The history of Tokelau tatau and tattooing

The history of Tokelau tatau and tattooing

Senior Curator Pacific Cultures Sean Mallon looks at what the archival and published record tells us about tattooing in Tokelau.

One of my main research interests is in Sāmoan tattooing and during the course of my work in archives and museums, I’ve come across many little snippets of information about tattooing in the Pacific Islands.

This includes a few, but only just a few, accounts and images of tattooing in Tokelau. They may be well-known to some readers, but perhaps new to others.

The key accounts of tatau (tattooing) in Tokelau were recorded in the 1800s by European explorers and other observers.

They say the tattooist’s ink was made from a mixture of soot from a charred coconut mixed with water. According to one account, the pakiau (puncturing instrument), was made of a short stick with a set of fine teeth of turtle bone lashed at right angles at one end. It was tapped with another stick to deliver the pigment into the skin.[1]

bowdith islander

Tokelau tatau designs

In 1841, members of a United States exploring expedition recorded that the main tattoo image tattooed was a triangular motif ‘with the apex downwards imprinted on each haunch’.

A double row of lines with little crosses between was drawn down obliquely upon each cheek, and images of turtles were tattooed on the breast. The arms down to the elbow were also tattooed with small triangles.

Alfred T. Agate, who was an artist on the expedition, made a pretty good drawing of some people decorated with tattoos. He titled the drawing Bowditch Islanders (a European name for the atoll of Fakaofo).[2,3]

Tokelau tattooed people
Based on work by Alfred Thomas Agate, Bowditch Islanders, about 1850. Public domain. Naval History and Heritage Command (98-089-AT)

The arrival of Europeans

The art of tatau in Tokelau waned and eventually disappeared after the arrival of Christian missionaries. However, according to observations made by J.J. Lister on the atoll of Fakaofo in 1889, ‘Many, if not all, of the old women, were tattooed with triangular markings around the mouth, each triangle having its base to the margin of the lip, and the apex pointing up or down. There were ten of these, five above and five below.’[4]


Lister also saw a tattooed old man with ‘two bands across each cheek, passing from in front of the ear forwards and downwards towards the mouth. Each band consisted of an upper and lower line, the space between being filled in with oblique cross lines. A similar band encircled each wrist, and several interrupted lines were traced round the lower part of each forearm. There were two horizontal bands across the gluteal region, a representation of a fish over the hip-joint, and a circular ornamentation above, at the crest of the ilium. A transverse band was tattooed across each calf, limited to the back of the leg, and there were interrupted lines above and below it; a single line surrounded the leg above-each ankle.’Screen Shot 2013-10-31 at 11.44.15 PM

Writing in 1932, ethnologist Gordon Macgregor noted that, ‘After the death of a member of the family, particularly a child, it was customary to have a “picture” of the dead person tattooed on the left side of the chest […].’

At the time of Lister’s visit the high chief had four such figures: one for the past king, one for a dead female relative, and two for dead children. He had also smaller triangular or geometric figures for children who had died at an early age.

Joseph Jackson Lister, [Lister family] :Tattooing on an old woman of 60-70 at Fakaafu – one of the Union Islands… [ca 1888], 1886–1890. Alexander Turnbull Library (E-394-f-061-2)
This final image is from the National Library Collections in Wellington. It’s titled [Lister family]: Tattooing on an old woman of 60-70 at Fakaafu – one of the Union Islands… [ca 1888]. Notice the close-up detailing of the motifs.

These are tantalising glimpses into the tattooing practices of Tokelau’s past, collected over a few short decades during a time of great change. As more museum and archive collections are digitised and put online, more Tokelau tattooing stories, images, and artefacts are bound to come to light. Let’s watch this space.


[1] Macgregor, Gordon  Ethnology of Tokelau Islands. Bernice P. Bishop Museum (1937)

[2] Hale. Horatio in Matagi Tokelau: History and traditions of Tokelau.  Tokelau. Ofiha o na Matakupu Tokelau.; University of the South Pacific. Institute of Pacific Studies.(1991) p.70

[3] The Alfred Agate Collection Naval Historical Centre, Washington DC

[4] Lister, J. J., Notes on the natives of Fakaofu (Bowditch Island), Union group: Roy. Anthrop. Inst., Great Britain and Ireland, Jour., vol. 21, pp. 43–63, (1891).


  1. What does the word Tatau imply in Tahitian? The tattoos and designs of the Samoan islands reflect community, power, position, respect, and honor, and are a source of pride for Samoans exclusively. Displaying their emblems and patterns is an act of contempt for individuals who have no cultural influence or ancestral background. I’ve seen various designs from but have yet to try it out because it’s a cultural tattoo.

  2. This is awesome, I asked the question as a curious young child growing up comparing my two cultures (Samoan and Tokelauan). I was told that to understand the patterns one must understand the value and roll the individual plays in the community. Like the Samoans, only certain people are allowed to bare certain marks as a right of passage or inheritance. For example, a king has different markings to that on a healer. A tautai has different markings to that on a tapapa. We had patterns such as the turtle is a well known one as well as the shark tooth. We had the shark jaw, the barb of the sting ray, the oar, the tooth of the barracuda as well as many more. On a Figo you will find the marks of the kuku tofi, the different patterns of the moegas as well as the different sea shells used in their line of work. More or less like a visual representation of their skill level and knowledge. That’s a small and brief input in hoping that I was able to help


  3. This is informative, Thanks for sharing! Tattoos have come a long way. Now there are so many tattoo designs that looks good in different body parts. For me chest tattoos for women under breast is the best. Check out:

  4. This is amazing. I visited Samoa with my partner (samoan) and my daughter in 2018 and decided I wanted to bring home with me souvenir ink. We researched and found this page and I now have a taulima hand tattoo with drops of inspiration from this article.

  5. This is awesome, any more information about the Nifo Ika tattoo for women? My brother just had his turtles done and gave me this inspiration to know more about the Nifo Ika

    1. Author

      Thank you for your comment. Unfortunately we don’t have any further information on the nifo ika tattoos. Hopefully further research will uncover something new in the near future. It has been great to see so much interest in Tokelau tattooing.

  6. Awesome finally some documentati9n tatttoing from my homeland of a Tokelau. How can I get a copy of this sent to me please.

    Malo ni – Liza

  7. Thank you for this. I have very much enjoyed reading this. since I was little, I have always adored turtles or honu. As I grew older I had intended to get a turtle tattooed but could never find one I was drawn to. Until I came across the turtle design used by our tupuna. It will have more meaning to me know to get a couple tattooed as they will represent my father and my brother.

    I’m wondering about Tokelauans with a pe’a. Could it be because they are also Samoan and while they acknowledge their Tokelauan side, they actually identify as a Samoan? Just a thought :).

    thank you again for sharing this via this forum.

    Alieta Elika

    1. Author

      Thank you for reading the blogpost Alieta and for taking time to comment. I have heard of small number of Tokelauans who have been tattooed with the pe’a. Like other non-Samoans who wear the pe’a, it could signify their connection to Samoan families through intermarriage; their strong relationship to Samoan communities (especially if they lived in Samoa for a long period of time), or just their love of the pe’a or of tattooing. As you suggest, it could also be because they are also Samoan/Tokelauan, and while they acknowledge their Tokelauan side, they identify more as a Samoan. Whatever the case may be, it is interesting how important tattooing was and still is as a symbol of all kinds of things including peoples ethnic, cultural or personal identities. Thank you for bringing this issue up in the blog and contributing t he discussion.

  8. I am so glad that I have found this site .I would like to know if I could get a Tokelau ,tribal tattoo designs,

    1. Author

      Thank you for your comment Ineleo. Are you living in New Zealand? There are many good tattooists here who specialise in Pacific tattooing designs.

  9. Like Falipo I am a Tokelauan looking for inspiration for a tattoo and found this blog via a Google search. Thanks for posting as there is so little available information on Tokelauan tattoo design, motifs and history. I would be really interested to see any imagery you may have access too.

    1. Author

      Hi Chad, Thank you for commenting. Almost all the imagery I am aware of is included the blogpost. There could well be more… There is an old drawing of a Tokelau tattooing tool I still need to locate and photograph. If I find it, I will post it here on this site…

      best wishes


    2. Hey Sean Mallon did you find that tool you mention in your recent comment? It’ll be nice if we could see a photo of it please.

  10. Finally!!! I am a Tokelauan who has been searching and searching for inspiration to create my tattoo design. This is brilliant!! Interesting to read also about ties to Samoa via Tilifaiga and Taema.

    1. Author

      Thank you for the feedback Filipo…I’m glad the blogpost was of interest. I’d love to see some of your Tokelau tattoo designs when you have them done…best wishes.

  11. Very interesting. What do you make of Tokealuans with a pe’a? I don’t know how common it is, but I know that one tufuga ta tatau recently travelled to Tokelau from Samoa to apply the pe’a. Purportedly, Tilifaiga and Taema (the mythical goddesses of tattooing) stopped in Tokelau on their way to Samoa a long time ago. Tilifaiga and Taema were also (supposedly) given a Tuluma to safeguard their ‘au. What do you make of this? Would you say that the pe’a and malu are indigineous to Tokealau’s tattoo history?

    1. Author

      Hi Lagi, thank you for reading the blogpost and commenting. I am aware that there are Tokelauans in New Zealand with the pe’a. This doesn’t surprise me given the close associations Tokelau and Samoan communities have with one another. I also saw the recent news story you mention about a tufuga ta tatau travelling to Tokelau from Samoa to tattoo a man with the pe’a. It was a fascinating story, I wondered if it was a first for Tokelau.

      Unfortunately, I don’t know of any historical observations or published sources that would suggest the pe’a was indigenous to Tokelau. I also can’t identify a source confirming whether Tilafaiga and Taema stopped in Tokelau on the way from Viti (Fiji). Is it part of the Tokelau oral tradition?

      As the blogpost points out, there are very few recorded observations of Tokelauan tattooing in the 1800s. There could be more material in archives not yet discovered, and the oral traditions of Tokelau people may offer more information. I hope this blogpost continues to attract comments and thoughts from people…

  12. Thank you so much for sharing this information, it is just great.

    1. Author

      you are welcome Ahenata-May

  13. Kia ora, fascinating as another tradition of tatau emerges from an island that I have only a fleeting understanding of. I hope to visit the Te Papa Museum next year when I will visit Aotearoa for the first time.

    Ke te pai,

    (Japan, by way of San Francisco, California

    1. Author

      many thanks Roji, for reading and feeding back on the blogpost. There is still much to learn about the histories of tatau in the Pacific, but we are glad you found this article of interest.

      best wishes

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