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The Pe'a is the popular name of the traditional male tattoo of Samoa, which was originally called the "Malofie".[1]

Pe'a, traditional Samoan tattoo

The pe'a covers the body from waist to knees. The word tattoo in the English language is believed to have originated from the Samoan word tatau.

The tatau process for the pe'a is extremely painful,[2] and undertaken by Tufuga ta tatau (master tattooists), using hand made tools of bone, tusks, turtle shell and wood. The Tufuga ta tatau are revered masters in Samoan society. In Samoan custom, a pe'a is only done the traditional way, with aspects of cultural ceremony and ritual, and not with European tools or needles. The pe'a can take less than a week to complete or in some cases, years.

The ink colour is black. The tattoo starts on the back and finishes on the belly button. Overall, the design is symmetrical with a pattern consisting mainly of straight lines and larger blocks of dark cover, usually around the thighs.

Samoan males with a pe'a are called soga'imiti and are respected for their courage. Those who do not complete a pe'a (which can occur due to the extremely painful traditional tools) are called pe'a mutu, a mark of shame.[3] The traditional female tattoo in Samoa is the malu. In Samoan society, the pe'a and the malu are viewed with cultural pride and identity as well as a hallmark of manhood and womanhood.

Tatau is an ancient Polynesian artform which is associated with the rites of passage for men. Pe'a is also the Samoan word for the flying fox (fruit bat, Pteropus samoensis ), and there are many Polynesian myths, proverbs and legends associated with this winged creature.[3] One legend from the island of Savai'i is about Nafanua, Samoa's goddess of war, rescued by flying foxes when she was stranded on an inhospitable island.[3]

In Polynesia, the origins of tattoo is varied. Samoans and Tonga credit Fiji as the source of the tatau, the Fijians credit the Samoans, and the Māori of New Zealand credit the underworld.[3]

In Samoan mythology the origin of the tatau (tattoo) in Samoa is told in a myth about twin sisters Tilafaiga and Taema who swam from Fiti to Samoa with a basket of tattoo tools. As they swam they sang a song which said only women get tattooed. But as they neared the village of Falealupo on the island of Savai'i, they saw a clam underwater and dived down to get it. When they emerged, their song had changed, the lyrics now saying that only men get the tattoo and not women. This song is known in Samoa as the 'Pese o le Pe'a' or 'Pese o le Tatau'.[3]

The word 'tatau' has many meanings in Samoa. Ta means to strike, and in the case of tattooing, the tap tap sound of the tattooist's wooden tools. Tau means to reach an end, a conclusion, as well as war or battle. Tatau also means rightness or balance. Tatau also means wringing moisture from something. Tata means to strike repeatedly or perform a rhythm. For example, 'tata le ukulele' means 'play the ukulele.'

The tools of the tufunga ta tatau comprise a set of serrated bone combs (au) attached to a turtle shell plate which is connected to the end of a wooden handle, a tapping mallet (sausau), pigment or ink, sponge and water.[4]

Two extended families in Samoa are well known for being tattoo masters. They are the Su'a family from Lefaga and Leulumoega on the island of Upolu, and the Tulou'ena family from the island of Savai'i.[5] The late Sua Sulu'ape Paulo II was a well known Samoan tufaga ta tatau in New Zealand. His brother Su'a Suluape Petelo is one of the most respected Samoan master tattooists today.

The traditional art of tattoo in Samoa was suppressed with the arrival of English missionaries and Christianity in the 1830s.[3] However, this ancient tradition survived colonialism and the knowledge retained by the Tufuga ta tatau.[3]

An early documentation of the pe'a on film is seen in Moana (1926) directed by American Robert J. Flaherty and filmed in Safune on the island of Savai'i. The film shows the young hero Moana undergoing a tattoo for his pe'a. The tufuga ta tatau in the film was from Asau. 'Moana' which means 'ocean' was one of the first documentaries made in the world.

Lyrics Pese o le Tatau song

O le mafuaaga lenei ua iloa

O le taaga o le tatau i Samoa

O le malaga a teine to'alua

Na feausi mai Fiti le vasa loloa

Na la aumai ai o le atoau

ma sia la pese e tutumau

Fai mai e tata o fafine

Ae le tata o tane

A o le ala ua tata ai tane

Ina ua sese sia la pese

Taunuu i gatai o Falealupo

Ua vaaia loa o se faisua ua tele

Totofu loa lava o fafine

Ma ua sui ai sia la pese

Fai mai e tata o tane

Ae le tata o fafine

Talofa i si tama ua taatia

O le tufuga lea ua amatalia

Talofa ua tagi aueue

Ua oti'otisolo le au tapulutele

Sole Sole, ai loto tele

O le taaloga a tama tane

E ui lava ina tiga tele

Ae mulimuli ana ua a fefete

O atu motu uma o le Pasefika

Ua sili Samoa le ta'taua

O le soga'imiti ua savalivali mai

Ua fepulafi mai ana faaila

Aso faaifo, faamulialiao

Faaatualoa, selu faalaufao

O le sigano faapea faaulutao

Ua ova i le vasalaolao

This is the origin we know

Of the tattooing of the tatau in Samoa

A journey by two women

Who swam from Fiti across the ocean

They brought the tattooing kit

And their unchanging song

That said women were to be tattooed

And not men

But the reason why men are tattooed

Is because their song went wrong

Reaching outside Falealupo

They saw a giant clam

The women dived

And changed their song

To say men were to be tattooed

And not women

Pity the youth now lying

While the tufuga starts

Alas he is crying loudly

As the tattooing tool cuts all over

Sole, sole, be brave

This is the sport of male heirs

Despite the enormous pain

Afterwards you will swell with pride

Of all the countries in the Pacific

Samoa is the most famous

The sogaimiti walking towards you

With his fa'aila glistening

Curved lines, motifs like ali

Like centipedes, combs like wild bananas

Like sigano and spearheads

The greatest in the whole world!


  1. ^
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  3. ^ a b c d e f g [1],Encyclopedia of body adornment, Part 46 By Margo DeMello, p.213
  4. ^
  5. ^

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