Large black strips of spearhead and turtle shell patterns, parallel lines, waves made out of negative space and other geometric shapes are only a few of the designs that cover the skin of many Pacific Islanders.
“The Samoan tatau very intricately describes the philosophy of the Samoan people and how we came to discern Samoan, describes how we’re supposed to be tied to the land and our families, and the duties we’re supposed to take on as a person,” said Sulu’ape Si’i Liufau, owner and operator of A-Town Tattoo in Garden Grove.
Traditionally, the tattoo process among Pacific Islanders, including those of the Philippines and Polynesia, is an art form signifying a right of passage, as well as a way to preserve ancient history and practices.
The art of Samoan tatau is traditionally passed down through two family lineages that carry the tradition: the Su’a and Tulou’ena families. Anyone outside of those names must apprentice under a relative of those two lines to master tatau. Liufau’s mentors were of the Su’a Sulu’ape.
Traditional tatau is done with handmade stick tools, a plain stick to tap with and a comb usually made from animal bone.
The process is a feat to accomplish, for both the person getting the tattoo and the artist because of the intense pain, risk of disease and many hours over days — or even months — to finish.
The same exact tools are sometimes used on multiple people so staph infection is common among those receiving the tattoo in Samoa, but to not finish would be dishonorable.
“You’re expected to survive your tatau, survive your infection, finish regardless of whatever. It brought me to tears, but I finished it,” Liufau said.
Tattoos done with traditional tools are very binding to the significance they hold and people may be intimidated to make the commitment to wear them, Liufau said.
Those who aren’t ready to devote themselves to all that a traditional tatau entails often get the contemporary version done with a machine.
Regardless of which type they get, many Pacific Islanders do it to honor their people, have pride in their culture and have a sense of identity.
For Nathin Mabale, a 21-year-old Cal State Fullerton student with a Filipino heritage, his Polynesian tribal tattoo began on his shoulder and grew into a half sleeve after three sessions spanning over a year.
Growing up seeing his father and uncle’s Polynesian and Filipino tribal tattoos inspired Mabale to get his own.
“I kind of wanted something more about my heritage. Honestly, I know pretty much nothing about my Filipino side. I just grew into the American society,” Mabale said.
He, his brother and father have all gotten work done by the same person at Spiritual Journey Tattoo, a Filipino tattoo parlor in Stanton, California. However, the artist is no longer there.
Mabale told the artist he wanted his tattoo to represent him as a person and described himself as “tough on the outside, soft on the inside.” Based on that, his tattoo artist drew an alligator eye and centered the rest of the tattoo around it, using 50 patterns and sharp designs.
“With the traditional men’s malofie or the women’s malu, those are done with cultural expectations,” Liufau said. “The choice of designs is not so much per person, what the person wants or how we choose to decorate them, but all the designs reflect the different attributes that they’re expected to have within the culture.”
For machine tattoos, the designs are often fused from a knowledge of the different motifs in Samoan, Hawaiian, Maori and other Polynesian cultures, but many are pan-Pacific and commonly used in communities across the Pacific Ocean, Liufau said.
The tattoos vary a bit in appearance between these cultures because they depict the people’s lifestyle and cultural history, practices and responsibilities.
Because of colonization, missionaries and conversion to Christianity, many Polynesian Islanders lost much of the history of their tattoos, even after only one generation, but Samoa has been fortunate enough to not have had their tattoo history disrupted, Liufau said.
Recently within the Polynesian and Filipino community, there has been a revival of the Filipino Visayan tattoo, which is their traditional, anciently practiced tattoo done with the same tools as Samoan tatau.
Liufau thinks it would be fun to collaborate with the Filipino community and learn more about the specifics of their traditional tattoo process and ceremony, as they vary between the cultures.
Both forms of the Polynesian tattoo are special in meaning for the person and the tattoo artist, but Liufau finds finishing a tatau more gratifying.
Once the tattoo is finished, the artist gives the person a blessing, or sama. They rub them with coconut oil, break an egg on their head, remind them of their commitment to the responsibilities the tattoo represents and acknowledge them for the pain they went through.
“I think going through those moments is just priceless,” Liufau said.