatau in the Samoan community are meant to be a message to their community that they are prepared to enter adulthood and serve as a respected member of society.
To the Samoan people, tattoos are an intricate part of life, performed with excruciating pain that leads to accepting that person as a mature individual.
However, in general, the tattoo markings are simply decorations for the body.
There is a misunderstanding that there are spiritual connotations.
The tatau are more of a symbol of pride in Samoan culture.
A Samoan male traditionally must ask his elders for approval for his tattoo request, and once it has been approved it is a proud moment for him.
He may eventually receive tattoos completely covering his body including his abdomen, rear, and legs.
As opposed to the relative ease of men getting tatau, for women, the tatau were typically saved for high-ranking members of society.
Their purpose was for decoration, and to make the women more beautiful.
Their legs were specially decorated to show off their tattoos when wearing short skirts at dances at important events.
Traditionally, the tattooing instruments of the Samoans were made from wood, pigs tusks, turtle shells, or other organic objects to form a tattoo comb that was used along with a ground Indian ink or Kerosene soot in an empty coconut shell to perform the tattoo process.
Today, Samoans still use a tattoo comb, banging it with a mallet for the ink to penetrate the skin.
History of The Tatau
The tatau is a 3000-year-old tradition that has a deep history surrounding marks of honor, tradition, respect, and pride.
For those who are not related to Samoan heritage, it may be taken as disrespectful to their culture to wear a tattoo that bears so many acts of honor in their traditions and culture.
Nonetheless, most historians find evidence of the tatau through explorations of westerners who visited the Samoan islands, such as documentation from the 1787 French expedition.
The French saw marking on the Samoans all over their thighs and bodies, to the point that they almost need not wear clothing because their tattoos marked their entire bodies in decoration.
Earlier, in 1722, the Dutch also visited the Samoan islands and saw the Samoans wearing silk cloths on their bodies and also covered in tattoos.
For years after these first western encounters, many missionaries and those seeking exploration and trade visited the islands.
They learned about the tools and processes used to make these elaborate body decorations.
Not to anyone’s surprise, these missionaries and others tried to change the Samoan culture of tattoos instead of simply learning about their culture positively.
By the 1850s, they attempted to reduce the amount the tattoos performed and erase an essential part of their culture.
The art and culture were placed underground.
Quite hypocritically, the western visitors were still quite interested in the practice and even receive tatau themselves.
By the 1960’s and 1970’s, the Samoans achieved independence, which brought back the tatau in full force.
Samoans visited other countries such as New Zealand even spread the art of the tatau around the world.
By this time, the practice of the tatau was changing.
The popular ink chosen by this time was candle-nut soot pigment, and instead of a turtle shell or coconut new material such as plastics was used.
Bone needles were replaced by steel (in the interest of hygiene).
Tatau artists even started using latex gloves for protection for their clients.
Samoan Tattoo Style
There is only one tattoo style for the Samoan tatau because it is a unique style in itself to their heritage and way of life.
The Samoan tattoo style used black ink exclusively.
It also has an overall tribal look with the use of patterns and lines to express different symbols with special meanings.
When the Samoans use symbols in their designs, they are often symbols found in nature such as the sun, flowers, and feathers.
Samoans take symbols from the Earth around them to create meaning in their tattoos.
Samoan tattoos can border on geometric, with patterns overlapping and forming one big intricate design.
As for body placement, this style of this tattoo can go anywhere.
Leg tattoos and sleeves are common, and even some people get Samoan face tattoos.
The Samoan style of tattoo, or the tatau, is essentially a type of tribal tattoo that uses black ink to create rhythmic patterns is symbols from nature that are meaningful and relate to the Samoan culture
Samoan Tattoo Designs and Their Meanings
Samoan tattoo designs do not typically have meaning depending on their body placement.
They are all about symbolism in objects and animals found in nature and typical Samoan life.
They often are symbols that denote a meaning that is meant to be added to a larger tattoo, as they often mix symbols together into a large piece.
It is important to remember, though, that although many of these tattoos do have Polynesian and Samoan meanings, most of them are simply meant for decorating the body and bringing pride and honor to their culture by wearing them on their bodies.
- Samoan Diagonal Body Tattoo
This design of Samoan tatau reaches from the upper shoulder down to the lower midsection diagonally.
It is typically an elaborate pattern with thick lines and has a powerful look to it.
The diagonal body tattoo is a tattoo meant for a large decoration of the body and is a sense of pride in Samoan culture to receive such an elaborate tattoo.
- Samoan Triangle Tattoo
The Samoan triangle tattoos are done with black ink around the triangles leaving the skin showing to form the triangles’ shape.
The triangle in Samoan tradition has a different meaning depending on how many triangles are present.
Each amount of triangles signifies a symbol of respect to a different family member.
- Samoan Flower Tattoo
Often using a hibiscus flower, Samoan flower tattoos are often accented with Samoan patterns to shape the background surrounding the flower.
The flower itself is lightly shaded to give the flower depth but not too detailed– this symbol is very simple and elegant.
The meaning of the Samoan flower is common for Polynesian women to use as a decoration for their hands, limbs, or anywhere on their body.
It shows their femininity and decorates their body in a way that is pleasing and makes them more powerfully connected to their culture.
- Samoan Sun Tattoo
The Samoan sun tattoo is designed in a geometrical pattern centered between different patterns which complement the sun.
This is often a chest tattoo or done as part of a sleeve.
The meaning of the Samoan sun tattoo is connected to the sun’s meaning of a rebirth.
It symbolizes leadership and eternal life, as well as the brilliance of life on Earth.
- Samoan Turtle Shell Tattoo
The turtle shell is shown in Samoan tattoos as a symbolic image of lines and dots which signifies the meaning of the turtle shell.
This turtle shell tattoo’s meaning is protection because the turtle shell is related to a shield.
Another interesting interpretation of this tattoo is of intimacy, symbolizing both marriage and the love two couples share.
- Samoan Shark Teeth Tattoo
Shark teeth tattoos are similar to triangle tattoos but are many triangles put together in a row using thin black lines.
Shark teeth tattoos can mean protection, as the shark is very powerful.
The shark is also a ferocious being, so it also symbolizes power, and guidance through difficult circumstances.
- Samoan Turtle Tattoo Meaning
The Samoan Turtle tattoo is a basic symbol using thick lines to create a turtle-like shape.
This shape can be incorporated into larger sleeves, back, or chest pieces.
The meaning of this turtle tattoo is the hope for long life or even an eternal soul.
It also symbolizes harmony in the family and fertility in the family.
Last, it symbolizes good navigation through life or literally through the sea.
- Samoan Feather Tattoo Meaning
The Samoan feather tattoo is common for women because it is absolutely beautiful.
It can be a back piece showing two feathers flowing toward each other, for example.
Samoan women would get a feather tattoo to show their respect for nature and the beyond and also to decorate their bodies with something beautiful to enhance their beauty and show their pride in their culture.
- Samoan Spearhead Tattoo: Fa’aulutao
The Samoan Spearhead tattoo is a diagonal group of shapes linked together in a line.
This tattoo used bold black coloring around the spearheads to emphasize their dramatic appearance.
The spearhead tattoo’s meaning signifies the great courage of a warrior and the strength to fight a battle and to fight through to another day.
- Samoan Ocean Waves Tattoo Meaning
The ocean waves tattoo is done in a tribal manner with simple wave imagery done with thick black lines.
This tattoo is also part of a larger piece most often and adds additional meaning to that work.
The ocean waves symbolize both the loss of life and life because the ocean both brings sustenance but also is dangerous.
Therefore, this tattoo symbolizes the delicate balance between life and the end.
- Samoan Lizard Tattoo Meaning
The Samoan lizard tattoo is another tribal symbol created by lines and a central body that may not look like a lizard but is more of a symbolic representation of it.
The lizard’s meaning to Samoan’s and Polynesians, in general, is a guardian of evil, conflict, and famine.
Nearby cultures often associate the lizard’s meaning with survival.
You don’t have to go as far as the Samoa Islands to get a traditional Samoan tattoo.
There are nearby countries that practice the art of Samoan tattoos with traditional instruments, including if you are from the U.S., Hawaii, and Florida.
Don’t forget that Samoan tattoos are very painful– if you think it’s worth it then you may travel to find a traditional artist.
However, as for the question of whether it is even right to get a Samoan tatau as an outsider, the answer is probably no.
Samoan tattoos are so intricate to their culture that out of respect, it’s best not to get one unless you have some link to their heritage.
But, hey, maybe ask a Samoan how they feel and get an honest answer from them to see if you should get on one not if you are an outsider to their culture.
If you are determined to get a Samoan tattoo, where there’s a will there’s a way.
I would consult with a Samoan tattoo artist, whichever you find nearest to you, and meet with them about how comfortable you both feel about getting a Samoan tattoo.
It is always important to respect the culture, especially one that has achieved independence from a foreign nation. However, don’t let anything stop your dreams!
Alyssa Renee Hardy is a writer, curator, and photographer who publishes articles on the topics of the arts, culture, and social justice. She graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology with a degree in fashion business and art history and museum professions. Her experience working with a variety of art institutions, her world travel, and her inquisitive nature provides her with a unique insight. Check out her about page, she would love to connect with you!