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.

808: Tell us about Faleulupo'o and how it relates to you and the Suluape family.

Su'a: Faleulupo'o is my ancestral burial ground. The remains of the generations of Suluape men through which the art was passed down are all buried there. The tomb is located atop a mountain peak at Matafa'a, Lefaga and presents an adventure for any brave soul who makes the three hour climb. My first time up there was in January 2010 when I braved the climb and went up to clean the tomb and to wash and oil the bones of my ancestors. It was an unforgettable experience.

808: Incredible! I understand that your family line has been tattooing for centuries. Can you please share the story of how the tatau came to Samoa and the Suluape clan?

Su'a: You’re right. There are many different theories about tattooing in Samoa especially on how it reached us in the first place. Perhaps the most popular story tells of two girls who swam to Samoa all the way from Fiji upon which they gave the tools to a man named Su’a in Upolu and then appointed him to be the first practitioner for tatau. The year of that happening is unknown and all we know is the place where Su’a lived. That particular story continues to tell that these very same girls returned to Savaii and appointed the second family of tattoo artists and named them Tulouena. The theory I believe is the one that has been instilled in me by my father; that is, the art of tattooing was brought to the islands when the first settlers arrived, these were the first Polynesians to land on Samoan soil. These indigenous settlers brought the art and it was practiced over the years but for some reason over a particular time period, interest in the art declined and the practice eventually lapsed. The last set of tools was left behind in the Manu’a Islands with the family of Tagaloa and it is the Tagaloa clan whereby the girls brought the tools – from Fitiuta, Manu’a – to Samoa (i Sisifo).

808: Give us a rough estimate of how many tufuga there are in the world?

Su'a: In the world, I wouldn't know; in my family, there are 11 tufuga.

808: Do you have any apprentices?

Su'a: Yes I do. My apprentice right now is Fesola’i Imo Levi from Samoa. When he's not with me, he assists my father.

808: How does the Samoan tatau differ from, say a tattoo I could go get at a local Hawaii or California tattoo shop?

Su'a: You can start by looking at the tools. Traditional Samoan tatau use traditional tools with the tapping method – no machines. Also, a Samoan tatau, carries certain taboos during and after the process that must be strictly adhered to. The Samoan patterns are also distinct.

808: Explain to someone who has never heard of it – what is a traditional Samoan full body tattoo?

Su'a: A traditional Samoan full body tattoo is reserved for men only. It extends from one's upper torso down to below the knees covering everything in between that space except for the genitals. Traditionally, it was performed as rite of passage for young Samoan men, “tatau” as something you “must” do. In contemporary society it has evolved to generally become more of a mark of Samoan pride and identity although reasons vary for why each person decides to get his tatau done. A man who has a tatau done is called a soga'imiti.

808: Can you please tell us about the women’s malu? How did it come about? I have seen different designs on different people, how is it determined who gets what design?