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Arts & Crafts

Tatau - The art of tattooing

The art of tatau (tattooing) has been in Samoa for hundreds of years.  What separates the tatau from western tattoos is the cultural identity and familial responsibility inextricably woven into the bearer of the tattoo before he or she undergoes the tattooing ceremony.  There is also a significant amount of cultural pride associated with the process of receiving a tattoo.

Traditional Samoan tattooing is not a light or casual ordeal. The process is seen as a family affair and oftentimes, many relatives and friends fly in from overseas to see their loved ones complete the ceremony.

For men, the tattoo is referred to as the pe’a or the soigaimiti. This is tattooed from the waist to the knees and the tattooist usually finishes on the belly button. For women, the tattoo is called the malu. The tattoo is comprised of lines and traditional motifs; it is lighter in colour and less dense than the male’s tattoo. In Samoan society, the pe'a and the malu are viewed as a hallmark of manhood and womanhood.

While technological advancements have improved Samoa, tattooists have remained loyal to the original tools of the trade. The tattooist’s arsenal is usually comprised of serrated bone combs (au) which is latched to fragments of a tortoise shell connected to a wooden handle. This in turn is accompanied by a tapping mallet (sausau) for driving combs into the skin and lama - the tattooing ink - which is made from burnt candlenut soot.

Elei, Lavalava, Sei

The word elei refers to the patterns and motifs seen in Samoan clothing.  In old times, Samoans would imprint these designs onto a cloth like material made from tree bark, called siapo (fibrous tapestry).  However, the introduction of western clothing and cotton material through the missionaries and traders represented a shift in the art of elei printing.  Instead of fibrous tapestries, Samoans began to print elei designs on imported fabrics and use sewing machines to create clothing. 

Although the art of siapo is still practiced in the villages, locals who use the word elei most often refer to the screen printing of Samoan designs on everyday items such as clothing, bedding, curtains and more.  A variety of elei items can be found at the arts and handicraft market in town and gift shops such as Eveni, Pacific Jewell, Janets and Plantation House.  While Samoan clothing has evolved over the years, the most common elei patterns can be seen on elei shirts for men and puletasi for women.

The Lavalava (sarong) is one of the most popular items of clothing that you will find in any Samoan household. Whether walking through the town centre or exploring rural villages, the lavalava is an everyday travel essential; it is also one of the most useful souvenirs visitors can buy during their stay in Samoa. The lavalava comes in many shapes and sizes and it is usually comprised of two-tone prints or many different colours. The designs vary from place to place and you can buy them from vendors at the flea market or the streets in Apia.

In Samoa, women often wear flowers in their ear or pinned to their hair. This form of adornment is called “sei” and a floral crown is called “pale”. There are a variety of seasonal flowers in bloom all year round and you will often find Samoan women wearing understated pieces to work and more lavish floral arrangements to special events. Samoans will also give floral necklaces or garlands to welcome visitors from a voyage or bestow them on guests as a token of appreciation. For visitors who are looking for a less perishable option, Loralei has a beautiful selection of artificial sei and pales to serve as a souvenir for your time in Samoa.

Woodwork and carving

Samoa has a rich heritage of artistry. You can see some of these cultural designs in the woodwork crafted by expert sculptors and builders. The methods of carving and ancient motifs have passed down through generations. The techniques involved in woodwork and carpentry are preserved by oratory stories and traditions. Artists will etch tales of myth and legend as well as ancestral voyages into the grain of the wood. Carpenters on the other hand, incorporate age old techniques into their craft, thus preserving woodwork in their family heritage.

Those who wish to see and experience woodwork in action can inquire about the arts and culture tours available on island. The Samoan museum provides a historical overview of the preservation of fine arts in Samoa, while Leulumoega Fou School of Fine Arts, Poutasi Arts Centre and a few other smaller galleries offer tours that allow visitors to view modern and traditional woodwork made by the next generation of Samoan artists.