Samoan tatau: a tufuga begins his work…

Samoan tatau: a tufuga begins his work…

“Taofi mau i au measina: Hold fast to your treasures” is the theme for Sāmoan language week 2014. We hope you have followed our tweets and Instagrams over the last few days. To close off this week we look at tatau (tattooing) – one of Sāmoa’s most well known cultural treasures. This is an excerpt from an interview with the late tufuga tatatau (master tattooist) Su‘a Sulu‘ape Paulo II  in March 1999. Su‘a talks to Sean Mallon about his beginnings as a tufuga ta tatau.

’Paul’s nephew Jim at Paul’s house’ Adams, Mark (photographer), 1985, New Zealand. Te Papa (B.026409)

SM: When did the tatau first come into your consciousness as something that you might aspire to do?

PS: I can’t quite remember, but I think I had fancied being a tattooist well before I went to school, and that would be about three or four years old. I was growing up and my father would walk away and leave his tools in a bowl in the house. I would just grab the tools and pretend to tattoo someone. Years later, I started to tattoo young guys in the village. Eventually when I was in Moamoa, at the boarding school, I took some of my father’s tools with me and tattooed the boys.

SM: So was there any pressure from your family to pursue this?

PS: No there was no pressure at all, the only pressure came on years later. I think it was 1967. I was travelling back home on the bus after a football game, on a Wednesday before Easter weekend . . . a cousin of mine who had started tattooing, I think he started around 1963–64, everyone was talking about him because he was really coming on real strong. That was the resurgence of tattooing in Samoa, that was the exact time. His name was Fa‘alavelave Petelo, he had been brought up in my family, but he left to look after his parents in a village called Samatau, on the northern side of the island. He had tattooed this young man standing in the bus, and one old man and the young man were talking, and something was said about me and my brothers not having the guts to take it up. It made me angry, but not against my cousin who is an adopted brother, but mainly I was angry about my older brothers and myself, because I realised that this old man was right. So while I am saying that I was angry, the anger was not directed at my cousin at all, I was happy for him in a big way, but I was angry at myself. For what was said in the bus was quite right and none of my own brothers had guts enough to take it up. And I decided then and there that I would take it up when I left school.

SM: How old were you at that stage?

PS: Seventeen.

‘Mike Toleafoa, Leo Maselino, Su‘a Suluape Paulo the Second (left to right)’ Adams, Mark (photographer), 10.09.1978. Te Papa (O.004038)

SM: What was the reaction of your father?

PS: He didn’t say anything. I came home at this time and he was tattooing some people in the other village in Lefaga, in Matautu. I made tools the following day – that was Thursday. I made a set of about five tools and I went and saw my father. The young people there that were getting tattooed, they saw me showing the tools to my father, and one guy – I can remember his name: Mutu, he’s from the family of Faumui – and he asked me if I would like to tattoo his legs. I said yes, I would like to, and I just started tattooing and there was no looking back from there on.

SM: How did you feel when you sat down and started working on this guy? Can you remember?

PS: I wasn’t really overawed by the fact that I was able to tattoo a real person, a real pe‘a. I had been tattooing little pictures here and there, but this time I was actually tattooing someone who was getting the pe‘a. My father had started the back, but then I did the leg and there was a gap between the back and the leg, but I left it to my father to complete. It is hard to explain now but it was like I didn’t have any brains, to be honest, I was just . . . all I had was just my eyes in my head, that was all I could remember. I couldn’t remember if I had any brains. I just had my eyes glued to the spot where I was tattooing to make sure it was all right and all correct. And the guy is still around, he is in New Zealand now.

‘Su‘a Suluape Paulo 1, Paul Suluape’s father’ Adams, Mark (photographer), 24.03.1985. Te Papa (O.004027)

SM: And what was the reaction to your first pe‘a?

PS: I don’t know about my brothers, but my father was a hard man to please, a very hard man to please. He didn’t say anything. All he said to me was ‘okay, okay.’ He didn’t say to me ‘that’s good, that’s very good’, or something like this, all he said was ‘okay, that’s okay.’ I know that we had done many other things that he was able to do – he used to be a house builder, a boat builder, a tattooist, he even used to make jewellery, rings from gold coins from the German times. So if you were able to make something that he used to make, he never said to you that it was perfect, he never said that kind of thing.


  1. 17 years since that horrible day. Still thinking of him. Greetings from a swedish friend..

  2. This is an lovely write up . . . back in the 70s my Su’a Fa’alavelave did my dad’s tatau we went to his place in Samatau every weekend to get Papalii’s pe’a done bit by bit. One of things that we look forward to as kids is going out to the sea with some of his kids to check on the faga ula (traps for lobsters). Vitale who now taking over from the old man was the “solo” for my dad’s tatau. . . thanks again for sharing this meaningful piece of writing . . . soifua.

    1. Author

      Thank you for reading the blog Mataniufeagaimaleata and for sharing your memories with us. Su’a Fa’alavelave is well remembered as a very skilled tufuga.

  3. This exactly how i remember my uncle Sua Suluape Paulo II, Putting others before himself. He is one of my mums younger brothers, my mum is Matalima Kalala Suluape Kasipale.

    I miss him so much as he had alot to do with me growing up and also had so much influence in my life as a young man. I will forever miss his advice and also his love for us.

    Say hi to mum for me uncle.

    1. Author

      Dear Sulu’ape,
      Thank you for your comment and for sharing your memory of your late uncle. It is so true what you say about his generosity. I felt truly fortunate to that he made some time to talk to me that afternoon all those years ago.

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