Lesson Plan

Samoan Art in the Tatau (Tattoo)

Grade Level:
Upper Elementary: Third Grade through Fifth Grade
Literacy and Language Arts,Social Studies
Lesson Duration:
60 Minutes
State Standards:
Standard 1: Students reconstruct, interpret, and critique the causes and consequences of past events in the context of institutions, values, and beliefs of the periods in which they took place. (ASDOE Elementary Science Standards: Grade 4-8, pp. 50- 63)
Thinking Skills:
Remembering: Recalling or recognizing information ideas, and principles. Understanding: Understand the main idea of material heard, viewed, or read. Interpret or summarize the ideas in own words. Applying: Apply an abstract idea in a concrete situation to solve a problem or relate it to a prior experience.

Essential Question

What is the significance of the tatau to the Samoan people?


Students will be able to:

1. Identify tatau and its significance.

2. Understand the different types of Samoan motifs


In the Samoan tradition of applying tattoo, or tatau, by hand,has long been defined by rank and title, with chiefs and their assistants, descending from notable families in the proper birth order. The tattooing ceremonies for young chiefs, typically conducted at the onset of puberty, were elaborate affairs and were a key part of their ascendance to a leadership role.The permanent marks left by the tattoo artists would for ever celebrate their endurance and dedication to cultural traditions. The first Europeans to set foot on Samoan soil were members of a 1787 French expedition. They got a closer look at the native sand reported that “the men have their thighs painted or tattooed in such a way that one would think them clothed,although they are almost naked.”


The origin of the Samoan tatau is believed to have been introduced to the Samoa islands by two Fiji women, who came ashore with the tools and knowledge of tattooing. The tale proclaimed that the two sisters sang a song, which chanted that women are only to be tattooed, but as they neared the beach shores, the song mistakenly became reversed, indicating that only the men will be tattooed. At first no one was interested in their art and skills. It was difficult to convince anyone to give them a chance. But finally one of the Samoan chiefs decided to give these women the opportunity by offering himself to the whole ordeal of getting a tatau. Soon the art of tatau became a family tradition that spread throughout the culture.


The artwork and designs go beyond being skin deep—there is history and deep meanings behind them. The tattoo and designs of the Samoa islands represents community, power, status, respect, honor, and is a mark of pride that are only to be worn by Samoans. For those who have no cultural influence or heritage background it is an act of disrespect to display their symbols and designs.


The Samoan word for tattoo came from the Polynesian language. The word tatau originates from the tapping sounds of the tool made during tattooing. This primitive tattoo tool was made of bone or boar husk sharpen into a comb style shape with serrated teeth like needles. It was then attached to a small piece of sea turtle shell that was connected to a wooden handle. Several of these tools are made with different comb sizes for use for small or thick lines.


The ink or pigment used in the tatau rituals is made from the candle nut or lama nut. These nuts were placed on a hot fire to smolder and a coconut shell was placed on top collecting the soot that came from the nuts. Once there is enough, the soot is mixed with sugar water.

The Samoan tattoo artist is known as the Tafuga. He is responsible for the execution of the design and the tattooing sessions. Traditionally, only descendants of a Tafuga can continue on with the practice of tattooing. The father passes his skills and knowledge on ensuring that the tatau ritual continued.


Samoan males with a pe'a design are called soga'imiti and are respected for their courage. Untattooed Samoan males are colloquially referred to as telefua or telenoa, literally "naked." Those who begin the tattooing ordeal, but do not complete it due to the pain, or more rarely the inability to adequately to pay the tattooist, are called pe'a mutu—a mark of shame. The traditional female tattoo in Samoa is the malu. In Samoan society, the pe'a and the malu are viewed with cultural pride and identity as well as a hallmark of manhood and womanhood.

Pe'a is the traditional tattoo design for men that spans from the waist to the knee. The design is very intricate with a series of lines, curves, geometric shapes and patterns. Each section denotes a special meaning to the person’s character, his family, and culture.

Getting a pe'a is an intense and painful experience compared to tattoos made by modern tools—the tattoo machine. Not only are these tattoos very large, but they can extend to very sensitive parts of the body. The men in the Samoa islands got their first tattoo during the beginning of puberty. It takes weeks or even months to complete a pe'a tattoo because there are many stages of tattooing. Only a section at a time is tattooed during these sessions. Tattoo apprentices and helpers assist the Tafuga by stretching and wiping away the blood. The Samoan women sit and sing songs to occupy and deter the pain of the person being tattoed.


The women of Samoa also get tattoos. The malu is a simpler and delicate design then that of the pe'a. These tattoos are rarely seen because the design spans from the upper thighs to below the knees. During Samoan ceremonial dances the women would display their malu during the traditional siva dance.


1. Crayons and/or markers
2. Body outline

Handouts & Worksheets
Samoan Designs


Introduce Inquiry Questions?

What is the significance of the tatau to the Samoan people?



Ask: Does a member of your family have a tattoo? Explain to students that Samoan males with the pe’a tattoo are called soga’imiti and are respected for their courage. It’s applied from the waist line, working down to knees. The traditional female tattoo is the malu and means to be protected and sheltered. It’s applied from the knees up to the top of the thighs. Both male and female tattoos show that you are ready for life, for adulthood, and to be of service to their community.  


Ask: What do Samoan tattoo designs mean?  Explain that Samoan tattoo designs represent manufactured articles and images from the natural environment. Teachers will pass out handout of different designs.

Activity 1
Divide students into groups of five. Distribute materials to the students. Each group will draw Samoan designs on the body outline to create their own pe’a or malu. The teacher will walk around the classroom and assist students with their progress.When all are finished, each group will have 4-5 minutes to present their artwork.
Conclusion with Inquiry Question
What is the significance of the tatau to the Samoan people?
Stewardship Message
Share to your family and friends the important of the Samoan tatau.

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Last updated: March 8, 2019