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Albert Wendt

essays, interviews

Tatauing the Post-Colonial Body

Originally published in Span 42-43 (April-October 1996): 15-29


This paper is bitsy and disjointed, but I hope there is a 'logic' to its bitsiness.  Besides, do we have to have logical connections?  Do we have to have unity, design, order and development in a paper?  Do all the ideas, asides, strands, plots, subplots, and subtexts have to tie up?  Where has the Principle of Uncertainty which governs reality gone to?

When I first saw the circular advertising this conference, I was quite taken by its title:  'The Post-Colonial Body.'  (Body seems to be a theoretical buzz word at the moment!)  I was amused by its 'originality,' 'cleverness,' 'weightiness,' 'trendiness,' but because I'd decided I wasn't attending the conference I didn't let the title linger in the well of my thoughts.  As Head of Deparment my daily challenge is to survive the workload and stress that goes with that.  I have little or no time for my own writing,  let alone writing conference papers.

Much later I got a friendly letter form Ken Arvidson, a close friend, asking me, as a close friend, to give a paper at this friendly conference.  I found I couldn't say no.  However, after 'yes' to Ken I panicked and wrote and told him I didn't know what to talk about.  He didn't reply.  So I noted the dates of the conference in my diary and tried to forget I had to write a paper for it.  As time closed in on me, though, worry about writing a paper added to my cross of stress.


Behold, one dark night, the conference title and its possibilities kept me awake.  I kept visualising the Post-Colonial Body as an actual human body, a naked body which needed 'clothing.'  Then the inspiration einsteined into the centre of my head.  I had to clothe that naked body.  Why?  More because it was a blank outline than being naked.  (As a writer, I spend hours doodling on blank paper and computer screens.)  That lead me to contemplating - this is really getting philosophical and heavy! - the Samoan concept of nakedness.  In Samoan, the term is telenoa, if you are talking in aristocratic or polite company, or telefua if you are talking to your equals or your inferiors!  (Telenoa - without 'sacredness;' telefua - without measure, or with many eggs!)

Being clothed (lavalava) had little to do with clothes or laei.  In pre-Papalagi times, to wear nothing above the navel was not considered 'nakedness.'  To 'clothe' one's arse and genitals was enough.  In many Pacific cultures, body decoration and adornment is considered clothing.  We have to be careful about those terms though because much of what has been considered 'decoration' or 'adornment'  by outsiders is to do with identity (individual/aigra/group), status, age, religious beliefs, relationships to other art forms and the community, and not to do with prettying yourself.

For instance, during the First South Pacific Arts Festival, held in Suva, Fiji, in 1971, the Nambas of the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) performed with only penis sheaths and elaborate body decoration and considered themselves fully clothed, while the majority of the missionary-converted Pacific Islands audience 'laughed' at them for being 'naked savages.'  Even the elders of our Samoan performing group said that to me.  I reminded them that before the missionaries and the other Victorians made us ashamed of our lack of clothing we wore little clothing (in Papalagi terms) but we believed ourselves 'clothed.'  I reminded them that the tatau for men and the malu for women - in our dance team at least five of the male dancers had tatau and two women had malu - were considered 'clothing,'  the most desired and highest-status clothing anyone could wear.  When warriors went into battle with their penis sheaths and tatau they were 'clothed,' fully clothed, fully armoured.  The malu was essential wear for women before they married.  Clothed not to cover your nakedness but to show that you are ready for life, for adulthood and service to your community, that you have triumphed over physical pain and are now ready to face the demands of life, and ultimately to master the most demanding of activities - language/oratory.

My unimaginative imagination immediately started tatauing a tatau on the Post-Colonial Body.  Every time the needle punctured the skin, genuine red blood oozed out of the Body, and while one of the au ta tufuga swabbed it away, the title of this paper was born: Tatauing the Post-Colonial Body.

What's that got to do with post-colonial literature?  You may well ask.  It doesn't have to have anything to do with that.  I'm just interested in talking about and exploring the art of tatauing.  However, we can also see tatauing and its history and development as an analogue of post-colonial literature.  The art of tatauing - or more correctly, the way-of-life that is tatauing - had to survive the onslaught of missionary condemnation and colonialism.  The act of tatauing a tatau  (a full male body body tattoo) or a malu (a full female body tattoo) on the Post-Colonial Body gives it shape, form, identity, symmetry, puts it through the pain to be endured to prepare for life; and recognises its growing maturity and ability to serve the community.

You may ask, what shape or colour was the Post-Colonial Body I saw?  I  didn't see any colour, just a human outline on blank white paper.  (All the meanings of Franz Fanon were conjured up by this.)  But by giving it a specifically Samoan tatau wasn't I turning it into a Samoan soga'imiti?  Yes, in one instance, but non-Samoan males have been tataued and non-Samoan women have been malued.  Fair skin has always been considered ideal for tatau because of the black on white contrast.  Beach-combers, sailors, Peace-Corps volunteers, and so forth have been tataued.  In the novel I've been working on for the last fifteen years, one of the main characters, the English beach-comber Barker, gets himself tataued.  Perhaps the most famous fair skin to be tataued in Aotearoa in recent times was Tony Fomison's.


Much has been written about Samoan tatauing but little about the actual meanings of the terms tatau and malu.  The word tatau has many meanings:
(1)     ta - to strike, referring in this case to the rapid tapping action when tatauing.
(2)     tau - to reach the end, to anchor/moor a boat or canoe, to fight.  So, ta plus tau could mean 
         'let's fight, '  let's go to war,' or 'striking' until we reach a conclusion.
(3)     tatau also means appropriate, apt, right and proper, balanced, fitting. 
(4)     tata - to strike repeatedly (Each tufuga ta tatau has his own rhythm, each person being tataued    
         works out a rhythm to combat/withstand the pain)   
         u - to bite, or is the sound of supressed pain as you clench your teeth to try and withstand the pain.
(5)     tatau - also means to wring the wetness/moisture/juice out of something.  (Apparently, this is what
         happens when you're being tataued - the blood and pain are being 'wrung' out of you.  Also,after      
         long periods of pain you feel totally 'wrung out'!)

The woman's tattoo is called a malu.
(1)    malu - to be shaded, to be protected.  (The malu is also the motif which is unique to the malu.)
(2)    malu - coolness
(3)    malu - soft, to soften

The common name for tatau is pe'a, flying fox, my favourite winged creature, combination of rat and furred bird the world/reality form and up-side-down position (and usually at night using radar!).  There are many proverbs, myths, legends, and stories about the pe'a and its role in society and the universe.  For some Aiga and itumalo the pe'a was their war atua.

The tatau is called a pe'a because of its charcoal dark colour, the colour of the flying fox.  It is also a reflexion of the couragous, cheeky nature of the flying fox.  Recently, John Pule tole me that the tatau looks like a flying fox with its wings wrapped around its body as it hangs up-side-down, its head withdrawn.  However, I prefer my observation:  If you look at the tatau frontally, the male genitals, even with a penis sheath, look like the pe'a's head, and the tatau spreading out over the thighs and up towards the navel and outwards looks like its wings outstretched.  The expression is 'Faalele lau pe'a!'  Let your flying fox fly!  Show how beautiful and courageous you've been in enduring the pain of the tatau, parade it for all to see.  The sexual connotations are also very obvious.

First Aside

What I've just demonstrated by looking at the meanings of the two keywords is to say you have to be bi-lingual (Samoan and English) to better understand post-colonial literature.  You have to know the indigenous language and culture of the writer producing that literature in English.  This is an obvious perception, yet it isn't one many anthropologists, historians, critics, academics, and editors of anthologies practise!  Here ends this part of the sermon.


Important to the Samoan view of reality is the concept of Va or Wa in Maori and Japanese.  Va is the space between, the betweenness, not empty space, not space that separates but space that relates, that holds separate entities and things together in the Unity-that-is-All, the space that is context, giving meaning to things.  The meanings change as the relationships/the contexts change.  (We knew a little about semiotics before Saussure came along!)  A well-kown Samoan expression is 'Ia teu le va.' Cherish/nurse/care for the va, the relationships.  This is crucial in communal cultures that value group, unity, more than individualism: who perceive the individual person/creature/thing in terms of group, in terms of va, relationships. 

Other terms:

  • manava = mana/va = stomach (mana = power, va = space)
  • manava = breathe
  • vasa = ocean (va - space; sa - forbidden/sacred)
  • vanimonimo = space that-appears-and-disappears

So tatauing is part of everything else that is the people, the aiga, the village, the community, the environment, the atua, the cosmos.  It is a way of life that relates the tufuga ta tatau to the person being tataued and their community and history and beliefs to do with service, courage, masculinity, femininity, gender, identity, sexuality, beauty, symmetry, balance, aptness, and other art forms and the future because a tatau or a malu is for the rest of your life and when you die your children will inherit its reputation and stories, your stories, stories about you and your relationships.  The tatau and the malu are not just beautiful decoration, they are scripts/texts/testimonies to do with relationships, order, form and so on.  And when they were threatened with extinction by colonialism, Samoa was one of the few places where tatauing refused to die.  Tatau became defiant texts/scripts of nationalism and identity.  Much of the indigenous was never colonised, tamed or erased.  And much that we now consider indigenous and post-colonial are colonial constructs (eg the Church).


The tatau as script/text has a long history.  According to some of that history, the Samoan tatau began in Fiji and with a chant that went wrong.  The cycle of legends centre on two female atua, Taema and Tilafaiga, originally Siamese twins, who went to Fiji and learned  the art of tatauing.  They left Fiji with an atoau, a basket of tatauing implements, and the belief /practice that the tatau was for women, not men.  However, as they were swimming past Falealupo at the westernmost tip of Savaii, they sighted a giant clam in the ocean bed.  They dived for it, and when they surfaced, their song changed to, 'Faimai e tata o tane, ae le tata o fafine.'

As I've said, there is a rich storehouse of oral traditions to do with tatauing.  Here is a well-known song which I  learned many, many moons ago.  (It's still popular today, and sung even by our national rugby team, the Manu Samoa.)

Pese o le Tatau
O le mafauaga lenei ua iloa                                     This is the origin we know
O le taaga o le tatau i Samoa                                  Of the tattooing of the tatau in Samoa
O le malaga a teine to'alua                                      A journey by two women
Na feausi mai Fiti le vasa loloa                               Who swam from Fiji across the ocean

Na la aumai ai o le atoau                                       They brought the tattooing kit
ma sia la pese e tutumau                                        And their unchanging song
Fai mai e tata o fafine                                            That said women were to be tattooed
Ae le tata o tane                                                   And not men

A o le ala ua tata ai tane                                        But the reason why men are tattooed
Ina ua sese sia la pese                                           Is because their song went wrong
Taunuu i gatai o Falealupo                                     Reaching outside Falealupo
Ua vaaia loa o se faisua ua tele                              They saw a giant clam

Totofu loa lava o fafine                                         The women dived
Ma ua sui ai sia la pese                                         And changed their song
Fai mai e tata o tane                                             To say men were to be tattooed
Ae le tata o fafine                                                 And not women

Talofa i si tama ua taatia                                       Pity the youth now lying
O le tufuga lea ua amatalia                                    While the tufuga starts
Talofa ua tagi aueue                                             Alas he is crying loudly
Ua oti'otisolo le au tapulutele                                As the tattooing tool cuts all over

Sole Sole, ai loto tele                                           Sole, sole, be brave
O le taaloga a tama tane                                       This is the sport of male heirs
E ui lava ina tiga tele                                             Despite the enormous pain
Ae mulimuli ana ua a fefete                                   Afterwards you will swell with pride

O atu motu uma o le Pasefika                               Of all the countries in the Pacific
Ua sili Samoa le ta'taua                                         Samoa is the most famous
O le soga'imiti ua savalivali mai                              The sogaimiti walking towards you
Ua fepulafi mai ana faaila                                      With his fa'aila glistening

Aso faaifo, faamulialiao                                         Curved lines, motifs like ali
Faaatualoa, selu faalaufao                                       Like centipedes, combs like wild bananas
O le sigano faapea faaulutao                                  Like sigano and spearheads
Ua ova i le vasalaolao                                           The greatest in the whole world!

Aiga and Motifs

(See appendices I and II)
Most of the arts of Samoa developed into Aiga of tufuga - families/guilds of artists and craftspeople.  For instance, tatauing developed into two Aiga to which all the tufuga-ta-tatau belonged or which produced and trained them.  These were le Aiga Sa Su'a (Upolu) and Le Aiga Sa Tulou'ena (Savaii).  Within these Aiga the tufuga ta tatau were connected/related by blood and genealogy to various matai titles which they were entitled to hold.  Within those Aiga the tufuga ta tatau handed their skills, through an apprenticeship system, to their descendants and other talented youths.  Their children and other relatives grew up watching and helping the tufuga ta tatau.  For instance in the Aiga Sa Sua, which is centred in Lefaga and Leulumoega, in Aana, the villages of my aiga, there is a direct line over generations of Sua and Suluape title holders who were famous tufuga ta tatau. Until today the most respected tufuga ta tatau in Auckland is Suluape Paulo II who tataued Tony Fomison, Fuimaono Norman Tuiasau, and Elsie Bach.

Over its long history the basic motifs of the tatau and malu developed out of representations of atua or out of nature - plants, objects, creatures.

For example, the tuli was the bird of the supreme Atua, Tagaloaalagi.  Out of the tuli's footprint came the faavaetuli - like a tuli's footprint.

Out of the atualoa (centipede), the long god, came the faaatualoa 

Out of the pandanus leaf came the faalaupaogo  

Out of the pepe (butterfly), representative of the aiga atua, Taumanupepe came the faapepe

Out of the gogo (tern), an aiga atua, came the faagogo 
This motif may face any direction

The single line is called aso,  that is the name of the ribs of the roof of a fale.  Ivi asoaso are also your ribs.

Two single lines are also moelua, two lines sleeping together.

Out of the upega (fishing net) came the faaupega  

Out of the anufe (caterpillar) came the faaunafe 

Out of the male pandanus flower (sigano) came the faasigano  

Many of the motifs also have symbloic meanings.  According to Suluape Paulo:

(1)   the va'a (canoe), which is the black strip about 20 cm wide across the back with faaulutau at both ends going towards the front under the armpits, represents the Aiga which the wearer of the tatau must protect (with spears).

(2)   Pula laiti are also known as tama'i pe'a, the young of the flying fox which she carries under her wings.  The wearer of the tatau must protect and nourish his immediate family.

(3)   Pula tele.  The same principle of caring but for the whole extended family.  The proverb is: Ia pupula ou mata, ia malama ou ala, aua nei e soli aiga, ina nei vaipaaina oe!  Be aware, may your paths be clear, don't commit incest, or you'll have no heirs.

(4)   Aso laiti - small lines/ribs.  The first row are your genealogical lines on your paternal side which conclude at the tafani tapulu.  The second  row of aso laiti are the genealogical lines on your maternal side.  Concluding at the tafani tau.  Mothers and sisters are your feagaiga, they must always be respected and given first preference.  Some aso laiti rows are those of adventure and accomplishment.

(5) Aso taliitu are lines propping up your sides - your relationships and accomplishments as a child.

(6) Aso fa'aifo - curved lines, signifying rank and your commitment to your mother's and father's aiga.

(7) Fa'aila tatau - symbols of your readiness to serve your extended family, should anyone need food, mats etc  (Wedde 77-78)

Malu  were once common, then their popularity waned, now they're very popular again.  The style is lighter and sparser on the body.  It also has many different motifs.  Some motifs are papalagi introduced; eg toluse +, the cross.  There is also a malu nunu.  (Nunu = arthritis, painful joints).  That was used to try and cure arthritis.  A form of acupuncture?  (McGrevy 62)

Those of you who know the work of contemporary Samoan artists such as Fatu Feu'u, Michel Tuffery, Johnny Penisula, Lyle Penisula, and others will recognise tatau and malu motifs in their work.

Your Choice

On the Post-Colonial  Body, we can tatau either a tatau or a malu.  The choice is yours.

The missionaries, especially the London Missionary Society, condemned tattooing as the 'mark of the savage.'  They succeeded in making their converts ashamed of it, and tried to outlaw the practice further by not allowing anyone with tatau or a malu to become a deacon or a pastor.  Despite over a century of trying to erase it, tatauing has endured and is very alive even in Los Angeles and Auckland, where, since the Second World War,  Samoan communities have established themselves.  The basic motifs and patterns and shape have also remained largely unchanged.  (Though within that framework, individual tufuga ta tatau have always evolved their own individual styles and tatau.)  The Mau of Pule of 1908 and the Mau of the 1920s and the independence movement - because they were nationalist movements to drive out foreign  rule - led to a resurgence.  Since 1962 and political independence, there's been another resurgence.

Fair Skins

As I said earlier, many non-Samoans have been tataued.  It is incorrect to think that you cannot be tataued unless you are Samoan or connected by blood and title to Samoan aiga.  For instance, the two non-Samoan people I knew well who got tataued, Tony Fomison, and malued, Elsie Bach  - one a New Zealand artist, the other a Peace Corps Volunteer - had no such connections.  However, Tony Fomison became a close friend of Norman Tuiasau and his family, and more importantly, a friend of Suluape Paulo II, the tufaga ta tatau.  It was through this friendship connection that he was tataued.  He was tataued with Fuimaono Norman Tuisau by Suluape Paulo.

Elsie Bach was in her 70s when she came from the USA to Samoa as a Peace Corps volunteer.  I helped train her as a volunteer in Hawaii, before she came to Samoa.  The Peace Corps staff wanted to de-select her because they thought that because of her age she wouldn't be able to cope with Samoa.  I argued against it - in Samoa we have enormous respect for age.  She became one of the most successful volunteers ever in Samoa.  She taught at Teachers' College and lived with the Aiga Sa Meleisea of Poutasi, Falealili.  She was  accepted by the Meleisea family as a full member of their family.  She also became a loyal and dedicated member of the Aiga Sa Su'a of Lefaga.  That Aiga conferred the title Suluape on her, and it was the young Suluape Paulo who tattooed her malu.  She now lives back in America and wonders how the funeral directors are going to view her malu when they prepare her body for burial one day!

I think that for both Tony and Elsie, the tatau/malu was the blood letting to be connected to Samoa, to Aiga, to a culture they admired.  I never saw Tony misbehave in a Samoan function, even when he was drunk; he loved opening his shirt and hitching up his trousers so that people could see that he was a soga'imiti.  Whenever he threatened, because of alcohol, to misbehave, one of his Samoan relatives would remind him quietly that he was an 'elder' and should behave like one, and he would.  (Tony was notorious for his 'attacking and misbehaviour'  at middle-class Pakeha parties/functions!)

I'm sure that one of the reasons why we're fascinated with tattooing is because it is to do with blood, human blood, with deliberately bleeding the body, the flying fox is the bat is Dracula is Batman is vampirism is leeching .... Let me speculate further.

In a deep psychological, mythological, symbolic way, tatauing is the act of printing/scripting a genealogical/spiritual/philosophical text on the blood of testing to see if it can bear the pain of being in a human, of storying it, giving it human design, shape, form, identity, yet risking all of that if the tatauing results in your bleeding to death or your contracting AIDS.

Our words for blood are toto, eleele, and palapala.  (Toto can also mean to plant.)  Eleele and palapala are also our terms for earth/soil/mud/earth.  We are therefore made of earth/soil.  Our blood, which keeps us alive, is earth.  So when you are tatauing the blood, the self, you are re-connecting it to the earth, re-affirming that you are earth, genetically and genealogically.

This may help explain why despite the enormous fear of AIDS, tattooing never stopped.  Undergoing the tatau is challenging death, risking it.  For a while the fear of AIDS slowed down the demand for tattooing, but when the tufuga ta tatau adopted very strict standards of cleanliness, including the meticulous sterilisation of their instruments, tattooing again continued to enjoy unprecedented popularity.  Suluape Paulo is a fulltime tufuga ta tatau and travels all over New Zealand and to Los Angeles to tatau  living there.

Over the years, some have tried to bypass the pain by using painkillers and electric needles.  But that has not gained popularity because it defeats one of the purposes of the art.  And who wants to saddle his heirs with the ridiculing story that their father's tatau came from Hollywood where they're expert at pretence pain.

A Simple Cross

After putting you and the Post-Colonial Body through this painful session of tatauing, you may well be asking yourself:  Does the speaker have a tatau?  If not, does he have a tattoo anywhere on his flabby body?  If not, why doesn't he?

As it happens, I do have a small, modest tattoo, a cross in fact, right here on the back of my hand,  the result of a tattoo that was going to be a star but attained only the form of a cross because the prisoner who was tattooing it got called away before he could finish it.  I returned home to an angry father, and years later, to writing one of my first published stories, A Cross of Soot, which is based on that incident.  

Being a humble Samoan, I apologise humbly for not having a tatau.  Why don't I have one?  I'm a coward physically!

As I've already said, once the first line goes across your lower back, you must endure until the end.  Otherwise you and your family and children and their children will have to suffer the cross of your disgrace, being branded a coward, for the rest of their lives.  Best to remain a pula-u, a rotten taro like most Samoan males, than be branded a pe'a-mutu, a flying fox-that's-been-cut-short.

A Body Becoming

What is the Post-Colonial Body?  It is a body 'becoming,' defining itself, clearing a space for itself among and alongisde other bodies, in this case alongside other literatures.  By giving it a Samoan tatau, what am I doing, saying?  I'm saying it is a body coming out of the Pacific,  not a body being imposed on the Pacific.  It is a blend, a new development, which I consider to be in heart, spirit and muscle, Pacific: a blend in which influences from outside (even the English Language) have been indigenised, absorbed in the image of the local and national, and in turn have altered the national and local.

You'll notice I use the term blend or new development and avoid the term 'hybrid/hybridity,' a term which sprouts prolifically in a lot of papers and student essays.  Why?  Because it is of that outmoded body of colonial theories to do with race, wherein if you were not pure Caucasian or 'full-blooded' Samoan or what-have-you, you were called 'half-caste,'  'quadroon,'  'mixed race,' 'coloured,' 'a clever part-Maori,' and inferior to the pure product.  When Picasso developed cubism from African art and other influences was cubism called a hybrid, or a new development?  Do we call the American Novel a hybrid, or the American Novel?  Do we call someone whose mother is Scandinavian and father English a half-caste Scandinavian or part-English or a hybrid, or English if he lives in England?  'Hybrid' no matter how theorists,  like Homi Bhabha, have tried to make it post-colonial still smacks of the racist colonial.

Second Aside

Tagaloaalagi, the Supreme Atua, when he created us out of maggots, put into us poto = intelligence, loto = spirit/courage, agaga = soul, finagalo = will, and masalo = doubt/imagination/thought.


If the Post-Colonial Body sees it through - and I'm sure post conlonial literature is now courageous and mature enough to do that - it will rise to the acclaim of its Aiga and village community.  After the Lulu'uga-o-le-Tatau ceremony, during which the new tatau is sprinkled with coconut water by the tufuga ta tatau, it will rise, arms upraised, face turned to the Atua, whooping the warrior's challenge and triumph (over pain), proclaiming its unique identity!  It will then dance in celebration, surrounded by its aiga, the tufuga ta tatau, and its friends and supporters.  It will be the sogai'miti, initiated to serve its community, to prepare and serve the kava, food, and to master the word, eventually.

Where We're At

On Thursday 16 December 1995 at lunchtime, Reina and I and Roma Potiki, the poet, were driving up Queen Street, Auckland, discussing this paper when we saw a well-built Samoan (all Samoans are well-built) striding  up the street in blue sports shorts, blue T-shirt, short-cropped hair, Reeboks, eating a hamburger and parading his tatau.  The mix of Reeboks, sports gear, hamburger, pride and tatau is where the Post Colonial Body is at;  it is where we're at in post-colonial literature.  The young man didn't give a stuff about what people were thinking of his attire, of his tatau.  He was letting his pe'a fly on the first real day of summer!


University of Auckland


Works Cited

Hirao, Te Rangi. Samoan Material Culture.  Bulletin 75.  Honolulu: Bernice P Bishop Museum, 1930.
Marquardt, Carl.  The Tattooing of Both Sexes in Samoa.  Trans. Sibyl Ferner.  Berlin: Dietrich Reiner,   1899.
McGrevy, Noel L.  O Le Ta Tatau, Traditional Samoan Tattooing.  Unpublished manuscript.  Auckland: Culture Consultants International, 1989.
Wedde, Ian.  Ed.  Fomison: What Shall We Tell Them.  Wellington: City Gallery, 1994


Last updated 23 August, 2002