Interview with Samoan hand tap tattooist Su'a Peter Suluape (PART I)

Photo Credit: 
Faletuiga Photo/Tina Mata'afa-Tufele
Su'a Peter Suluape, at work, during the 5th International Samoan Tatau Convention held in Samoa last summer to coincide with Samoa's 50th anniversary of independence.

Su'a Peter Suluape is a master of the traditional hand tap tatau of Samoa. He is the son of world famous traditional hand-tap master, Su'a Suluape Aliava'a (Petelo) Sulape and his wife Asiasiga Suluape. He is the nephew of the tattooing legend, the late Paulo Suluape. As if this was not enough of a prestigious pedigree, the Suluape family is also a world respected family of traditional tattooists whose practice of tatau literally stretches back thousands of years. 808ink special assignment writer Tina Mata'afa-Elise had the opportunity to visit with this well traveled tufuga tatau. Here is their conversation.

808: You are said to be ranked third in the world among tattooists. How do you feel about that?

Su'a: If this is true, I'm extremely humbled by such an honor.

808: So how did you become a tufuga? Please tell 808ink about your journey.

Su'a: When I was eight years old, I was introduced to the world of tatau by assisting my father with his work as a stretcher (toso). At 15 I began assisting my father in the crafting of traditional tatau tools. I received my own tatau (also known as pe'a) for my nineteenth birthday from my father. This process completely changed my outlook on life and that was when I decided to take on tattooing as my sole career path although throughout my school years, I had planned to become a teacher (also like my father). Straight after my twenty-first birthday, I made my very own tools – 'au mogo and 'au sogi'aso – and began practicing on anyone willing to be a canvas. Less than a month later, my father sent me to New Zealand to practice tatau there and gain some knowledge and experience away from home. During my stay in New Zealand, I felt a void that was brought on by not having yet received the traditional and "official" blessing of the art of tatau from my father. After four years I returned to Samoa for a visit and was bestowed this honor. I went back to New Zealand to continue tatau for two more years. In 2007, I decided that I had had enough of New Zealand and that it was time to return home to help my father look after the aiga (extended family) and to learn more about the art from him. In July 2007 I did just that. The most important thing I learned as a tufuga and throughout my training was always to remember who you are and where you come from. This solidifies your identity and instills in you a sense of humility and respect, not just for yourself or your family, but for the art itself.

808: How long have you been tattooing?

Su'a: Since I was 21 years old, so over 10 years now.

808: Can you explain to our readers what a tufuga is?
A tufuga is a traditional Samoan tattoo artist who belongs to either one of the two main traditional Samoan tattooing families in Samoa. A tufuga is a skilled craftsman in his specialized art and his talent is passed down through generations from his ancestors and is thus maintained through bloodlines – "o le tama o le eleele". A tufuga performs the full body traditional Samoan tattoo on men and the malu on women using traditional Samoan tatau tools.

808: How does a "tufuga" differ from a "tattooist"?

Su'a: A tufuga embraces traditional Samoan tattooing in its totality. It is more than just a profession; it is a way of life. The Samoan cultural values and traditions dictate the role of a tufuga in his immediate and extended family, as a member of his community, and the way he represents and carries himself here at home as well as in the international tattooing arena.