It seems like everybody’s got an opinion about the Samoan tattoo – who should be getting them, how they should be given, how they’re meant to be worn or displayed, etc. While tattoos in general are very popular, Polynesia is often credited as the origin of this kind of body art, and as Samoans, we feel a certain obligation to the craft that is such a huge part of our cultural heritage.

A few years ago, I took an advanced Samoan language and culture class with the late Afioga Tofaeono Tanuvasa Tavale.

They nearly drowned diving for the faisua – which turned out to not even be a faisua – and when they finally resurfaced, their disorientation caused them to forget that it was women who were meant to be tattooed.

These taupou of high ranking were island celebrities and were called on to dance the taualuga at the most prominent events. In the meantime, if you have any questions or comments (or complaints or death threats) please let me know so I can address your concerns in Part Two.

In those not-so-Christian days, when a taupou danced, her skirt was always hiked up HIGH to show what she was working with, and apparently, pasty pale legs were the deal.

Contrary to the instructions in the legend, women DO get tattooed, actually.

The malu is what we call the girl version of our body art, but the protocol surrounding the malu is completely different from that of the malofie. In family and village politics, the taupou title ranks almost as highly as the ali’i, or high chief. While all daughters of ali’i are referred to informally as taupou, a ‘real’ taupou must be officially appointed, her title bestowed upon her in the same kind of ceremony (a ‘saofa’i‘) as for a matai.

Corrections: The malofie is simply a bodily decoration, that’s all.

But it is a piece of art so highly valued in our culture that to be allowed to receive one is a gift.

Deep Samoan tradition, however, maintains that the tatau is purely Samoan, so Tanuvasa believes that the ‘Fiti’ referred to in the song is actually Fitiuta, which is a town on Ta’u, one of the Manu’a islands in what we now know as American Samoa.

I doubt that many would agree with this interpretation, but it makes sense to me because Manu’a is known in our history as the birthplace of Samoa’s first kings, the true origin of our Fa’asamoa. Its meat is apparently so amazingly delicious (says my mom, I’d love to try it! In Tanuvasa’s version of this story, the faisua that distracted the swimming sisters was enchanted. I don’t know) to prevent the twins from reaching their destination and sharing the art of tattoo.

This distinction is important because, according to Tanuvasa, back in the old days, only the highest ranking of taupou ever received a malu.

We’re talking, not just a daughter of a high chief, but the daughter of the highest chief of a district, or the daughter of a king.

I loved sitting in his class, listening to his stories about old Samoa, absorbing his profound wisdom about the Fa’asamoa – but I was probably the least knowledgeable of all his students. I had so many questions, and with great enthusiasm he helped me to understand.