Samoan Tattoo Patterns

The island of Samoa.

Samoan tattoo patterns have specific meanings, and the wearer of such a tattoo is showing pride in the culture of the Samoan people.

History of Samoan Tattoos

Tatau is the Samoan term for tattoo, an art form practiced in their country for over 2000 years. Stories and song passed down from generation to generation indicate that two women from Fiji brought the art of tattooing to Samoa. Before the 1830's and the advent of religious missionaries every Samoan male received a tattoo. The missionaries taught the Samoan people that it was defiling the human body and sacrilegious to cover the body with tattoos. Not all Samoans agreed with these teachings and continued the practice of the traditional tatau.

The Samoan Tattoo Process

Getting a true Samoan tatau is a painful process where a bone or shell is dipped in ink and used to deeply scratch the skin. The black ink used in Samoan tattoo patterns is made of the ashes of burnt shells. The flesh is sliced open and the ink seeps deep into the wound. The blood is wiped away and the next deep scratch is inflicted with the ink dipped bone or shell. The original tataus covered their mid-back all the way down to the backs of their knees. In most cases the tatau is not completed in one day and will take several months. This slow process allows a few days of healing in between each portion of the tattoo. In the beginning only males got a tatau; after awhile females received simpler ones as well.

Samoan Tattoo Patterns

The original Samoan tattoo pattern, or pe'a body tattoo, covered the male from his mid-back all the way down to the back of his knees, where it would wrap around the sides and onto the front. The traditional pattern covered every portion of skin, even the genitals and buttocks, in straight lines, angles and geometric shapes all in black. Male Samoan tattoo patterns do not include circular or curved lines, but the females might. The following patterns have a different name for each portion of the body as indicated below:

  • O le Taga Tapulu - Mid and small of the back
  • Aso Fa'aifo - The buttocks and wrapping around to the groin in front
  • Saemutu - Around the top of the thigh; more of this pattern is given to show social status
  • Tasele - Covers the perineum
  • Tafumiti - Covers the scrotum
  • Tafito - Covers the penis
  • Lausae - Thighs
  • Umaga - Abdomen and navel

A True Samoan Tattoo

True Samoan tafugas, or tattoo artists, are not easy to come by. A tafuga or Samoan tattoo artist must be a descendant of another Tafuga to join the official guild of Tafugas. Since receiving a Samoan tattoo is a sacred ritual, it makes sense the tradition would be passed down from father to son.

Today's Samoan Tattoo Designs

Most Samoans today will only receive a partial tattoo, possibly on the back of one of their calves. Other Samoan patterns can include:

  • Fish
  • Birds
  • Band around upper arm
  • Flowers
  • Waves
  • Shells

Polynesian tattoo meanings derive many symbols from Samoan tattoos and tattoo patterns. Find out more about their culture through tattoos.

Samoan Tattoo Patterns