The Traveling Tufuga Ta Tatau: Samoan Tattooing Around the World
For Su’a Uilisone Fitiao, sharing laei o Samoa (sacred tattoo gown of Samoa) with others is one of the most important parts of his line of work. As one of the founding members of Folauga o le Tatau Malaga Aganu’u Fa’asamoa (Fa’asamoa Arts), he has dedicated his life to the indigenous, traditional arts of American Samoa, with tatau at the forefront of his efforts.
While Su’a is a prolific siapo-maker and woodcarver, his work that has garnered the most recognition
worldwide is his role as a tufuga ta tatau— a Samoan tattoo master.
Su’a Uilisone trained for 7 years with tattoo masters in Samoa in order to become a tufuga ta tatau, and he has spent decades tattooing Samoans and non-Samoans around the world. Through his work, he is able to share a vital part of Samoan culture with people of all backgrounds.
Sharing Tatau Beyond Samoa
“When I was an apprentice, one of my tattoo masters told me ‘if this is the only thing we can share with the world, we might as well share it, and do it right!’” Su'a Uilisone says as he looks back on his time with his teachers.
These words of wisdom have motivated Su’a throughout his career. His tattooing has not been exclusive to Samoans, or even to Pacific Islanders. Rather, he has opened up his practice to people of all backgrounds, as long as they show respect for Samoan culture and the artform.
“I love to travel and experience other cultures. I like to bring my Samoan culture to other countries,” Su’a says when asked about his travels.
When tattooing non-Samoans, he is often asked if it is okay for a tufuga to give a tattoo to someone who is not Samoan (a palagi). For Su’a Uilisone, this is not an issue—he believes that tatau is something that Samoans can share with the entire world, regardless of skin color or culture.
Bringing the World to Samoa
This month, a couple is traveling to American Samoa all the way from Finland. The reason for their trip? To receive a tattoo from a tufuga ta tatau.
The arrival of our new friends from Finland is just another example of the global impact of tatau. They have followed Su’a’s work online for years, and have been saving up the money to travel to the other side of the globe to see him in person.
“They are coming here because this is where the word “tattoo” comes from, the home of tatau,” Su’a Uilisone says. “The Europeans saw the tattoos in the Pacific when they were here collecting breadfruit to grow in the Caribbean.”
Since European sailors first saw tattoos in Tahiti and Samoa several hundred years ago, tattoos have boomed in popularity around the world. As a result, Su’a Uilisone sometimes meets people who are willing to travel to the islands of American Samoa to be tattooed in order to experience this artform in its place of origin.
Setting Up Shop Stateside
In his time as a tufuga ta tatau, Su’a Uilisone has tattooed in many locations, including:
The United States
Each location has provided new experiences for the artist. From the vastness of large countries like the United States and Australia to the isolation of unpopulated islands like Rose Atoll, every place has offered up something different to inspire the tufuga.
Because of the amount of work he was experiencing in the United States, in 2022 Su’a took a big leap—he began to work in a special space set up at This Is The Place Tattoo in Salt Lake City, Utah.
According to research from the University of Utah, the state has the fourth largest Samoan population in the United States and is a hub for the Tongan-American population.
With the number of Pacific-Islanders in Utah, tattooing in Salt Lake City and serving the wider diaspora of our Samoan community in Utah and elsewhere is important to Su’a Uilisone. He offers traditional and contemporary designs, and a place for Samoan Americans to receive tattoos from a tufuga ta tatau using traditional methods.
Staying On the Move in 2022 and 2023
In the past six months, Su’a Uilisone has spent a great deal of time tattooing, both with the tradition ‘au for the tapping method and a tattoo gun, in Hawaii and Utah. Su’a left American Samoa in December 2022. After his departure, he flew to the Big Island to tattoo for a week, completing 4 large pieces in that time.
After leaving the Big Island, he remained in the state of Hawaii for a while longer, completing two leg pieces and many sleeves.
From there, the tufuga ta tatau traveled to Utah to work at his studio and establish his client base in the area.
On his way home, he worked in collaboration with his Hawaiian family to create new tools and new needles to bring home to use in his work.
As Su’a jets around the globe, he is always aware of his role as a symbol of Samoan culture and the arts, and a steward of these traditional practices.
Want to Learn More?
The tufuga has returned to American Samoa to tattoo from February 7 to March 9, 2023, but there are many ways you can get in touch with him. Follow Su’a Uilisone on Instagram @folauga_ole_au for regular updates on his location and tattoo projects. If you are interested in being tattooed, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you are interested in the work Su’a Uilisone does to support the indigenous artforms of American Samoa, check in twice a month for blog posts at www.faasamoaarts.com or follow us on Instagram @faasamoaarts. Our team is always available to answer questions and share our knowledge about Samoan arts with our followers!