In his “Afterword: Tatauing the Post-Colonial Body,” Albert Wendt emphasizes the cultural significance of Samoan tatau. He explains, “The tatau and malu are not just beautiful decoration, they are scripts-texts-testimonies to do with relationships, order, form, and so on” (403). In other words, the designs of tatau and malu are intrinsically connected with a wide variety of meanings and significance. He writes that when colonialism was at its height and threatened to devour native culture, “Tatau became defiant texts or scripts of nationalism and identity” (403). This idea is significant, because it makes the tatau and malu a physical representation of Samoa’s history. While other countries write down their histories and cultures, the Samoans tattooed it onto their bodies, visible but unreadable to outsiders.
Wendt later expands on the origins and culture surrounding the tatau. He explains that by getting the tatau, a man or woman willingly undergoes huge amounts of pain, challenges death, and emerges a stronger person who will become a valued member of their own society. He also writes that if a Samoan went to LA, used painkillers, and got tattooed by an electric needle, the tatau would lose some of its significance. The pain is an integral part of the tradition of tatau. Someone who got a relatively painless tatau would also bring shame to their family.
This shows the difference between Western tattoo culture and Samoan tatau culture. While pain is certainly present in modern tattooing methods, it is not necessarily considered an integral part of the process. In Samoan tatau, the person being tataued experiences so much pain that it can cause the person to pass out. This shows that Samoan tatau is more more of a sacred ceremony than modern tattooing process: people suffer huge amounts of pain in the process of getting the tatau or the malu, and that pain is a huge part of what gives the tatau meaning later on in life.
One of the other significant aspects of the process I noticed was that the individual getting the tatau or malu does not seem to pick out their own design—the tufuga ta tatau chooses designs from a predetermined vocabulary of stylized images (405). In Western culture, however, people very rarely allow someone to tattoo their body before they’ve described the precise image they wish to have tattooed. This shows the Samoan emphasis on community. The designs of the tatau and malu are not dictated by personal preference: the motifs carry over between all the designs, connecting the community through the designs of their tatau and malu. In Western culture, tattoos are also sometimes used to demonstrate a connection between two people. People will go and get tattooed together, for example, with identical tattoo designs. Certain symbols, such as the Celtic knot or a national flag, can show an individual’s connection to a larger culture. But what I think separates Samoan tatau from Western tattoo is the fact that tatau did not just represent people’s connection with Samoan culture; it was their culture.
Today, a kindergartener ran up to me excitedly, rolled up his sleeve, and proudly showed off an already fading Spiderman temporary tattoo. Although Western tattoo does not necessarily have the intense cultural significance that the tatau has in Samoan culture, the idea of getting an image permanently inked onto one’s body is eternally fascinating. As Wendt says, “I’m sure that one of the reasons we’re fascinated with tattooing is that it has to do with blood, human blood, with deliberately bleeding the body” (409). A young boy, growing up in Western society, probably will not see his tattoo as a sacred emblem. But he realizes that having a tattoo is worthy of praise from adults. Although the tattoo is not as inseparable from our culture as Samoan tatau, people still recognize that the idea of permanently altering one’s body is not only momentous, but is also basically fascinating.