Now there’s already plenty of really good articles available online on the history and the art of the Tatau or Samoan Tattoo so I won’t go into that here. I recommend Samoan Tattoo and Samoan Tattoo Art by artist Vanaya Taule’alo if you want to learn a little bit more about this traditional art form. While you’re on her blog I hope you take the time to read her “about me” section as well for her insights as a non-Samoan married to a Samoan and living in Samoa. Great stuff! You can also try to get a copy of the Tatau: The Art of the Samoan Tattoo by Chief Sielu Avea.
The one thing I want to point out is that traditional Samoan tattoo is not worn on the arm like popular trends today. For men and women, it covers the lower half of the body from about the navel to just below the knee. Women tatau aren’t as intricate or as detailed as the ones usually worn by men.
Tonight I want to share with you the legend of the tatau. It also happens to be one of my favorite Samoan legends probably because this particular legend is told in song.
According to the legend the tatau was first introduced to Samoa by twin sisters Taema and Tilafaiga. The twin sisters were returning to Samoa after visiting the daughter of the Tui Manua (King of Manu’a) who now happens to be the wife of the Tui Fiti (King of Fiji). As the twins prepared for the journey back to Samoa, Tui Fiti gave them the tools used for tattooing as a gift with instructions to tattoo the women NOT the men.
Now the song says that they swam from Fiji to Samoa carrying the basket containing the tools between them but other versions of the legend tell us that they came in a canoe. The song also tells us that as the sisters swam they sang and the words of the song was the message to tattoo the women NOT the men. As the sisters neared the village of Falealupo on the island of Savaii they saw a giant clam. Whether the sisters were afraid of the giant clam or they wanted to see it or harvest it is not clear from the song but they both dived. When they came back up for air they were a little confused and began to sing that it is the men that are to be tattooed NOT the women. This was the message that reached Samoa and from that day on the tradition of tattooing the men was born.
(These twin sisters figure prominently in other Samoan legends and one of them was the mother of the famous warrior queen Nafanua. Any guesses which one?) The one thing you have to remember with legends is that there may very well be different versions so if you find another one that tells this particular one a little different, please share it with us. For now, this is still my favorite version. Click here to listen to the song if you wish.