City Cast

An Interview on Tatau, the Legacy of Samoan Tattooing

Terina Ria
Terina Ria
Posted on September 12
Tatau: Marks of Polynesia depicts the legacy of tatau, the art of Samoan tattooing. (@utahmuseumoffinearts/Instagram)

Tatau: Marks of Polynesia depicts the legacy of tatau, the art of Samoan tattooing. (@utahmuseumoffinearts/Instagram)

Tattoos are more than skin deep in the Pacific Islands. Although they may go by different names — in Hawaii it’s “kākau,” in New Zealand it’s “tā moko,” and in Samoa it’s “tatau” — the Pasifika tradition of tattooing is deeply rooted in ancestral connections, spirituality, identity, and culture.

On the City Cast Salt Lake podcast, lead producer Emily Means spoke with Verona Mauga, co-founder of the Pacific Islander advocacy organization Le Malu, about this tradition and its revival, as well as her own tatau experience.

What does ‘malu’ mean?

“The word ‘malu’ actually means to shelter and protect. And so that is what the tatau is called that the women wear. It comes from our upper thigh, just right down below our knee, and then to the back of our calves. It's a reminder to us [in] everything that we do there's meaning and purpose behind it. It's something sacred that we wear daily, it's tattooed onto our bodies, but it's also a connection to our ancestors. My great-grandmother had her malu, and my aunties have their malu. I've always admired the women who had the courage to go under the au [tattooing tool].”

What is the story behind your own tatau?

“Three summers ago, my sisters and I went through our own special tatau journey and it's something we grew up always wanting. It meant more than a regular tattoo. It was something that was a reminder of our culture, our heritage, how we serve others, how we serve our family. It was a very special journey that we prepared for and were fortunate enough to experience it with each other. My sisters are actually the other founders of Le Malu, which we created after we received our malu.

“It's all done traditionally. We're not sitting on a massage table or even in a chair, we're laying on a floor on mats, just how you would do it back in the islands. And it's done the traditional way with the au, which is the tool that's used, and so they're hand tapping it. You're surrounded by your family members, people bring pictures of family members who have passed on, and so it's a very inviting space for connection.”

How did you feel while taking part in this tradition?

“It was one of the most spiritual experiences I've ever experienced, to be surrounded by your loved ones and to be laying there on the floor. You're also very vulnerable because it's on a part of your body that you may not always show to others … and you have needles being tapped into your body. But at the same time, you open your eyes and you see that you're surrounded by your loved ones, and when your eyes are closed you feel it.”

Be sure to check out the “Tatau: Marks of Polynesia” exhibit at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. It’s open now through December. Plus, this Saturday is free admission.

Hey Salt Lake

Want to know what's happening in Salt Lake City? Sign up for our free newsletter, Hey Salt Lake. Packed with local news, curated event recs, local life hacks, and more, it's your daily toolkit for getting the most out of the city you love.

3 Questions With

See All

The latest in Salt Lake