Words: Eli Dvorkin
Photos: Mark Adams

Tattoo—tatau in Samoan—is a pillar of Samoan culture. The practice of the tufuga tatatau (tattoo artist) is an honored profession, which has been passed down through two Samoan families, Su’a and Tulou’ena, since the 19th century. However, the roots of tatau extend deep into the bedrock of Samoan mythology. Legend tells of two sisters, Taema and Tilafaiga, who long ago brought the first implements of tatau to Samoa from the island of Fiji. As they paddled east across the Pacific, the twins sang to themselves: “Tattoo the women and not the men!” Nearing the shores of Samoa, one sister chanced to spy a beautiful shell shining dimly on the sea floor. The sisters dove down to the bottom of the ocean where they wrested the shell loose from the sand, and swam it back to the surface. Upon climbing back aboard their little canoe, the sisters began their song again, but mistakenly changed the words. “Tattoo the men and not the women!” they sang, as they paddled to shore.

That original male-only tattoo came to be known as the pe’a — a complex series of black-inked patterns from the bottom of the ribcage to the thigh—which is created by hand-tapping serrated bone tools for hours at a time over the course of several weeks. Challenging to perform and difficult to receive, the pe’a has served for centuries as a permanent inscription of outer beauty and inner strength.

Although the pe’a is a male-only tradition, the practice of tatau is not limited to men. Despite the mixed-up song of the Fijian twins, Samoan women have traditionally received tatau as equals. Known as the malu, this female-only pattern is inked in sparse, symmetrical lines across the knees and thighs. Its power is reflected in its name: malu means “to protect.” Like the pe’a, the malu is central to the construction of a Samoan identity.

However, tatau has never been confined to the shores of Samoa, as emphasized by the myth of the Fijian twins. Like the word itself, the patterns of traditional tatau have circulated across the globe. In 1769, Captain Cook first recorded the practice of tatau in his journal. By then, some European sailors may have already borne the marks of the tufuga tatatau. Likewise, tatau has long been practiced on non-Samoan Polynesians. As Reeve explains, “In Tongan culture, tattooing presents a problem: drawing blood from a chief is a capital crime. Yet somebody’s gotta tattoo this guy. So for centuries, it has been the responsibility of Samoans.” This is the legacy of tatau: brought from elsewhere, mastered on Samoa, and shared with the world.

The latter aspect of tatau is a potent source of controversy, as the popularity of the art form continues to spread. In the years following Samoa’s independence in 1962, tatau attained a new significance among younger Samoans who sought a corporeal connection to the culture of their ancestors (although most experts agree that the art form has never been in decline within Samoa). Meanwhile, the increasing visibility of tatau in the international body-art community sparked a surge in attempts by foreigners to be inked by a tufunga tatatau. From Auckland to Oakland, many children of the wide Samoan diaspora sought the pe’a and malu as means of connecting with a cultural identity they were often encouraged to forget.

By the late 20th century, the tradition rested in the gifted hands of Su’a Sulu’ape Paulo II, a direct descendent of the Su’a line. Sulu’ape Paulo was vocal in his support of giving the pe’a and malu to non-Samoans, many of whom traveled thousands of miles to be inked by the tufunga tatatau. To Sulu’ape Paulo, tatau was a self-selecting process, which protects itself; if you are willing to seek it out and to withstand the pain, then you are worthy of its inscription. But tracking the master down was never easy. “He made people work for it,” says Reeve. “On the one hand, he’s right. But on the other? Well, you can see why he would rub people the wrong way.”