Pe’a or Pants??: Traditional Samoan Tattoos

Traditional Samoan tattoos (part of the Polynesian tradition) started being applied around 2,000 years ago. Fun fact: the word “tattoo” is actually derived from the Samoan word tatau, because an Englishman mispronounced it once and it just stuck! In this culture, receiving tattoos is a tradition. Men between the ages of 14-18 usually got large tattoos, called pe’a, that would stretch from the middle of their backs to around their kneecaps.Women, on the other hand, got less intricate/heavy tattoos, called lima. Samoan tattoos were, and still are, made out of geometric shapes. They’re not just any “regular” geometric shapes though. These tattoos are derived from ancient designs and are inspired by nature. Traditional Samoan tattoos also show status/rank, like many other culture’s tattoos.

This is what a man’s traditional Samoan tattoo (pe’a) would look like, taken from this informational website about Polynesian tattoos.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that the application of tattoos is painful, but the Samoans take pain to the next level. With a bamboo handle, part of a tortoise shell attached, and sharpened pig’s teeth/human bone secured on as the “needle,” this process could be complete! Receiving a tattoo back in those days, especially with this instrument, was unsanitary and very painful. Although, if a young man or woman did not receive a tattoo, they would be considered a coward. So many Samoans of this time endured the pain and risked getting an infection because they did not want to be looked at as cowardly. This handheld tattooing instrument was then dipped into a mixture of water and lama nut or the soot of burnt candle nut shells. Receiving a Samoan tattoo would take days, weeks, or sometimes even months depending on how big and intricate the artwork was.

Here is what a traditional Samoan tattooing instrument looked like, found on this “Samoan Tattoo Instruments” website created by Thomas Lockhart.

Around the 19th century this tradition almost came to a halt when western missionaries came over and denounced tattooing as unholy. But this did not stop the tattoo artists, or tufuga, from doing their jobs. They kept up the tradition so well that Samoan tattoos still exist today! Many times the art of tattooing was passed from father to son. The studying tufugas watched and thoroughly memorized the rituals and designs. This tattooing process was very important to the Samoans- you can even compare it to a sweet sixteenth birthday part, a quinceanera, or a bat/bar mitzvah! Once these teenagers got their tattoos, the families would celebrate. The father would invite the tufuga and his assistant (if he had one) to a traditional dinner after every tattooing session (which could take months at a time). Sometimes the emerging adult would invite his/her friends to the dinner if the father was wealthy enough to host that many guests. It was also tradition for the father to build a shed in which the tattooing would be done. After the tattoo was complete, the father burned the shed down. As you can see, this process took a lot of work, dedication, and showed the value of tradition.

Here are some modern Samoan tattoos. As you can see, the artists kept some traditional designs in these pieces.


To view both of these tattoos, go to this site for the shoulder tattoo and this site for the leg tattoo.

Here is a video made by Youtuber, kiaorana5, about his experience getting a traditional Samoan tattoo. Sadly, this video is  a lower quality (probably because it was shot on a cell phone), but it gives you the idea of what getting a traditional Samoan tattoo was like. Enjoy!


I used three websites that were full of information about Samoan tattoos and Polynesian tattoos altogether. They’re very detailed, and I would recommend checking them out if you’re interested in learning more about these cultural tattoos! Until next time! 🙂

Polynesian Cultural Center

PBS Skin Stories

Lars Krutak- Tattoo Anthropologist

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