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: A malu is the traditional Samoan tattoo for women. It was traditionally reserved for the daughters of high chiefs but just like the tatau, it has also evolved over time to become a mark of pride and identity as a Samoan woman. The malu and its designs generally reflect the role of the Samoan woman in her family, community, and society as a whole. It depicts her role as the feminine presence in a Samoan family and the sacredness of that role, her role as the peacemaker, protector and nurturer, and her role as the guiding light to positive outcomes for her family, community and society. There are no dedicated designs to specific families or villages. Like the tatau for the men, there are set designs for the malu. The use, interpretation, and arrangement of the various designs and patterns are decided by the tufuga.

808: Can you recall how many traditional Samoan tattoos you have done? Tatau? Malu?

Su'a: I've lost count. I would say at least 300 tatau and at least 500 malu.

808: Some argue that non-Samoans should not wear the tatau of Samoa and that you should keep it "traditional". What do you say to this?

Su'a: To me, keeping it "traditional" doesn't translate into performing tatau on Samoans only. The thing is if you look at the patterns of migration and the history of tattooing, there are many similarities between Samoan traditional tattooing and that which exists in various parts of South East Asia. Even in the legend, the two girls came to Samoa with the tools but from where is debatable. What we do know is that they had to have come from somewhere. Through the evolution of history, regardless of origin, we were the ones to be blessed with the tools and with the talent and perseverance to sustain the practice of tatau during post-missionary days up until now. Sharing our art with the world i.e. non-Samoans doesn't mean that we lose our tradition; it means that we enhance it. And in some cases, non-Samoans usually cherish the art more than some Samoans who get it only to show-off.

808: I have heard of someone using a machine for a soga'imiti, and someone else using a metal 'au for traditional tapping. Based on the work of the Suluape family, such as the work by your father, and yourself, I have seen soga'imiti tattooed by others that do not follow the traditional patterns of the men's tatau. What are your thoughts on these things?

Su'a: I am completely against machines being used for the traditional tatau. I've mentioned the use of stainless steel tatau combs for hygienic purposes. And my thoughts on certain tatau not following the traditional patterns? Well, like I mentioned before, the designs are standard, the interpretation and use of these designs are determined by the tufuga. However in saying so, there are patterns in the tatau that should always be placed either at the top, middle, bottom, or side of the body.

808: It's 2012, centuries since the tatau was brought to Samoa, how much of the tatau (designs, tools, protocol, traditions) can Su'a Peter Suluape say is still "traditional"?