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My unexpected tattoo journey: How a trip to the motherland changed my life forever

Grace Fiavaai

When a cousin pulled out, the tattooist needed someone to step in

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni now proudly wears a traditional Samoan tattoo for women, known as the malu. Te Rito journalism cadet Grace Fiavaai shares her personal journey of getting a malu.

I had just completed sixth form (year 12), in 2008, when my family and I went on holiday to Samoa.

We were travelling to the village of Faleasi’u, where the renowned tufuga ta tatau (master tattooist), Su’a Suluape, lived.

On the way there, I was amazed by the lush trees and children playing outside and how life was so simple in the village.

I put my ie lavalava (sarong) on in anticipation of watching my cousins receive the malu - a traditional tatau reserved only for women. At the time, however, I thought: ‘Man, I cannot wait to get my malu done’.

The malu is a traditional tattoo that runs from the top of the thigh to just under the knee. It was historically only given to the daughter of a high chief; but nowadays, more women are getting it done.

When I was a little girl, it had been planned that I would get my malu when I turned 21, as a coming-of-age ceremony.

On the day of the tattooing, I secretly wished that somehow I would be granted permission to get my malu done also. As they say, expect the unexpected.

One of my cousins due to get tattooed decided to pull out at the last minute - and Su’a needed someone to step in.

Grace Fiavaai and her brothers Shalom and Evangelos Tinetali all carry the ancient marks of the traditional Samoan tatau. Photo / Supplied

That someone was me, of course, and so as the story goes - my family dubbed me the “oso fa’alava” - the jump-in girl.

“Grace, now is your time,” they said.

Everyone was excited as they looked at me with confidence. I was nervous, but I knew in my heart that I was more prepared than ever.

Inside the fale, I felt the presence of my ancestral spirits. Everything was tapu and there were certain rules we had to follow. Inside, we had to sit silently. I had goosebumps.

There is an etiquette in fa’asamoa that revolves around fa’amanuiaga (blessings). In everything we do, we must always seek those blessings from our elders.

Sacred marks and traditions

There are also connotations connected to the ‘au (the tattooing instrument or tool) and the tufuga himself. It is said if the tattooist is heavy-handed, there is something wrong. Su’a’s hands, however, felt light and free-flowing - like a song connecting with a tune.

Everyone’s level of pain and journey is different. For me, the ‘au carried a sacred spirit that day. I felt the strong sense of my ancestors and the blessings that came before me.

There was a rush of adrenaline at the first tap of the ‘au. It would take about an hour to complete the first leg - the hardest for me. Once he had started on the second, the pain subsided and it became easier.

My mother fanned me with her ili (woven fan), massaged my head and offered wise words.

Out of respect for me as a young woman, my father, brothers and extended aiga sat outside the fale.

For me, the challenges were the physical pain - but also my eagerness to finish.

The mana of my family’s songs and the calls of “malo le onosa’i” (well done for being courageous) gave me strength.

Malu, a definition:

After two-and-a-half hours, I heard a loud “cheehoo!” My journey was over.

I saw my mum, my father and my brothers. My family sang and danced with joy. It was a historic moment as I was the first grandchild on my father’s side and the first of my siblings to receive a malu.

Te Rito journalism cadet Grace Fiavaai pictured with Deputy PM Carmel Sepuloni after getting her malu last week. Photo / Vaimoana Mase

I endured the pain and the ink is now indented on my skin. The suffering and experience of getting my malu are a reminder of the sacrifices made by our women - in particular my mother, grandmother and all the other tama’ita’i and tinā (young women and mothers).

I am a daughter of a first-generation migrant. I am also a tama’ita’i Samoa, a tuafafine (sister), afafine (daughter) and a the daughter of a faifeau (church minister).

Most of all, I am Grace and I come from a long line of ‘au fai malu and soga’i. (Samoan slang for women who wear the malu and men who have a pe’a).

There’s an old saying: “E ‘au le ina’ilau a tinā” - the Samoan woman always achieves excellence. It encapsulates all the women who have gone before me in their own malu journeys - from the likes of Samoan Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa to our own Deputy PM Carmel Sepuloni.

My malu confirmed my identity as a tama’ita’i Samoa. I am now complete, but it is only the beginning of a longer journey ahead.

Through my role as NZ-born Samoan, I am on a bigger journey through service to my parents, my aiga, village and as a tusitala (journalist) to tell our stories - all thanks to being the oso fa’alava that day.

I wear my malu with pride and dignity. It is never shown because it is sacred and protected - for that is the meaning of the word malu - to protect.

Hero Image: Journalism student Grace Fiavaai with her young family, including husband Etiuefa, who wears the Samoan tatau the pe'a. Photo / Digiliah Snaps

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