Tongan tattooing: Reconnecting to fonua across time and space through the art of tātatau

Tongan tattooing: Reconnecting to fonua across time and space through the art of tātatau

Tufunga Tātatau Terje Koloamatangi is of Tongan and Norwegian Sami ancestry. Born in Nuku’alofa Tongatapu with ancestral ties to Kolovai, Pangaimotu Vava’u, and Åmøya, in Northern Norway. He lives in Tāmaki Makaurau, Aotearoa New Zealand. Koloamatangi is an artist and cultural tattoo practitioner. His work is centred on the revival of tātatau faka-Tonga, a passion he has maintained for over 20 years. His practice is built on historical accounts, gleaned from texts, museum collections, and Tongan oral traditions. Here, guest author Terje Koloamatangi discusses the origins and uses of the Tongan custom of tātatau or tattooing.

Tattoo the women and men

An old Fijian story suggests that tātatau was imported to Tonga from Fiji. In the process of introducing the custom to Tonga, a custom originally intended for women, the man charged with spreading the news of tātatau suffered a mishap. In his subsequent confusion, the message was reversed and as a result, tātatau was inflicted on the bodies of Tongan men, and not the women.

Tātatau can also be found on the bodies of Tongans in our tala fakafonua. One such fakafonua tells of a famous mana‘ia, Vaenuku of Eua, who had a lupe mūtu‘u (a kind of wild pigeon) tattooed across his back. The story follows Vaenuku’s exploits and his attempts to seduce the daughter of the Tu‘i Tonga.

Contrary to the Fijian story mentioned above, tātatau did adorn the bodies of Tongan women. In 1773, Captain James Cook gave the following account of tātatau on Tongatapu women, “they have it only slightly done on the arms, hands and fingers”. And in 1830, Vice-Admiral William Waldegrave observed Vava‘u women with tātatau “in the legs and feet in a very pretty manner with small stars as a spotted stocking”.

[Gilsemans, Isaac] fl 1637-1645 :Is de Placts dade ouze boots liggen om watde te harlen … [Tongatapu] 23 January 1643.. Tasman, Abel Janszoon, 1603-1659: Abel Janszoon Tasman’s journal of his discovery of Van Diemens Land and New Zealand in 1642 … [facsimiles]. Amsterdam, Frederick Muller & Co., 1898.. Ref: PUBL-0106-002. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22487706
Descriptions such as these can be found in several accounts from European explorers, one dating back to 1643, where Dutchman Abel Tasman encountered a great number of Tongatapu men with “the lower part of the body painted black down to the knees”.

Tattooed thigh of a Tongan man Recorded on Tongatapu in the 1820s by Louis de Sainson. The official artist on French explorer Dumont d’Urville’s voyage throughout the South Pacific. Detail from Tonga-Tabou. 1. Naou, jeune Fille., 2. Natuf de Conga habitant des îles Viti., 3. Houïtai, chef chrétien à Mafanga., 4. Ata, chef chrétien à hifo., 5. Tatouage de la Cuisse des hommes. Plate 76 From the book: Voyage de la corvette l’Astrolabe execute pendant les annees 1826-1827-1828-1829. Gift of Charles Rooking Carter. Te Papa (RB000276/076a)

In Tongan words

Tātatau also made its mark on the pages of diaries and letters from the early Christian missionaries. The words “Ko e anga ha o mau fonua” were recently discovered in the diary of a Wesleyan missionary stationed on Tongatapu in 1849. In his account of a visit to the home of a local chief in Folaha, the missionary witnessed Tongans engaged in the practice of tātatau. He goes on to write, ‘I endeavoured to show them the folly and uselessness of such practices, but they only laughed and exclaimed, “Ko e anga ha o mau fonua” (It is the way of our country)’.

The response the Tongans gave to the appeals of the Wesleyan missionary offers an important clue to the value that ancient Tongans placed on tātatau. “Ko e anga ha o mau fonua”, or in modern lea faka-Tonga, “Ko e anga pe ia emau ki‘i fonua”, not only locates tātatau as a Tongan practice, but it also offers insight into the significance of tātatau as an integral part of indigenous Tongan identity.

As the Wesleyan missionary understood it, fonua is used to describe land, country, territory, and place. Additionally, fonua can refer to the people (of the land). The term can also be used when speaking of a grave and is the word for afterbirth or placenta. Fonua is inherent in life cycles and underpins the relationship between people, place, and the natural environment.

With a fuller understanding of the depth and breadth of meaning contained in the term fonua, we could further interpret the Tongans’ response as an affirmation that tātatau is the way of our land, it is how we identify as a people, and it is part of our cycle of life. Tātatau reflects fonua and a Tongan way of being and doing.

Marking a new era

In recent years, tātatau has re-awakened in the minds, hearts, and skin of modern Tongans. Since the late 1990s, the movement to revive customary Tongan tātatau has grown from within the diaspora, at a slow but steady pace. Instigated and guided by Sāmoan tufuga tatau, Su‘a Sulu‘ape Paulo II and Su‘a Sulu‘ape Alaiva‘a Petelo, Tongan tātatau is starting to flourish in the capable hands of Tongan tufunga tātatau.

Tātatau faka-Tonga made by Terje Koloamatangi. Photograph of a partially completed, customary Tongan tātatau, tattooed with hand tap tattoo tools (hau) on Auckland man Langi Sateki in 2021. Photo courtesy of Terje Koloamatangi

For modern Tongans of the diaspora, tātatau can offer a way to affirm their indigeneity. Guided by the knowledge of our ancestors, we can navigate our way forward, reconnecting to fonua across time and space through the art of tātatau.

Find out more

Watch on YouTube: Talanoa Tātatau part one: Kuonga Mu‘a – Kui Hili – The Past


  1. The Tongans brought tattoo with them as far as 3000 years ago when all Polynesians were Lapita Pottery Migrators settling the Pacific. The Tongan tattoo kit that was carbon dated to 2700yrs old is proof of it.

    1. Ko ia! That’s right.

  2. The tatau was not brought to Tonga from Fiji. It was the other way around.
    Melanesians didn’t even practice tattooing until they came into contact with Polynesians.
    It’s even stated in many Fijian songs. Who wrote this ?

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