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Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni to get traditional Samoan tattoo

Grace Fiavaai

Deputy PM to get traditional Samoan tattoo - the malu

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni is about to undergo one of Samoa’s oldest traditions and a rite of passage for many Pasifika women - a traditional tattoo.

She recently shared online that she has been working towards getting the traditional tatau for some time.

The tatau Sepuloni will get is called the malu and is reserved only for women. The intricate designs and patterns will run the length of her thighs and end just under the knee.

Although the designs are very similar, they are still unique to the wearer - depending on a person’s family history, where they come from or the tufuga’s (tattooist) own interpretation of what the wearer should get on the day.

“After many years of knowing I would one day take the step to do my malu...I met with the tufuga Liaifaiva Levi, to talk through the process and lock down the date,” Sepuloni said.

“The 4th July will be the special day.”

The Deputy PM has links to both Tonga and Samoa through her father Fa’atali’i Kamisi Sepuloni’s side.

They hail from the Samoan village of Vailele, on the island of Upolu.

Deputy PM Carmel Sepuloni has always been staunchly proud of her Samoan and Tongan roots. She is pictured here with Governor-General Dame Cindy Kiro and Prime Minister Chris Hipkins. Photo / NZME

Sepuloni is not the only MP to carry the traditional tatau in recent years.

She joins fellow Pasefika MP and former Minister for Pacific Peoples, Aupito William Sio, who has the traditional Samoan tatau reserved only for men - the pe’a.

The pe’a has distinctively different designs and runs from the waist and legs down to the knee.

Some well-known Samoans who carry the malu include Silver Ferns player Sulu Fitzpatrick and former Wallaroos rugby player Liz Patu.

Sulu Fitzpatrick, of the Silver Ferns, shows off her traditional Samoan tatau - the malu - during a game. Photo / Photosport

Former boxing champ To’aletai David Tua got his pe’a done in 2019. Another well-known Samoan with the pe’a is Tanoa’i Reed - the stuntman for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

The tatau is a long-standing tradition in Samoa and means “to mark”.

Tatau - a painful, emotional experience

It is not for the faint-hearted; with the tatau tools used traditionally made from bone or pig’s tusks.

It is often a painful experience and draws blood while under the ‘au (tattoo instrument) and some malu can take several hours to a week to complete.

A young Aupito William Sio sporting his pe'a in 2003. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Originally, the malu was reserved for the daughter of a matai, or high chief.

However, over time, the tradition has evolved to include women from all walks of life and statuses.

The definition of the word malu means to be sheltered and protected; and in Samoa, women are considered to be the foundation of the aiga (family).

The tatau on both men and women demonstrates their readiness for life, adulthood and community service.

The pain experienced during the malu process is seen as a feeling that emphasises the importance of the power and bravery of the Samoan women who receive it.

Hero image: Deputy Prime Minster Carmel Sepuloni is preparing to get a traditional Samoan tatau next week. Photo / Michael Craig

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