Do Men Control the Malu?

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Model – Stacie Ah Chong-Levi.
Photographer – Penina Momoisea

Receiving a malu can be a deeply personal and empowering thing and I have great admiration for all those women who have undergone this ritual ceremony and bear their malu with pride. I don’t have a malu. I am not an expert in Samoan cultural practises or the historical background of them – so this blog speaks from the position of an (ignorant) outsider observer.

In our Samoan culture,  the art of traditional tattooing is a male domain with no female ‘tufuga’ /tattooists.  When a woman gets a malu, she literally subjects herself – her will, her body – to a team of men who are the supposed ‘experts’ and chosen ones who carry the lineage and knowledge – and they hold her still and write on her body. The tattooist is assisted by at least two men who spread the skin, holding it taut for the detailing work to be done. Detailing which runs from the thighs to the knees, so that you the woman, must agree to have a trio of males (usually strangers to you) placing their hands all over your legs and thighs. You cannot tell the tufuga (tattooist) what symbols to use, you don’t even know what he’s going to tattoo you with until he’s done. You can of course discuss it with him, and there are basic designs that make up the malu which he will use – but the final decision is left to him for how your malu is executed.

Why is it that a ritual/ceremony/process that for many is essentially linked to “being a tamaitai Samoa” – is entirely controlled, mastered and carried out by men? The symbolism in the process disturbs me and is a key reason why I have not yet gotten a malu.  Is it a feminist issue with me that I don’t like how its men who have the knowledge and authority over this intrinsically female part of our measina? Or is it a body control, personal space issue with me that I don’t want men who I don’t know or personally trust, touching my body in such intimate ways over a protracted and painful period of time?  I’m not the only one who finds the process problematic. One woman I know, even made the somewhat extreme comment, that observing a malu being done should come with a rape-trigger warning – because for her, even though a woman wanted that tattoo, there were too many connotations about having a young woman lying on the ground, in tears, gritting her teeth against the pain, while three or four men clustered around her administering the source of that pain.

Whatever the reasons may be for my unease, the fact is that I am uneasy.  No matter how professional, talented, skilled, friendly the tattooist may be, I would still prefer to have a female tufuga with an all-female team of assistants. Has it always been this way I wonder? Has there ever been a time in our long-ago history, where getting a malu was a woman-centered thing from its beginning to end?

Which is why I was excited to find out that there IS one female tattooist who has been trained by the legendary Suluape family and can tattoo the malu for women. Her name is Su’a Sulu’ape Angela and she has a tattoo company in San Diego, California. (So if you’ve ever thought about getting a malu but you too would prefer to have a woman do it – then check out Angela’s page on Facebook.)

My discomfort with the ‘traditionally applied’ malu is what inspired the malu scene in my Telesa Series. (This is why, it’s kinda cool to be a fiction writer…so one can re-mythologize the things about one’s cultural legacy that one does not particularly feel good about.)  In the first book TELESA, I reclaim the female tattoo malu as an empowering thing that is done by women and for women. Not only that, it’s done in sisterhood, as a way to strengthen ties between sisters, mothers and daughters and to deepen ones understanding and knowledge of her matrilineal heritage.

It’s complete fantasy – but it’s the way I wish the malu could be.

‘While the tattooist does her work, women sit there beside the recipient. They sing songs of her ancestors. They tell stories of the women who walked before her – the lives they led, the battle they fought, the children they bore, the men they loved. They trace her lineage back to Nafanua the war goddess. Back to Tangaloa-langi, goddess of the earth….they will her the strength to endure.

My mother was with me as my sisters held me down, pulled my skin taut and cut me. I heard her voice sing to me through a haze of endless pain. And tell me stories of ancient telesa. At night when the moon called to a silken sea, she helped carry me to the ocean so I could bathe the open wounds in salt water. And she cut fresh banana leaf fronds for me to lie on, their coolness soothing the cuts that burned with chilli pepper and lemon leaf. When the malu was complete, my mother fed me with vaisalo and succulent baked crab. Salty limu seaweed and raw fish in coconut cream. Slices of papaya soaked in lemon. Food for healing. Food for strengthening.

By day five, my malu was just a dull ache. And my sisters planned the celebratory feast for the displaying of my tattoo. My mother helped me dress. In a brief piece of unpatterned siapo cloth, soft and gentle against the healing skin. A shift that ended where the malu began, at the thigh, so as to better display its beauty. They rubbed my skin with mosooi coconut oil and put a red hibiscus in my hair. The celebration was outdoors. Feather-edged mats spread out underneath the trees, awaiting the first time I would expose my malu to the sun….the sun was a glorious blaze of gold and the gardenia was in full bloom. I sat there and looked at these women, my sisters – and my malu spoke to theirs, adding to the story of our ancestry.’

What are your thoughts on the malu and what’s required to get one? Anyone else out there wishing there were female tattooists trained in the traditional method for doing them?

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26 comments

  1. Interesting thoughts Lani. I would not have a tattoo done, because despite it representing my cultural background I am an international child of the universe and in cultures I have lived and worked in a tattoo is seen as a representation of criminal association, and I am sorry to say, many times over I see this in the media today and I think along those lines as well, this is not speaking of Malu, but of tattoos in general. I am a product of my generation in thinking this way. Plus when it comes down to it, I could not handle the pain, and don’t really think they are beautiful at all. I have not yet seen a tattoo I “like” but if I were to get one, it would be in a private place, just for me. What do you think of Rhianna and how she covered her Malu hand tattoo, I thought that was a bit rude really? Traditionally my tattoo would be on the face and lips (Maori) and I just don’t think the world is ready for that yet, it is too confronting for the world, and for me.

    1. Appreciate your thoughts on this Time Traveller. I agree there’s often an assumption of criminal association with tattoos – and some of them can be rather scary/hostile to look at. I’ve never had any tattoos and to be honest, Im not sure how I would handle the pain factor! I don’t have a problem with people getting ‘cultural’ tattoos if they don’t belong to that cultural heritage. There’s been a lot of debate on that recently with Rihanna’s hand patterning, and even with Samoans who don’t like it when non-Samoans get a malu or a pe’a. To me, they are ‘just patterns’ on ones body after all – and it is the individual (and those who view them) that invest them with meaning and value. Take the malu as an eg. Many people get upset when ‘just any woman can get a malu and she doesn’t even know or understand her culture…’ Whereas I don’t think anyone has the right to determine how much someone values or understands their culture…or whether someone is Samoan enough to get a malu. To each their own? Rihanna got herself a Maori (or Samoan…depending on who youre talking to, lol) hand tattoo – and then she covered it up with something else a few weeks later. Obviously she wasn’t that attached to the first tattoo and clearly didn’t get it because of its cultural significance. So we shouldn’t be surprised or upset that she replaced it. Although I do think the woman is going to run out of skin space soon….

  2. I was just having a discussion about this with Dad, as I assumed that every family or village had their own tattooist to carry out this duty.
    He mentioned something that made me more aware of what to look out for.
    “If the person that does the malu does it the old way, with the old design from before, then its mamalu, but if they do their own design to make it look different from the old days, then its not mamalu”.
    So if I had to get one, I’ll make sure that my Dad is with me as I would feel safer with him lol.

    1. Many of the women I know who have gotten the malu have always had their fathers/brothers/uncles etc with them – and some of the women in their families as well. Very much a family occasion, which is beautiful. Many women have also commented that they wanted to have their husbands etc there, for added reassurance…safety…comfort? But, the feminist in me, wishes that a woman didn’t feel the NEED to have familiar men there with her in the first place, lol.

  3. From what I know, the Samoan tatau was originally for women but somehow through Samoan history a tatau was also made for men. So it stands to good reason that Lani’s thoughts on females having female tufuga makes sense. I had mine done in 2001 by Su’a Mika of Samatau, Upolu. Thanks for the info on Su’a Suluape Angela…my daughter will likely one day have her malu, so I should probably start saving for a trip to San Diego.

    1. Thanks for your input – James Fitisemanu also adds more detail about the first tatau goddesses, Taema and Tilafaiga, which is fascinating. Because as you both point out, tatau WAS a woman-centred thing in our mythology and history. Im happy that Suluape Angela is giving women options and Im hopeful we see more female tufuga.

  4. Hi Lani, your interesting insight does have a historical precedent in that all of the tufuga operating today do so under the patronage of two women, the tatau goddesses and Siamese-twins, Taemā and Tilafaigā. According to our own mythology and history, these women were the first to tā tatau and to be tatau-ed, and the art and ritual of tatau was only later monopolized by men, via a process and series of events that has been conspicuously shrouded (probably by men, or Christians, or both, LOL)

    1. funny but true…”probably men, or Christians, or both, LOL”…that would then probably mean “shrouding Christian men”…hehehe…HISTORY controls the Malu…while it may appear that men control the malu today, positive dialogue like this blog makes TODAY’S history, which is shaping TOMORROW’S history…so as the dialogue continues shaping tomorrow, we’re bound to see a future of many of our best Samoan women seeking out only tufuga tatau tama’ita’i for their laei…COOL 😉

      1. A palagi woman, comes along and becomes interested in the samoan tatau, all of sudden changes the Samoan woman’s approach on a malu? Pathetic if you asked me…!

      2. PATHETIC is when a person signs their name Anonymous [Dec.3]…why are you hiding…if you have no courage to put your name on what you have to say, then you should just keep your thoughts to yourself…leave the talking to the Toa.

    2. This reminded me of a conversation I had with my mentor Prof. Linda Tuhiwai Smith, who chided me for “failing to identify the gender balance” in my research on ‘ava ceremonies. She, and other Pacific scholars, reminded me that there is male, female, and indeterminate/neutral gender in every aspect of our Oceanic worldview, but that thanks to Christianity, colonization, and other factors, the patriarchal, male-centered worldview has permeated us.

      Isn’t it peculiar indeed that the deities of tatau are women, and that even though all Samoan tufuga tā tatau are men, they operate under the genealogical lineage and spiritual patronage of Taemā and Tilafaigā – women, Siamese-twin sisters, goddesses. Similarly, our goddess of war, Nāfanua, is female yet the “art of war” is dominated by accounts of men.

      Another mentor of mine is tufuga Su’a Wilson Fitiao and he mentioned to me that it’s likely that in the era of Taemā and Tilafaigā that the lineage of female tattooists probably spanned several generations but gradually entered male hands as their daughters and granddaughters married into powerful families and brought the tatau into these marriage-alliances in the same way that chiefly women brought dowries in other forms like ‘ie toga. He says there are two dominant tatau families/guilds today, the Sā Su’a and Sā Tulou’ena, both of which claim direct descent from the goddesses, but there were others that have died off, including Sā Li’o in the 1990s, and were probably others throughout history, maybe even including all-female guilds. Also speculated that maybe one of the female descendants of the goddesses only had sons and thus passed it on to a male rather than a daughter or niece. In any case, the tatau became a man’s world with only nominal recognition of the female essence and origination. According to Su’a Fitiao this was the main justification for Su’a Sulu’ape Petelo training Su’a Angela, and for letting other women participate in stretching, etc.
      Jacob Fitisemanu

  5. I find your discussion very interesting, Lani. And I completely understand the uncomfortable connotations that arises from being a woman in the vulnerable position of receiving a malu – completely in the hands of a few “strange” men who subject you to a world of pain.

    Moreover, I share your discomfort, or uneasiness, in being touched by strangers. However, the way I see it, the process of receiving a tatau is like being healed by a doctor, only its spiritual and more personal than being treated at the hospital (almost like going to therapy or confiding to your minister). Just as I don’t think of my doctor as a man or a woman (but rather as someone who is there to heal me), I think of the tufuga ta tatau as a true professional with no other intention than to administer this long and proud cultural ritual on yet another body. I just don’t think there’s anything remotely sexual in the practice of getting a tatau.

    That being said, I know it might not the same for women as it is for men, and I definitely agree that it is important that there are both female and male tufugas (for many reasons).

    One last thought, I do find it somewhat strange (almost disturbing) when a palagi wears a malu or pe’a but doesn’t seem that interested in learning about the history of the tatau in Samoa, the fa’a Samoa, or being able to speak Samoan for that matter. I just think the malu and pe’a are more than just decorations on your body merely to show off at the beach. The patterns can be applied in all sorts of ways and wherever on your body, so in my opinion, I think it’s more appropriate to get a taulima, tauvae, a sleeve (or something else besides the malu or pe’a) for a palagi who just thinks the patterns look “cool.” But that’s just my opinion, and to each their own.

    1. I appreciate your insight, especially the description of receiving the malu as being like a healing, in a spiritual and personal way. I hadn’t ever thought of it that way and I like that approach to it. Thank you.

  6. I personally think your questions at the end of your observation as an “outsider” should be the ONLY topic at hand. I find all your other observations pertaining to the male tattooists and his ‘au solo as biased. Your observations are extremely sexist. For one to consider any thought of sexual discomfort throughout the tatau process is senselessly blind to the samoan culture and deranged to it’s sacred traditional ceremonies.

    You stated that ” a malu being done should come with a rape-trigger warning “. The only thing that comes to mind of why you would feel that way is if you’ve had a past experience of being molested or raped ruling that you may have been sexually traumatized.

    So let’s answer some of your questions instead of going further with your ignorant observations…lol

    “What are your thoughts on the malu and what’s required to get one?”
    If you are a person who is ready to help, provide, support, give at all costs even sacrificing your own for the heart of the church, family, and community then my answer is YES! You are ready for a malu.

    “Anyone else out there wishing there were female tattooists trained in the traditional method for doing them?”
    This is not a wishful thinking type of ordeal. He who is blessed with the talent to carryout our sacred traditions whether it be man, woman, fafafige, can only be the chosen one.

    Which leads to your topic, “Do men control the malu?”
    The answer to that is, yes and no. Yes, the man has been more gifted than the woman to be chosen as a tufuga in which he controls the tattooing of the woman. Is it by force? Absolutely not! The woman decides for herself. She controls the masterpiece of artwork onto her body if she’s ready to accept the challenge.

    As simple as that…..!

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this – especially as you speak from a place of experience and knowledge on the cultural practise of tatau – and I am, as stated, just an observer who has no tattoos of any kind. My opinion was offered as a Samoan woman who has no malu and is just that, only an opinion. I appreciate all contributions to the discussion and I know I can learn from everyone’s viewpoint. I do disagree however, with your last comment, ‘the man has been more gifted than the woman to be chosen as the tufuga in which he controls the tattooing of the woman.” The history and mythology of the tatau and the malu would suggest that it was women who were the bearers of this knowledge. I quote from one commenter: “there is male, female, and indeterminate/neutral gender in every aspect of our Oceanic worldview, but that thanks to Christianity, colonization, and other factors, the patriarchal, male-centered worldview has permeated us. Isn’t it peculiar indeed that the deities of tatau are women, and that even though all Samoan tufuga tā tatau are men, they operate under the genealogical lineage and spiritual patronage of Taemā and Tilafaigā – women, Siamese-twin sisters, goddesses. Similarly, our goddess of war, Nāfanua, is female yet the “art of war” is dominated by accounts of men.” Some food for thought?

      1. How can you disagree with a fact? My thoughts were based on the current status of the # of male tattooists vs female tattooists. We know what history says and what it is and how it was changed then leading to where we are now. I think you’re asking the wrong questions for answers you do not want to hear! You might want to re-think your topic and position and rephrase your questions!!!

  7. As a Samoan woman with a malu, I find your article rude, disgusting and completely disrespectful to our Samoan culture and traditions. For you to have the audacity to cheapen the beautiful process by likening it to rape and your own sexist ideals, truly shows your ignorance.

    Did you really recommend a palagi who has never had the honor of giving one a malu or pe’a? Please feel free to be her first victim.

    The only thing in your article that held a semblance of truth is when you called yourself an ignorant outsider.

    Sincerely,
    A former fan

    1. Thank you for adding your voice to the discussion. I regret that my having an opinion that differs from yours makes you a “former fan.”
      Regarding Sulu’ape Angela – I was very clear that I have no malu, so of course, I can’t be “recommending” any tufuga anywhere for anyone’s malu. However, I was excited to find there is a female tufuga who can do the malu and wanted to share that information as a possible resource for other women who might be holding back from getting a malu because they didn’t want it done by a male tufuga. No, it doesnt bother me that she’s palagi. I contacted her and I was impressed with the information she shared about her journey to become a tufuga. There are many photographs on her website that show her in action, tattooing several different women with the malu. Anyone considering undergoing such a process should of course do their research and establish for themselves WHO they want tattooing their body.
      For me, it’s about CHOICE. Wanting female tufuga doesnt mean I am denigrating male tufuga. I ask why there isn’t male/female choice when it comes to a tufuga to do one’s malu and I have explained why I wish there were more choices available.

  8. Unfortunately the tufuga you recommend, without having seen her work for yourself, is not by any means at the level where she should be placing a malu on another female. The other woman you mentioned felt raped by the men who placed the malu on her, was not mentally prepared for it, therefore should not have undergone the tatau. It’s not for everyone. If you felt humiliated before, during, or after…you did not do your homework, you did not speak up for yourself, you did not physically and/or mentally prepare yourself. You should know what it entails. If you did, then how did you choose to undergo something that would made you feel raped? This is an insult to people who have been traumatized my rapist and molesters. How sad to liken such a thing to rape! You should choose wisely the quotes you decide to share because you obviously (to the perception of the public) chose a position on this topic. You obviously recommended a tufuga without knowledge of her work first-hand. Once you get your malu then you should speak to us from having undergone such a mentally and physically challenging event.

  9. I support lani! yall are such haters tho! she was just stating her own opinions, there’s nothing wrong about it! but yeah, is it wrong to have a female do your malu!? gosh, and yall are only making this look bad by adding on yall opinions! smh! dont get it twisted….poor lady, answering all yall comments with such patience, when yall are the ones who need it. Like dayum, the woman was just saying-and it really is one’s choice whether WHO they want to do their malu. Like if that lady was even trained under the Su’a family as a female tufuga, then hell yeah, even they saw no wrong in that..like think about it, they trained her for a reason, if they thought otherwise, then she wouldve been rejected by that family of artists…..

    1. disse:Chamem a polícia! Isso é para pôr todos os responsáveis na cadeia. Alguém ainda duvida?Néa, um abração pra ti e Soeiro, e feliz Dia dos Namorados aos dois.

  10. Hi Lani, Love your “Outside the box” thinking. Encroaching on the subjects that clearly push some buttons. I enjoy that it is thought provoking. You made your observations quite clear and I can see your heart to voice for women in the Samoan community or world for that matter, in this case our cultural practises.
    From the Siamese twins to the war heroine Nafanua. Lovely mythology and at the end prophecy came to pass when Nafanua single handedly chose the pillars that would govern Samoa. Aiono, Misa, Vaili and Tanuvasa. Were they men I wonder? Most studies found they were and the last pillar Nafanua said would be from heaven(Jesus?). Not forgetting Malietoa Fitisemanu & Su’a. Girl they sound like men LOL
    I believe women are highly regarded in Samoan Culture & History. Just maybe Su’a Angela has been the only one female so far to break into the current norms? Or breaking back into?
    I can see where the other people that have commented are coming from.
    There is a lot of taboo and secrecy on this tender subject. I do respect & love the insight on it.
    The Su’a Family have always been kind and careful, when they handle a woman it is with tenderness and treated as there own sister/daughter.
    But one thing kicks me, if the palagi keeps asking (as they do) about our sacred markings what do we say? Check out Youtube Traditional tattooing by Sunrise, the woman in her laei stood quietly with the Soga’imiti who answered….. please watch it, we need better answers LOL

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