Home Institution

University of Colorado At Boulder

Publication Date

Spring 2014

Program Name

Samoa: Pacific Communities and Social Change


The art of tattooing holds immense cultural importance to Samoa and the tatau (traditional full body tattoo) is a significant mark of Samoan identity. While the date of origin is not recorded, traditional tattooing has been an instrumental aspect of Samoan society throughout history. Tattooing proved resilient in the face of missionary condemnation as it survived in Samoa, while diminished in much of Polynesia. Tattooing has often been studied from the perspective of recipients of tatau. This study documents the transformation of this cultural practice and focuses on the perspectives of the masters. It examines the stories, opinions, beliefs, and values of both traditional tufuga ta tatau and contemporary tattoo artists. Perspectives on meanings, the evolution, and commercialization of tattooing were collected and studied. A total of 17 interviews were conducted with traditional tattoo artists, contemporary artists, academics, and recipients of tatau. Findings show considerable changes have occurred in Samoan tattooing in terms of who gets the tatau, what it means, and the equipment used. The emergence of contemporary tattoo studios and changes in payment are a result of Samoa’s shift towards a cash economy. Though globalization has had profound impacts on the tatau, tattooing is still occurring today and growing in popularity because of its intrinsic cultural importance to Samoans.


Community-Based Learning | Social and Cultural Anthropology | Sociology of Culture


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