While not everyone does it, it is common at a certain age to get a Samoan leg tattoo. Being tattooed often symbolises a rite of passage as well as inner strength and resilience. Tatau are like treasure which empowers the wearer every day and indicates that respect has been earned. Samoan’s wear them with extreme pride as it is a beautiful part of traditional culture.
Tatau is the name given to a traditional tattoo for men. It is a dense pattern which completely covers the lower body from the waist to the knee. After having it done, a young man is not only accepted as a full member of the aumaga (untitled men), but is also allowed to serve the matai (chiefs).
Malu is a less dense version of Malofie that runs from the upper thigh to behind the knee. For women it shows that they are ready and mature to take on responsibilities within the home and community.
Tattoos of this size are not for the faint hearted - it is painful. There are usually three people present - one is the tattooist and the other two are called stretchers. Family members are welcome to sit around the edge of the fale to support their loved ones, as it can take a number of hours. A small bone comb (now metal in modern times) with sharp teeth is used for puncturing the skin and inserting pigment which used to be attached to turtle shell plate, but now more commonly plastic or metal - and both are tied with coconut fibre or nylon fishing line to a wooden handle. Samoan tattoos are an art form and part of a series of cultural elements that connect modern day Samoans back to their ancestors' traditional rites, and ways of life.