Samoan Mālōfie Motifs and Their Meanings

Samoan Mālōfie Motifs and Their Meanings samoan tattoos what do Samoan Tattoos mean


The traditional Samoan tattoo, known as tatau, malofie, and colloquially as the pe’a, holds profound cultural and historical significance in Samoan society. The traditional female tattoo is known as the malu. Malofie is the respectful term (upu fa’aaloalo) for both tatau and malu, symbolising identity, heritage, and personal achievements in the Samoan culture. This traditional form of body art has been practised for centuries and continues to be a cherished part of Samoan heritage.

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The art of tatau is deeply rooted in Samoan mythology, social structure, and pre-colonial spirituality. According to legend, Taema and Tilafaiga, Siamese twin demigoddesses, brought the knowledge of tatau and the necessary tools from the islands of Fiji to Samoa. This ancient practice has since evolved into a complex and intricate process carried out by skilled tattooists known as tufuga ta tatau, who undergo rigorous training and apprenticeship.

The Process and Symbolism

While the structure of the tatau is uniform, the designs, patterns, and motifs are unique to each individual, carefully crafted by the tufuga to tell personal stories. These motifs reflect the individual's genealogy and experiences. Here are some common tatau symbols and their meanings:


  • Ali’ao - trochus shell
  • Matapisu - mussel
  • Vaetuli - sandpiper footprint
  • Ulutao - spearhead
  • tuitui/vana - sea urchin
  • I’a - fish
  • Gogo - tern (seagull)
  • Ave’au - starfish
  • ‘Alu’alu - jellyfish
  • Atualoa - centipede
  • Anufe - worm
  • Talapaogo - thorny edge

  • Taetuli - “sting” caterpillar
  • Laupaogo - pandanus (aka laufala)
  • Sigano - male pandanus flower
  • Lau’ulu - breadfruit leaf
  • Tumoa - banana pod
  • Moafa’i - (banana bud)
  • Vae’ali - legs of wooden headrest
  • ‘aso (fale) - ribs (of the Fale Samoa house)
  • ‘Aso faaifo - descending ribs
  • Tuaniu - coconut leaflet mid-rib
  • Fa’amasina (laufala) - dried pandanus roll
  • Upega - fishnet
  • Togitogi - poking marks
  • Selu/fa’a laufao - comb

The tattooing process is often seen as a rite of passage, marking significant milestones such as reaching adulthood, marriage, or achieving a particular social status. It also prepares individuals for entering le saofaliga a matai (the village council of chiefs).

Cultural Significance

In Samoan society, the tatau is a symbol of strength, bravery, and resilience. The process is intense, requiring the recipient to endure significant pain and discomfort, showcasing their courage and ability to withstand life's challenges. The tatau also serves as a visual reminder of the community's shared history, values, and traditions.


Tattooing ceremonies are often accompanied by rituals, prayers, and singing, creating a profound spiritual connection between the individual, their ancestors, and the ancient gods of Samoa. This practice has gained recognition beyond the Samoan islands, becoming a symbol of Polynesian culture worldwide and influencing tattooing practices in other Pacific Island nations.

The Samoan tatau remains a testament to the rich cultural heritage and enduring traditions of Samoa, celebrating the individual's identity and the collective history of the Samoan people.


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