Traditional tattooing in Samoan society embraces the concept of mana, a concept not usually connected with tattooing in western societies. The concept of mana is important to Polynesian religion, mythology, and traditions, including rituals such as tattooing. Mana can be best described as power and a vital strength, or life force.
Persons and objects endowed with mana are seen as magical and worthy of the greatest reverence and respect. For the recipient of a tattoo it is a personal journey, a cultural immersion and a strong psychological experience, which changed their lives forever.
German anthropologists such as Carl Marquardt saw little value in Samoan tattooing beyond concepts of personal adornment and male vanity. Marquardt paraded tattooed Samoans in the Frankfurt Zoo in the 1890's as specimens of another more "primitive" world.
Missionaries were aware of the cultural significance of tattooing and must have realised that mana was conferred on the individual so they attempted to eradicate it, along with ancient gods and customary practices which they saw as pagan, lewd and debased.
Tattooing is strongly linked to the Samoans sense of pride in their traditions and culture. Tattooing was a rite of passage ritual; it was a symbol of adult sexuality, strength, and warrior status leading to adulthood chiefly status, a role of leadership. Luckily the missionaries failed to eradicate the art of body tattooing in Samoa. The last 30 years seen a strong revival in its practice which relate to feelings of nationhood and cultural identity.
Samoa became independent in 1962. Cultural practice that were subdued or lost during colonial rule are trying to reemerge with festivals like ‘The Teuila Festival’ held every year giving breath to old games, crafts and tattooing.
The destruction of ancient religions, rituals, symbols, meanings and icons is a source of great sorrow for many Pacific peoples, and this motivated me to research and discover the meanings of tattooing before all knowledge dies with the old people who still remember some of their ancient traditions. According to Albert Wendt, internationally known novelist, poet and professor in English, Auckland University;
"To understand the motifs (tattoo) you have to go back to pre-Christian times. Life altered radically with the pakeha (white man). We don't know our ancient traditions. It's very difficult now, we are just obeying beautiful symbols. A lot of the symbols must have been motif symbols of the family gods, district gods and national gods.
We don't know much about the ancient religions any more. We have run out of explanations because we've lost the meanings of our ancient religions"
The revival of cultural pride and nationalism has created a huge resurgence in the art of Samoan body tattooing in Samoa and amongst Samoans overseas. Samoan tattooing was made internationally famous by the traditional Samoan tufuga, Paulo Suluape, and has since his death been carried on by his brother Petelo and sons Junior.
Samoan body tattooing cuts to the very core of the concept of identity. The quest for identity marks the individual desire to be tattooed and is a connection to the ancestral and cultural past. It also shows that the culture is still very much alive today, not just in Samoa but wherever tattooed Samoans are living.
Today the person being tattooed sees it as a cultural symbol; the wearer is making a statement about his ethnic identity. So what are the wearers of tattoos saying about their culture and sense of identity? Why is there a need to express identity in such a painful and dramatic way?
I interviewed Samoan artist, Fatu Feu’u some years ago who is a painter, printmaker and sculptor. Feu’u was born in Samoa but he has been living in New Zealand for the last fifty years. Fatu had his tattoo in 1991 when he was in his forties. Like many people I have spoken to his desire for having a tattoo was strong for many years. His tattoo was both a cultural statement and a spiritual experience.
"It was something that I always wanted to have ever since I was a kid. I had dreams, nightmares about when I was going to have it done. Whether I was going to survive it? Whether it was going to look good on me or how I might feel about it? In the last ten years I understand a little bit more about myself, my art, my culture and having a tattoo has something to do with that.
I did not take it lightly. I wanted to go through the ritual of my own culture".
Feu’u spoke of feeling more culturally confident and able to play an adult chiefly role in his family, after he had his tattoo.
Another reason is spiritual; it makes someone accepted in the society. Here in Auckland having a tattooed person in the community is necessary for ceremonies. Once you have had a tattoo you have to identify yourself as set in that culture, and all things pertaining to that culture.
Looking after the family, caring for the family, being a tulafale, (talking chief) for the family, it is like being an ambassador. It has to be connected to the spirit. That spirit world still exists in a lot of Samoan things. It has been belittled by Christianity".
When I asked Feu’u about the ritual involved with his tattoo there are clearly shifts and adaptations to the way things are done in New Zealand. With greater distances to cover and the demands of work schedules Feu’u was unable to get a so'oa or partner to accompany him when he was tattooed.
This would be unheard of in Samoa even today, for it is seen as bad mana to be tattooed alone, and no one would do this for fear of evoking bad spirits. Feu'u made the following statements with regard to the ritual performed while he was tattooed.
"I did not have a partner as it was difficult to organise the person at the same time. If it were a community that lived close together it would be different. There were hardly any ceremonies during the tattoo, because of where we were and where it was done. Paulo Suluape wanted me to have a tattoo so it was like an artist to artist exchange.
At the end we had a very big umu saga, a Samoan feast and presentation of traditional gifts. It was a big ceremony with a lot of ritual and speeches. There was a huge exchange of fine mats and a lot of people didn't realise what it meant to me. "
Tattooing In Contemporary Samoan Society.
By Vanya Taule'alo.
Published in Tatowier Magazin,
Germany, November 1999.