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A brief guide to Samoa: Traditional tattoos

When you wing your way across to the beautiful islands of Samoa, you'll find yourself touching down somewhere a world apart from your daily grind.

Although the crystalline waters of the beach and the gentle swaying of the palm trees in the island breeze will certainly have your attention, the Samoan people remain by far one of the most interesting parts of the country.

While you're strolling down the street in Apia, or getting sand between your toes on Lalomanu beach, what you may spot is a few of the locals walking around with intricate tribal designs across their bodies, unique to Samoa. Here is a brief introduction to this fascinating element of Fa'a Samoa, or Samoan culture, to learn about traditional tattoos.

A rite of passage

The act of getting a tatau, or tattoo is not only an ornamental adornment, but a rite of passage for young Samoans. The traditional tattooing process is not for the weak of heart, symbolising inner strength and endurance. It is a practice which dates back 2,000 years, holding a special place at the heart of Fa'a Samoa.

The pe'a and malu

One of the most significant Samoan tatau, the pe'a, covers a man's body from the waist down to the knee with detailed designs chiselled by a master tufuga (tattoo artist). There is also a female equivalent of the pe'a, called the malu, with a less dense design covering the upper thigh to the knee.

Design and meaning 

Traditional Samoan tatau are based on geometric, patterned designs, in contrast to some of the more swirling body art popular throughout other Pacific Islands.

While there is a structure which is observed for pe'a and malu tattoos, the New Zealand museum of Te Papa tells us that the designs for each artwork are unique to each artist, producing a range of striking, meaningful pieces which you may catch a glimpse of on your upcoming trip to Samoa.