Trash or Treasure?

This week marks one year since the day I was blessed to receive a Malu. To get to that momentous day, it took ten years of thought, research, learning and conversations, three months of planning with the Tufuga, and 4.5 hours of receiving it.

The conversations around people getting the Malu or Pe’a nowadays is hot topic on social media, especially when a non-Samoan receives it, or when Samoans are ranting about other Samoans displaying their la’ei in vulgar fashion.  I have never entered into any of these debates, however, to celebrate my Malu’s first birthday (lol) I will offer a few of my thoughts and reflections on  debates and statements that people make regarding our traditional tattoo.

Learn the lingo before you get the tattoo.  This is a well known saying that the oldies (and even today’s younger generation) say to remind those who are thinking of getting a tattoo.  For those who bear the tattoo and don’t speak the lingo, I urge you to learn it – it’s never too late to learn your faasamoa. Seven years ago, I made the decision to learn Samoan properly.  Not because I didn’t want to before, but because I didn’t know how to really speak it confidently and well enough to engage with the older Samoans without sounding like an idiot. My parents were not strict with enforcing the native tongue at home, and when you grow up, you can easily get away with not having to speak Samoan at all. So when I knew that being a full-time Samoan musician, academic and malu-bearer was in my future, I made myself speak Samoan – there was no way that I was gonna embarrass my family and Samoan community.  So how did I learn it?  I asked for help, from friends, family and elders here in Melbourne – the oldies at church – who speak perfect English and make me feel bad for not having perfect Samoan in return lol.   It’s frustrating at times because I could start off a sentence in Samoan…then can’t remember the word I’m after and revert back to English lol but I have great teachers by my side who are supportive and patient.  If you feel that wearing your malu/pe’a without speaking the lingo is enough for you, then you are missing out.

Too many people get the tattoo nowadays just for show. This seems to be a reality, and I can’t help but agree with this statement when people who are newly-inked are all of a sudden clogging my Facebook newsfeed with their closeup pics of their bodies.  I’ve tried to see it from their point of view..maybe by getting the tattoo, it has revved up their confidence as Samoans and now they want to proudly show the world their identity, so everyone can know that they are Samoan. Believe me, I’ve tried to agree to this way of thinking. But for the people who I know personally, I’ve always come up with the following questions: Well if you’re proud to be Samoan, how come in all the years I’ve known you, I’ve never heard you speak Samoan? or seen you at Samoan events? or seen you at a faalavelave that your family was hosting? Or seen you wear an ie lava lava?  Now all of a sudden you are a sogaimiti?  The young men who receive the pe’a, and have been given the blessing to receive it, do so because they have served their families and their matai.  Receiving the pe’a is not the end of a journey, it is the beginning. When you receive it, you are taking that step to represent your aiga and village in the hopes of becoming a matai.  I don’t see how you can accept this step if you haven’t fulfilled the steps before you receive the pe’a.   I received my malu, because I have served my family, and I continue to do so until I die. Plain and simple.

We must move on with the times. Oh yes I totally agree with this. We’ve definitely moved on from grass leave skirts to the mu’umu’u, from sugarcane thatching roof to the iron roof, from the fala to the pate, from chant to pese lotu, the list goes on.  But I urge you to think about this: What makes us, the Samoan people, unique from other cultures? At the top of my head, I’ll say: our faamatai system, our sacred tattoo, our music and dance, our spirituality. If we give in to “the times” and start tinkering and altering these things which altogether create the fabric of Samoan identity, then we will end up as a culture that is no different to the next one.  Look at Samoan music for example. The majority of our people listen to and perform western-genres and versions of Samoan music so much, that our young people don’t even know what their real cultural music sounds like.  Young people think that Tiama’a and Punialava’a are the earliest sounds of Samoan music. (FYI ,they are not). So do we really want what’s happened to Samoan music, to happen to our malu/pe’a?  It’s great to move with the times – some things need to move on, but others are more safer if they stay as they are.

Only those who bear the malu/pe’a should have a say in these debates. I totally disagree with this argument which many people seem to be saying these days. If you are Samoan, you have a say in what happens within our culture.  We all have a responsibility to uphold the sacredness of our tattoos. If you wear the la’ei, it doesn’t put you up on the next level from where you used to be so that you could look down on your friends and fellow Samoans who want to make sure that our cultural traditions stay mamalu.  If anything, you are the one who needs to work the hardest to prove that you deserved that tattoo in the first place, and if we have our non-inked Samoans  around us, holding us accountable for what we wear and what we represent, then you better lift your game.  You must remember, you wear something that belongs to our people – it’s not yours. It’s ours.

The Tufugas these days do it for business. I don’t entirely agree with this accusation. The Tufuga tatau are the keepers and givers of the tatau. They were believed by our ancestors to come from a lineage of gods and without them we wouldn’t have the tattoos in survival today.  They are the ones who maintained the customs when the Germans banned the practice in Samoa, forcing the tufuga to tattoo deep in the night and away from the patrolling German ships around Savaii.  I have heard of many tufuga out there who muck around with peoples’ time and money – so I don’t blame our people when they accuse them of setting up shop and taking advantage of the popularity of our tattoos and charging ridiculous prices.  On the flip side, they are the ones who have been blessed with the skill and expertise therefore we should respect this and focus on playing our part as bearers of the tattoo.

So there you have it, my thoughts on some of the current statements that are being thrown around social media in these tattoo debates. I lean towards keeping our tattoos sacred and mamalu.  For those wanting to wear something that bears their Samoan heritage so they can proudly show it off every day, anywhere in the world – go get a taulima, tauvae…a sleeve or those things on the chest (a chestie? lol) that way, you can flaunt it without a care in the world.  But for those contemplating the malu/pe’a, just remember, these tattoos come with protocols and rules. And who are we to try and change them?

I’ve had the malu for a year now and I feel like I have so much more to learn and to do in order to truly feel like I deserve to have it. May I always feel accountable for what I wear on my legs.


With dad after receiving my malu, and malu ceremony in Samoa. August 2014
With dad after receiving my malu, and malu ceremony in Samoa. August 2014

One thought on “Trash or Treasure?

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