In 2003, history was reborn as one of the Pacific's well known Samoan traditional
tattooist, Su'a Sulu'ape Petelo, undertook the task of marking the first traditional Tongan tattoos in 165 years. In
the house of High Chief Tagaloa, in the island of Hawai'i, Sulu'ape sounded the winds of change that have echoed down to the
As Tongan legend has it, two men brought the art of Tattooing to the island
kingdom and established its place within the culture. With the passing of time, Tongan legend has been relived as Sulu'ape
and Tagaloa bring back the tools, reaffirming the traditional role of tattooing in Tonga. As with the completion of
the Samoan Pe'a, the occasion was marked with a Sama or cultural
blessing and celebration that honors the tattoo and the individuals tattooed.
With the help of Aisea Toetu'u and several other Tongan individuals, Sulu'ape
redeveloped the Tongan tatatau by utilizing his knowledge of traditional Samoan tattooing. His basis was formed
around historic observations of the Tongan Tatatau and the experiential knowledge of Tongans themselves. When compared
to the D'urville (the only known drawing), the traditional Tatatau appears to have come to life. This achievement could
not have been accomplished without the contributions of many individuals, and without the contribution of our brothers
and sisters from Samoa.
|Su'a Sulu'ape Petelo
Su'a Sulu'ape comes from
a well respected tatau family in Upolu. He was bestowed the title of Sulu'ape through his father, and has been a vital
part of keeping the Samoan art of tatau alive. Sulu'ape lives in 'Upolu but frequently travels to Hawai'i, New Zealand,
and California to tattoo.
As Sulu'ape states, the Samoan tatau was never a symbol of identity or about 'being Samoan'.
That notion has come about in recent times as more Samoans have found themselves disconnected from their cultural roots due
to migration, colonization, etc. The tatau has become a way of reconnecting to ones Samoan heritage and instilling
a sense of pride about being Samoan.
Though we may never know the extent of the traditional Tongan tattoo and it's true cultural significance,
much can be learned from the Samoan pe'a and it's place in Samoan society. Sulu'ape remarked that traditionally, the
Pe'a was a rite of passage for young men who became chiefs, heads of the family, and other authoritative roles. The
tattooing represented the individuals devotion to their family or 'aiga, and the new responsibilities they had to bear.
When talking with Aisea and Sulu'ape, they explain that the Tongan tatau is a representation of Tongan
society and the journey of Tongans past, present and future. Aisea likens the tattoo to the Tongan tradition of boat
building, seafaring, and navigation. Tongans were ancient navigators who utilized the ocean and sailing as a means for
their survival. Tongans were master seafarers and, like their Polynesian cousins, understood the tides and
the sea, the clouds, the movement of birds, and the movements of celestial objects. They mapped out the Pacific
long before Westerners knew of the Pacific, and spread their influence beyond Tonga to Samoa, Fiji, Uvea, Tokelau,
Tuvalu, Niue, and even as far as Tahiti.
The tatatau is a mapping of one's course in life and it provides guidance for one's duty to their
culture. The tatatau explains the journey that the individual has accomplished, and must continue to endure as a Tongan.
Tongans today have continued their migration heritage by moving beyond the Pacific to the Americas,
Australia, Europe, and Asia. They take with them their history, traditions, language, and influence and adapt to new
cultures. The tattoo marks that journey for Tongans; it is symbolic of their journey from past to present, their vaka
folau or vessel in modern times. It marks their connection to their ancestors. As Sulu'ape stated on my
first day of being tattooed, "today you journey back to Pulotu to join your ancestors".
As it was historically, the Tongan Tatatau was in many ways similar to the Samoan Pe'a. To the untrained
eye, the two look indistinguishable. But when compared, the designs, placement, significance, and story take on traditionally
different meanings. The pictures shown here compare both tattoos with their similarities and differences. Just
as the Samoan Pe'a has undergone a change from traditional times, the Tongan Tatatau is a combination of the past and present
One major difference between the Tongan and Samoan tatatau are their lengths. The Samoan tattoo
ends below the knee, whereas the Tongan tattoo ends just above the knee. The Vaka on the top portion of both tattoos
are also dramatically different with the Tongan having two thicker notched points, and the Samoan having a set of thin double
lines. Additionally, the Tongan has heavier blackened in areas with less intricate patterns, whereas the Samoan
is very intricate with less heavy black areas.
The particular names of designs and patterns refer to elements of Tongan
society and culture. For instance, Lomipeau, Tonga's Legendary vaka of the Tu'i Tonga's, sits across the back;
the three Tongan dynasties are also represented in the Ngatu 'uli across the thighs; the 'Ulumotu'a
and Fahu - symbolic matriarch and patriarch of Tongan families - is also acknowledged. Other designs include
the Kafa and the 'Otu Kakala, representing Tonga's love with nature. The designs continue until a
whole picture of Tongan society is created and firmly wrapped around the wearer's body, much like our traditional Ta'ovala.
Though the first few tattoo's have been resurrected, it's evolution is inevitable. Within
the first four tattoo's, variations have already begun. Sulu'ape and Aisea state that the Tongan
Tatatau will continue to evolve, much as the Samoan Pe'a has changed from it's early days. As more Tongan's become familiar
with the tattoo and it's knowledge gets passed, new artists will deviate and create their own unique marks and distinct tattoo
family trademarks will soon reemerge. This is already the case in Samoa where tattooing has evolved into a highly sophisticated
signature between various tattoo families. The traditions set forth from here on will contain the elemental style
of the Sulu'ape family heritage since it was their family that passed on the traditional tools and knowledge to Tonga.