The changing art of tatau: Samoan tattooing

The changing art of tatau: Samoan tattooing

Rebecca Rice and Nina Tonga asked Sean Mallon, Senior Curator Pacific Cultures, some questions about Sāmoan tatau, a form of adornment still practised today.


Tattooing implement. A stick with a comb on the end
‘au (tattooing implement), maker unknown. Te Papa (FE003720/1)

Q: In Whakarakei | Adorned the tools of a tufuga tatatau (specialist in tatau) ‘au and sausau (Sāmoan tattooing combs and mallet) are on show. How do these tools differ to those used today?

A: Remarkably, the tools for making Sāmoan tatau remained largely unchanged from the 1800s through to the late 20th century.

However, in recent decades new and synthetic materials such as nylon and acrylic have replaced the coconut fibre and turtle-shell used in their manufacture.

Today, the leading tufuga are using plates of metal needles when they construct their tools.

These changes in materials are shaped in part by the increased participation of tufuga in international tattooing conventions, and the servicing of customers in the Sāmoan diaspora.

In both contexts, tufuga are subject to strict health and safety regulations requiring the sterilisation of their equipment.

The use of synthetic materials to make durable tools that can be sterilised helps this process along.


Two Samoan men tattoo a man lying on the floor
Thomas Andrew, Tattooing, Samoa, 1890–1910, albumen silver print. Gift of Alison Beckett and Robert McPherson, 1996. Te Papa (O.001279/01)

Q: What about the process of receiving a tatau – has this changed too?

A: Yes, it has. The process can be quite formal and involve the exchange of indigenous valuables such as ‘ie toga (fine mats), or it can be informal and proceed more like a straightforward commercial transaction.

It can be a very private event or very public. These days, people can receive their tatau in a fale (house) in Apia, a tattooing convention in Berlin, or a garage in Auckland.

In my observations, and across these situations, there is usually some kind of protocol involved … but for the tataued person, there is also often a pause, a kind of taking stock of where you are, who is there, and what is happening.

Receiving a tatau may not be always a grand-scale ceremonial event, but it is always a serious undertaking, a special occasion.


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