Samoan Tattoos

Tuesday 03rd of March 2009 01:36:12 PM [Add To This Article]

Samoan tattoos

Tattoos have long been an important aspect of Samoan culture. In fact, we even derive the word “tattoo” from the Samoan word “tatau.” It is one of the few Polynesian terms that has crept its way into everyday English language. Samoan tattoos have been an important part of the Samoan culture for thousands of years and, surprisingly, their tattooing process hasn’t evolved that much. Today, you can still find many Samoan people covered in traditional, tribal tattoo designs.  

History of Samoan Tattoos

Samoan tattoos have a long and fascinating history, beginning over 2,000 years ago. Traditionally, Samoan tattoo designs are applied by hand rather than machines. Before the arrival of Western missionaries, Samoa was once full of people with large, tribal tattoos. European reports from the 18th century mention the “friendly” natives of Samoan origin who wore decorative “breeches,” or pants. These were not pants, of course, but large Samoan tattoo designs.

Due to Western Christian influence, tattoos declined a bit in Samoa during the 19th century. However, some artists worked hard to preserve the tradition. Over the years, an emergence of Samoan tattooing has made the body art very popular again. A Samoan man or woman can express much about their heritage and station in life with a Samoan tattoo design.

Both men and women can receive traditional Samoan tattoos. However, it is the men who boast larger tattoos. A traditional Samoan tattoo design is known as “pe'a” and is a very detailed pattern that covers a man’s lower torso and upper legs. Women are more likely to have Samoan tattoos on their legs or hands, which are often much smaller. All tattoos hold significance within the Samoan culture.

Samoan Tattoo Designs

Like in many cultures, Samoan tattoo designs are as versatile as the people within the community. However, one can distinguish a Samoan tattoo design by its geometrical and tribal appearance. They often appear as complex and abstract patterns, weaving in and out in various lines and circles. A large Samoan tattoo is usually comprised of a series of small symbols. All Samoan tattoo designs hold great significance, even if they do appear simply decorative.

Some Samoan tattoo designs are done in a freehand pattern, while others can include emblems that symbolize Samoan kinship or examples of nature. Fish, birds, waves and other aspects of Samoan life can be represented in tattoos. Traditional Samoan tattoos are known for being very painful and large. Today, some people opt for modern tattoos that merely incorporate certain characteristics of Samoan tattoo designs

Samoan Tattoo Application

The application of a traditional Samoan tattoo, particularly the traditional “pe'a” design on a male, is a long and painful process. Samoan tattoos are traditionally hand poked, using various sharp combs and a small hammer. The combs are made from natural materials, such as boars’ teeth and the dye is made from burnt and ground nuts.

Samoan tattoo designs usually appear on a man’s lower torso, thighs and upper legs. This can even include sensitive areas around the groin and rectum. The application can take hours for each session, sometimes lasting weeks until the tattoo is complete. Using a hammer and sharp combs to puncture the skin, the artist must subject the tattooed person to tremendous pain. To endure the entire tattoo is a show of strength in the Samoan culture and those who quit before the tattoo has ended are branded a coward.

Both men and women receive Samoan tattoo designs, although it is the larger male tattoos that are regarded as the most painful. Traditionally, a man will not begin a tattoo until it is determined that he has stopped growing, usually between 14-18 years of age. This is so the tattoo will not be stretched out by a growth spurt. The process of hand-poking the Samoan tattoo design is dangerous, as it can result in infection. In earlier years, this was an even greater concern and it wasn’t unusual for people to die of infection related to the Samoan tattoo process.

Samoan Tattoo Tools

While there are some Samoan men and women who choose a modern tattoo application, the traditional Samoan tattoo tools are still being used today. These tools are fashioned from flora and fauna found in the area. Animals, coconuts leaves, nuts and other natural materials have served their purpose for many years in the making of tattoo tools.

The following tools are traditionally used in Samoa:


  • Autapulu - A wide comb used to shade large areas of the body  
  • Ausogi'aso tele - A comb used for making large tattoo outlines  
  • Ausogi'aso laititi - A comb used for thin outlines  
  • Aumogo - A comb used for making small symbols and designs  
  • Sausau - Made from a coconut leaf, this tool serves as a hammer to poke the combs into the skin
  • Tuluma - A container used to hold various tattoo combs
  • Ipulama - A container used to hold the tattoo ink

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