The Origins of Tattoo: Samoa

Before tattoos became popular — before they were even considered rebellious — they were, first and foremost, a method of storytelling. It is widely know that Polynesians were among the first people to practice tattooing. Even the word “tattoo” comes from the Samoan word “tatau”, which refers to the act of tapping a sharpened tool dipped in ink into the skin. This practice was primarily done as a way of tracing and recording one’s genealogy, especially when receiving a chiefly title within the village.

Today, the tapped style of tattooing is all but gone. Like many traditional practices of indigenous cultures, the younger generation of Samoans are just not as interested in learning and mastering the craft of tatau. As a result, the number of remaining tafuga, or master tatau practitioners, are dwindling. The ones that remain are faced with modern-day challenges of sustainability, both as a source of livelihood and the decreasing interest amongst the younger generation to learn the craft.