Peti's Malu: Traditions of Samoan Tattooing

By Ryman, Anders | The World and I, June 2004 | Go to article overview

Peti's Malu: Traditions of Samoan Tattooing


Ryman, Anders, The World and I


Anders Ryman is a freelance photojournalist.

The quick and rhythmic blows of the mallet are heard from the house where seventeen-year-old Peti lies stretched on the floor in front of the tattooist. Time after time the mallet lands on the tattooing comb, and line after line is methodically etched into the girl's thigh. Peti moans, her face twisted by pain, but she has no thought of giving up. Soon, she will be rewarded for her courage. She will be the carrier of a malu, a traditional Samoan female tattoo, a body decoration that the daughters of high Samoan chiefs have worn as far back as anyone can remember.

Peti's uncle sits by her head, brushing away the flies with a small fan plaited of pandanus leaves. Her sister also watches intently. "Congratulations on your work," the uncle says encouragingly to Suluape, the tattooist. Without looking up from his task, Suluape answers, as always: "Congratulations on your support."

Suluape is Samoa's best-known tufuga ta tatau, or tattooist. In spite of his relative youth, he is the head of the clan of tattooists on the island of Upolu.

The word tattoo, tatau in Samoan, is one of two that the European languages have borrowed from Polynesia. (The other word is taboo.) Historically, the art of tattooing was practiced all over the area. When European explorers, such as Captain Cook and Bougainville, stepped ashore, they were often met by islanders who were heavily tattooed. On New Zealand, for example, the Maori tattooed their faces in curved and spiral patterns. Likewise, the bodies of many males on the Marquesas Islands were covered with tattoos from toes to forehead. It was not until Cook and other seafarers after him brought home pictures, stories, and even live people from the Pacific and Asia that Europeans regained an interest in this ancient art form. But tattooing was not unknown in European history. The famous iceman who froze in the Alps some five thousand years ago was tattooed.

On the Polynesian islands, the tattooing practices began to disappear when missionaries converted the inhabitants to Christianity. One exception to this rule was tradition-bound Samoa. There are places in Polynesia--French Polynesia, for example--where tattooing is undergoing a revival, but only on Samoa has the tradition remained unbroken over the years.

Both sexes must endure pain

"Congratulations on your work," Peti's uncle says again as he fans away the flies. Suluape is now working on Peti's knee, the most painful part. When he later begins to work on the thigh, the pain lessens and Peti can relax somewhat.

Two assistants sit on the mat-covered floor beside Peti. They stretch out the skin of her leg and regularly wipe off the dye so Suluape can see his work. As apprentices, they hope to one day perform the craft of the tattooist on their own. That day is still far away. It is a most difficult art, which takes many years to master.

A number of tattooing combs of various sizes lie in an enamel bowl beside Suluape. They are laid out with their wooden handles resting against the rim of the bowl. The actual combs--thin, white plates of pig's tusks, the lower edges of which have been filed into a row of sharp points-- hang outside in a neat semicircle. From time to time, Suluape dips the comb he is working with into a black dye made of soot and water. With quick blows of the long, rounded mallet, he drives the comb into the skin.

After a little more than two hours, the left thigh is at last finished and Peti may rest for a while. She looks pale but pleased. The pattern that Suluape has chosen for her consists of a ribbon below the knee and another one up where the thigh ends. The space between has been tattooed with thin lines and embellishments, some in the form of stars. The actual malu, a rhombus, is tattooed behind the knee. The rest are just adornments. Where this rhombic pattern comes from, and what its meaning once was, nobody knows. …

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