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.

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?

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"?

Su'a: The designs, like I mentioned before, are the same. The interpretation and arrangement of these designs have been modified to make the finished product more aesthetically pleasing. My father and I have modified the designs to be more refined and in doing so, the result is extremely neat. Our tools have been slightly modified as well. We have a few tools with the tattooing combs made from stainless steel rather than the traditional boar's tusk. This is mainly for hygienic requirements. We are very adamant about hygiene standards and practices to avoid blood-borne communicable diseases. The taboos differ from pre-missionary days and again the focus now is on proper hygiene practices.

808: Do you tattoo any non-traditional tattoos?

Su'a: I do contemporary art pieces using the traditional tapping method such as sleeves, arm and leg bands, pieces on calves, backs, necks, etc.

808: You have a lot of tattoos! Who tattoos a tufuga? Which is your favorite and why?

Su'a: I've been tattooed by my father, my younger brother Junior, Samoan Mike (Las Vegas), Leo Zulueta (USA), Joe Brown (Auckland, New Zealand), Ben Tehau (Australia), Orly (USA), and Bob (Europe) but my favourite tattoo was the one done by Johnny Sialaoa, apprentice at Suluape Tatau in Samoa.

(PART II of this feature will be posted next Aloha Friday.)