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A difference of inking: is the traditional tatau being disrespected?

A recent social media photo of a woman sporting a traditional tattoo or 'malu' on her arm – not on her leg as tradition dictates – has sparked debate about whether a 30-century-old Samoan tradition is being shown due respect.

The Samoa Observer has asked an expert in Samoan culture, the tattooist who inked the controversial design and a traditional tattooist, or tufuga tape’a, to share their perspectives on the modern use of tatau (tattoos). 

A lecturer in Samoan studies at the National University of Samoa (N.U.S), Alofipo Horisona Lofipo, says a society focused more on individual freedom than collective traditions is lessening respect for the malu and tatau. 


Alofipo believes that sporting a Samoan traditional malu is only appropriate when it is applied in accordance with tradition: on the legs and not the arms.

“Things have changed and everyone is protected under the human rights nowadays," he said. 

"But to me, I believe that using the traditional designs especially the whole body [application] of the tatau or malu [is] not right."

Photos of these tattoos being inked in new ways are undermining traditions with deep meaning, the Lecturer says. 

“When a man has a tatau, that means that’s his Samoan identity is tattooed on his body but it is only special when it's tatted on the legs up to where it’s supposed to be," he said. 

“Having a tatau encompasses various responsibilities as a Samoan man and that is the start of serving your Samoan culture, respecting the relationships with a woman and many more responsibilities."

Lofipo has been teaching Samoan studies at the N.U.S for four years and at Leififi College for 14 years. He has previously taught specifically on the role of tatau and malu in the Fa'a Samoa (Samoan way) and they are included on the curriculum for his Samoan Studies lectures.

But a local 39-year-old tattooist, Paul Maui'a, whose application of a malu-like tattoo on the arm of a woman customer sparked a Facebook debate, said his body art has been misinterpreted. 

"I have been seeing a lot of criticism on social media ever since I tatted the malu-looking sleeve on the woman's arm but for everyone's information, this is not a malu but a sleeve tattoo," he said. 

"Taking just a bit of the designs from our malu and our tatau is not only something that a Samoan would be proud of but also it's a good way to promote how beautiful our culture and our designs are to other countries."

Mr. Maui'a believes that the world today is moving forward in terms of fashion and style and this should apply equally to Samoan culture. 

"I mean I have so much respect for my Samoan culture but there is nothing wrong in using our Samoan designs to become contemporary tattoos," he said. 

"It should be something to be proud of."

Mr. Maui'a said he will not join discussion and criticisms of his body art work on social media as he'd rather focus on his work and providing money for his family.

A traditional Samoan tattooist (tufuga tape’a), Li’aifaiva Lavea Levi, offers a third perspective on the issue and his belief that traditional methods for inking tatau must also be upheld as part of tradition.

Li’aifaiva, a 30-year-old Samoan tattooist, who has studied traditional methods to become qualified as a tufuga tape’a.

Based at Aai o Niue he believes contemporary tattooing is moving too far from the traditional ways of inking tatau.

“There are some differences between having a sleeve that comprises the Samoan designs which is alright but having a whole face of the malu or sogaimiti (traditional tattoos) on a part of the body where it shouldn’t be, then that’s where the problem will lie,” he said.

“I believe that majority of Samoa will have the same thought as I [do] when it comes to using the traditional tattoos the wrong ways. 

"It’s sad to see that our people are taking our tatau lightly especially those who are performing [it].”

Li’aifaiva is also unhappy about the practice of employing technology or machines in the tattooing process, which he says are now used by a majority of Samoan tattooists.

“Never once did I use any machines nor did I ever have a thought of using the machines or the technology to do my work as a tufuga tape’a because I believe in instilling the traditional ways of tattooing in my work," he said. 

But Li’aifaiva concedes there have been some appropriate changes in traditional tattooing such as switching from the use of pigs’ teeth to steel needles.

“The pigs’ teeth and burnt ink that we used back then is a bit poisonous and unsafe for the body but today, we have doctors who can determine these things and that is a very good reason to change just these small things in traditional tattooing,” he said.

“But for us to change the au (traditional tattooing tool) to a machine? Now that is a different story. The question is: Why? 

"Is there a good reason why we need to change our tools in tatting the tatau and malu? Because the au is a huge part of the traditional system of tatting a tatau or a malu.”

Li’aifaiva’s became a tufuga tape’a to continue to honour his family in Safotu.

”It has been more than three generations now and none of my relatives have become a tufuga tape’a yet so I was happy to continue the honour of serving not only my family but also our Samoan culture by sticking to the traditional ways,” he said.

“I hope that through sharing my experience as a tufuga tape’a and, as someone who still values the traditional channels of doing the tatau, I can be able to influence at least someone to value [them].

“I believe and I am confident that whoever will continue what I do, either my children or any of the toso au (tattoist colleagues), they will emphasise and come from the same way I started from as a tufuga tape’a: through the traditional ways.”

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