Samoa, Samoan Fale, Shanghai Expo

Anniversary of a Rite of Passage – Receiving a Samoan Tatau

It’s just over a year ago that co-owner of Polynesian Xplorer, received her malu (tattoo) in public from the celebrated master tattooist, Tufuga Ta Tatau Su’a Sulu’ape Petelo. As many young women in Samoa are reviving this ancient custom, you could question – what’s so special about that? But few agree to experience this painful and transformative ritual in public, under the gaze of thousands of strangers in a foreign land.

In the summer of 2010, China hosted The Shanghai Expo.  Samoa, along with its neighbours in the South Pacific, featured the destination in the South Pacific Pavilion. The Samoan exhibit featured a traditional fale and “animated” their exhibit with singers, dancers, rugby celebrities and Zita. Throughout the weeks leading up to Samoa National Day on August 1, the Samoan fale became a sacred space for an ancient ritual (the tatau) that demonstrated how seriously Samoans view their relationship with “mother earth.”

In western cultures, a body tattoo is an object of adornment; in Samoa it is a sacred covenant between the bearer and the earth and community that support him or her.

Zita has described the meaning of the event in her own words:

The generic word for tattoo in Samoan is tatau.   The Pe-a (tattoo for men) or malu (tattoo for women) is not only an eloquent form of living art and a record of ancient navigation and traditional culture, it is also a Samoan’s spiritual connection to Mother Earth through the physical pain and personal sacrifice experienced in the act of being tattooed. 

The symbolism depicted on a tatau or malu represents a covenant between a Samoan and his or her way of life. It is “O Mea Sina”. It is sacred.

The word malu means protect, shelter, security.  Malu also means house. The woman is therefore seen in Samoan culture as the protector and shelter of of the children, the family, and the village.  She is the giver of bloodlines.

The symbols of the malu etched on the woman reflect the many roles of the woman in Samoan society.  The malu is applied starting from the knees and working up to and finishing at the top of the thighs.  

I (Anna Pollock – Polynesian Xplorer’s Digital Advisor) was privileged to witness Zita receiving her malu so let me explain what that act of sacrifice actually entailed.  For four hours, Zita lay on a mat above a hardwood floor, while three skilled men worked expertly to adorn her thighs, upper legs and knees with a range of traditional symbols representing Zita’s environment, family connections and love of the ocean. That’s one way of describing it. Another is to say that for four hours she endured torture as the sharp teeth of the various instruments etched her skin, muscle, sinew and bone to leave this indelible testimony to her covenant.

As illustrated in the first video, receiving a malu was, as with all things Samoan, a community affair. Zita was never left alone; initially accompanied by another tattoo recipient – Roger Warren, an internationally recognized Rugby player, who was receiving the male tattoo; and a respected elder Lei Lua and various Samoan musicians and performers who soothed her passage with gentle Samoan songs and chants. In the afternoon, the Honourable Prime Minister of Samoa and his wife plus the Chinese official delegation and media came by and the act was viewed by hundreds of the curious and somewhat perplexed Chinese visitors that streamed past the fale.

At no point did this event descend into a marketing spectacle – that fale had become a sacred space, a setting for a rite of passage that was also a statement of profound connection linking all Samoans’ present to their homeland and extending an act of selfless welcome to their visitors.

After four, painful hours, the work was complete and Zita’s bare legs had been transformed into a work of art that will permanently broadcast her unique identity and relationship to Mother Earth in a way that will evoke curiosity and respect in all who meet her – a living lesson; etched in flesh that gives a whole new meaning to the statement  “be the change you wish to see in the world.”

After a quiet period of rest and reflection,a ceremony of blessing – the “Samaga o le Malu” could commence, starting with a prayer of thanks and song. The Tufuga Ta Tatau (master tattooist) Sulu’ape murmered a prayer while cracking an egg on Zita’s head symbolising her rebirth into a new woman of the earth. Then a lotion of lega-tumeric mixed with coconut oil was applied to Zita’s body starting with the Malu. Finally it was Zita’s turn to celebrate her passage and proudly reveal the Malu to her admiring community in dance as shared in the following video.

NOTE: <a href=”“>The International Samoan Tatu Festival will be held in Samoa between May 30th and June 4th, 2012


About xplorer

Strategist, change agent, thinker, and as often as possible a heretic. My passion helping others "make sense of their world" then find ways of working collaboratively to make it a better place in which to flourish.

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