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Tatau: A Samoan tradition

While Polynesia is generally well-known for its distinctively patterned tattoos, Samoa in particular prides itself on its intricate and beautiful designs and their cultural significance. While you may not be interested in getting one yourself - or for that matter seeing them on your children - these tattoos offer fascinating insight into the unique culture and history of the Samoan people.

Should you be lucky enough to spot one of these beautiful designs while on vacation in Samoa, here's what you should know:

The tatau's history

According to the Polynesian Cultural Center, Samoan tattoos were thought to be introduced by two Fijian women; a story that was passed down through oral history. The most important tatau was the male version, called the pe'a which is traditionally an incredibly dense design that starts from mid-back and stretches all the way down to the mid-thigh. Young Samoan men were usually tattooed between the ages of 14-18 and the process is thought of as a coming-of-age ritual. The female Samoan tatau is called a malu and covers from the mid-thigh to the knees and is not usually as dense as the pe'a.

Unlike today's modern tattoo methods, the traditional Samoan tattoo process took days and was far more painful. Artists used handmade tools called 'au which consisted of a fine comb with sharp teeth for puncturing the skin attached to a tortoiseshell plate and wooden handle.

After 1830, upon the arrival of Christian missionaries, only chiefs' sons received a tatau, whereas almost every Samoan male received them before then.

The tatau today

The legacy of the Samoan tatau is highly visible in today's culture, not just in Samoa but worldwide. First of all, the word tattoo is actually derived from the Samoan tatau as an English mispronunciation, according to the Polynesian Cultural Centre. Traditional Samoan tattoos themselves have been experiencing a resurgence as Samoans all over the world use them as a way to express national identity.