The Iconography of Tatau - Extract

Tatau: A History of Samoan Tattooing is the first publication to examine 3000 years of Samoan tatau. Published by Te Papa Press, Sean Mallon and Sébastien Galliot present a richly illustrated chronology with historical images of 19th and 20th century Samoan tattooing, contemporary tattooing, diagrams of tattoo designs and motifs, with supplementary photographs such as posters, ephemera, film stills and artefacts. We share an extract from the book, an essay titled ‘The Iconography of Tatau’ by Sébastien Galliot along with the corresponding diagrams of the pe’a and the malu respectively, as published in Issue 72 of SPASIFIK Magazine.



Tatau and Malu consist of two standardised configurations of patterns. Each reiterates an invariable model of zoning the body with specific ava'ega (zones, or groups of motifs).


The construction, or ‘ava’ega, of a male tatau follows a very rigid plan, prescribed by tradition and within which the expert has a little freedom to introduce ornamental variations. The ‘ava’ega usually starts with the va’a motif on the back and ends with the pute on the navel. In between these motifs, the tufuga performs a succession of vāega over a period of five to ten days, depending on his timetable and the tolerance of the ta’oto (the one laid down).



The construction of a female malu is quicker, and has more variations. However, it also proceeds through a standardised construction and can be conceived as a horizontal or vertical arrangement of mamanu (pattern motifs), most of which derive from female iconography. Some mamanu, however, are common to men and women. The popliteal area, at the back of the knee, is always marked with a single or a double malu, the lozenge shaped design which (just like the black triangle in the middle of a man’s back called pe’a) entertains a metonymical relationship with the malu as full tattoo.


A tatau or a malu, as a whole, does not refer to anything outside of itself. Rather, it is the outcome of the repetition of a prototype which is stored as a mental image in the tufuga’s mind (his māfaufau) and exists temporarily on a body surface. Thus, tatau and malu belong to a category of images for which there are no referents. Local discourse sometimes associates the shape of the pe’a with that of the flying fox¹ and the shape of the malu with the sections of a Sāmoan house.



There is clearly no unified cultural perspective, however, on the resemblance between the pe’a and the flying fox, or between the malu and an actual Sāmoan house. A closer look at the smaller units that constitute the overall images suggests the depiction of elements of fauna, flora and material culture. The mamanu have names and shapes that suggest a closer likeness with the material and natural environment.


In Figs. 100 and 101, va’a (canoe), pe’a (flying fox) and ulumanu (animal’s head), as well as fa’amuliali’ao (end of a Trochus shell), gogo (frigate bird), alualu (jellyfish), atualoa (centipede) and anufe (caterpillar) exist outside the tattooed image, and their shapes as tattoo motifs recall the shapes of the natural objects they stand for. Although obviously different, male and female iconographies seem to be guided by a similar figurative technique. The male tattoo presents itself as a combination of artefacts, animals and plants, but the female version is more oriented towards celestial bodies (stars) and animals (caterpillar, jellyfish, frigate bird). They use the surface of the human body to make visible a dense network of entities. The quasi-systematic repetition of patterns produces a dynamic effect in the way different items are ordered.



Although the application of pattern intensified during the twentieth century, the overall structure of the image – i.e. the configuration of the vāega – has remained the same since the first detailed descriptions made by German ethnographers², and by the following generation of anthropologists and observers³. The naming of the ava’ega has been very consistent but their meaning and possible symbolic content is much more unclear. While the shapes of some vāega, such as the va’a or the ulumanu, show a link with their names (the va’a has an obvious canoe shape and the triangle shape of the ulumanu suggests the beak of a bird), other vāega like lausae or the tafani are much more difficult to interpret.


Their meanings are either obscure or lost (lausae), or just broadly descriptive; tafani seems to denote the sides or flanks (tafa).


The uncertain meanings of the mamanu or ornamental units pose problems of another kind. At this level one notices an enrichment of the repertoire, and a tendency to fill the vāega with more designs than were recorded in the nineteenth century.



However, unlike the vāega, mamanu or ornamental units can be classified in two different categories.


Old designs (atualoa, alualu, anufe, fa’avae’ali, fa’atala laupaogo, etc.) which were already noticed by the first European observers tend to have stable shapes, names and meanings.


There is also a high degree of correspondence between their shape and what they stand for (that is, they have a higher degree of iconicity).


More recent designs not only have less iconicity but they also take different names depending on the tufuga who uses them. Moreover, apart from their relative iconicity, their symbolic content varies greatly, to the point that the interpretation of the repertoire is dependent on each tufuga’s individual ability to elaborate deep meanings for the ornaments he uses and sometimes creates. Published accounts of the meanings of the Tatau and malu motifs include those by Li’o Tusiofo (1982) and Su’a Sulu’ape Paulo II (1994 and 2002)⁴. At the time of writing the most recent interpretation of Sāmoan tatau motifs was written and published by Sulu’ape Si’i Liufau in 2016⁵.






¹Albert Wendt, ‘Afterword: Tatauing the Post-colonial Body’, in Inside Out: Literature, Cultural Politics and Identity in the New Pacific, edited by V. Hereniko and R. Wilson (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999), 399 – 412.


²Felix von Luschan, Beitrag zur Kenntniss der Tattowirung in Sāmoa (Verlag von A. Asher and Co. Berlin, 1897), 551–61; C Marquardt, The Tattooing of Both Sexes in Sāmoa (Auckland: R McMillan, 1984). Translation of Tätowirung beider Geschlechter in Sāmoa (Berlin: D Reimer, 1899).


³ES Craighill Handy and Willowdean Chatterson Handy, Sāmoan Housebuilding, Cooking, and Tattooing (Honolulu: Bernice P Bishop Museum Bulletin 15, 1924); Te Rangi Hiroa (Peter Buck), Sāmoan Material Culture (Honolulu: Bernice P Bishop Museum. Bulletin 75, 1930); Jack Groves, see fig. 41)


⁴Claudia Forsyth, ‘Sāmoan Art of Healing: A Description and Classification of the Current Practice of the Taulāsea and Fofō’ PhD thesis (San Diego: United States International University, 1983); Sulu'ape Paulo II, Meaning of the Pe'a in Fomison: What Shall We Tell Them?, edited by Ian Wedde (Wellington: Wellington City Gallery, 1994), 77; Sean Mallon, Sāmoan Art and Artists: Measina a Sāmoa (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2002).


⁵Sulu'ape Si'i Liufau, ‘Tatau Motifs’ in Tatau: Marks of Polynesia, edited by Takahiro Kitamura (Los Angeles: Japanese American National Museum, 2016), 193 – 99.