Throughout Polynesia, only noble families had the honour of receiving such high esteemed tattoos and believed that these were cultural markings that reflected the life force of a person. Specifically, in Samoa, the absolute truth of how it attained the Art of the Tatau remains a mystery. Instead it has been depicted in a popular prevailing legend and song that has been passed through generation to generation. In 18th century, Samoa like many other Pacific Islands had no formal written language, and some words were mispronounced and as a consequence were documented incorrectly. And so the European translation of Tatau is now known as Tattoo.
The traditional tattooing of Samoan men and woman is a rite of passage into adulthood. To be able to bear the pain of receiving such a gift is immensely painful but honourable in our culture. The Malofie or informally known as the pe’a is an intricate piece of body art that covers about every part of the skin from the waist right down to the knees. Specifically, untitled young men in a village known as ‘tauleale’a‘ had to practice daily the importance of servitude and prove to the elders they were worthy of their blessing to be tattooed. Today, the younger generation often confuses and misuse the terms malofie and sogaimiti. However, the malofie refers to the intricate ink itself, and the term soga’imiti is given to the man once the Tatau is complete.
Furthermore, the malu is the female version of this beautiful bodily decoration, but the cultural protocol surrounding the malu differs from that of the malofie. According to village politics, the highest ranking daughter of an ali’i (paramount chief) formally known as Taupou is appointed the gift of receiving the malu. The malu was initially a rare gift only given to a few select highly ranked women. This specific ranking of a Taupou was solely based on the status of the highest chief of a district or whether she was the daughter of a king.
Today, the Tatau is a unique cultural identity for those who bear it. Despite many commoners now being allowed to receive this beautiful bodily decoration. As a result, this art form has continuously evolved but the intricate design, process and meaning of the Pe’a remain the same. It has now become the foundation for many poly-ethnic and tribal pieces displayed in the tattoo industry today.