Blood relative and spouses only

By Enid Westerlund 16 November 2023, 12:00PM

How do you feel about traditional tattooing? Many foreigners want to wear it, they want to own it, they think it is ‘cool’ and that it should take only a few hours.

I heard two European tourists ask this of Suluape yesterday. This week, I’ve been watching my husband receive the au, a journey he’s been waiting and wanting to do since 2016. “When I am a fellow, I will get it’. Even though I have my reservations, it is his choice, and I can only support it.

I changed my mind about traditional tattooing as the malu became a fashion statement, something to show off in miniskirts and the night clubs over the last decade. Fa’ana, an old lady who used to work for us, was like a hundred-year-old willow tree. The only time her skirt was lifted and malu shown, was during a siva at the Savalalo market.

In all the years I’ve known her, I did not know she was inked. I knew she was a highly intelligent and skillful artisan. I watched in awe as she danced, her wrinkly saggy skin, years of living with her malu revealed. I was all but seven years old, Fa’ana must have been seventy-three. This image stayed with me, and it comes to mind whenever I see an elder do the same during family and church functions.

For years, I’ve said “maimau auaga”, wasted thighs to people who’ve asked me if I wanted to get a malu, because I am fair skinned, and it will look good on me. If you know me, know me well, you know that I don’t just do things because they ‘look or feel good’. Most of my decisions are intentional and I think things through. Whatever permanent tattoo I get, it will have to have some significant meaning to me, otherwise forget it. Perhaps, my mind will change again and I am allowed.

I am from both worlds. E iai lo’u pito Samoa ma le pito afa tasi. Many of us who live in Samoa are from both worlds. It doesn’t make us better or less, it just is. I do not have a Samoan last name on either side of my lineage but that does not make me non-Samoan. My child has a Samoan last name from my husband, that changes our history and changes hers. If one day, she wants to be inked like her dad, what will I say? Will I say no or be by her side to support her, hold her hand as a mother would during childbirth?

Tattooing is taboo to many in the church, my own family included. I have heard arguments from both sides. I have heard the reasoning and why one should, or one shouldn’t get the tattoo. Yes, there are spiritual connotations, there is no doubt, receiving the ‘au’ is a journey that one must take on their own. We cannot control what others choose for themselves. If I get a malu, will that erase my own name from the book of life? How different is it from the parlour tattoos that many people get and give their own meaning to?

The protocols are similar, yet different for each tufuga. For this session, Suluape will only allow your spouse, parent and blood sibling next to you during the tattooing. It makes sense, spouse and blood relatives only. The people who are connected to you in this life and the next should be there.

Back to my child, I would prefer she communicates with me and asks my opinion instead of doing it without my knowledge. If she asks me, it means she respects me enough to ask. I guess we can only understand if we receive the au, or if we sit next to our loved ones while they lie there. Emotions will come as you watch their blood come out in droplets, when that same blood runs on your own fingers as you wipe away their lifeline.

People feel different emotions towards the malofie. Whether we are for or against it, we cannot deny its deep meaning to those who have earned it. Enjoy the rest of the week Samoa, my heart goes out to those whose family passed away this week in Australia while on seasonal work. It’s never good news and one is far too many.

By Enid Westerlund 16 November 2023, 12:00PM
Samoa Observer

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