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The traditional tattooist behind Deputy PM Carmel Sepuloni’s Samoan tatau

Grace Fiavaai

Samoan tattooist Li'aifaiva Imo Levi on what inspires him

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

Li’aifaiva Imo Lavea Levi is more than just a tattoo artist - resurrecting his tatau ancestry while also making moves to inspire others and to help those in need.

The 34-year-old tufuga has been working on his craft for just over a decade after becoming interested in the art of tatau a few years after completing his studies in Auckland.

He had been on a two-year rugby scholarship at Mt Albert Grammar School, in 2006, and then studying civil engineering at Unitec, before he returned to the motherland - where he found his true calling.

He describes his new-found interest in tatau before realising that there were no tufuga in his family. He felt the craft needed to be revived, he says.

“I returned to Samoa and completed my apprenticeship in tattooing. During this time, I also attended Leulumoega Fine Arts School.”

He worked as an apprentice for a number of well-known tufuga in Samoa, including Su’a Suluape.

Today, the young tattooist has been living in West Auckland for the past four years with wife Ropeta and their three young children.

He has been working as a tufuga for the last eight years and tattooed some of the Pacific’s most famous men and women.

Tufuga to the stars

They include former boxing champ To’aletai David Tua, American actor Tano’ai Reed - stuntman to Dwayne “The Rock Johnson”, Hawaiian athlete Michael Alisa and singers Lesa Lani Alo, members of Punialava’a and Sol3 Mio tenor Amitai Pati.

He also created a special hand tatau for Samoan Prime Minister Fiamē Naomi Mata’afa.

Four years later, his is a well-known name in the tatau business and has made history by tattooing Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni, who received a malu - a traditional Samoan tatau reserved only for women. The design covers the length of her thighs and just below her knees.

“It has been a humbling and cherished experience to be tufuga for the deputy prime minister,” Li’aifaiva says.

Tufuga ta tatau master tattooist, Li'aifaiva Imo Levi, is all concentration as he tattoos Deputy PM Carmel Sepuloni. Photo / Michael Craig

Li’aifaiva says no matter what status his clients hold, they are all treated equally.

“That’s my approach, but I’m always very humbled, and I feel very privileged.”

Inspiration from the Mau movement

The tufuga shares that he is inspired by what is known as the Mau movement in Samoa - a non-violent movement that fought for independence from colonial rule in the first half of the 20th Century.

The Mau’s message of unity flows through into Li’aifaiva’s tatau work and how he chooses to live his life, he says.

Such is his inspiration from the Mau has seen him incorporate the unity theme into special ie lavalava gifted to each of his tatau clients on completion of their tattoo; which this week included Sepuloni.

Tufuga ta tatau master tattooist, Li'aifaiva Imo Levi, wears the special ie he gifts to each of his clients on completion of their tatau. Photo / Michael Craig

During the Mau movement, a navy blue lavalava with a white stripe indicated who they were. At one point, it was made illegal to wear by the colonial government at the time.

For Li’aifaiva’s clients, after each tatau is completed, a black lavalava with a gold stripe is passed to them as a symbol of uniting those who have received a tatau from him.

The lavalava are sewn by a church in Grey Lynn, which also sell them. The money is then used to give food to those in need and the homeless.

“We feed low-income families in the city with the money we bring from the ie. So, yes, there is a charitable cause behind the ie,” Li’aifaiva says.

“But it is really just an initiation meant to encourage everyone who wears the ie to do good deeds for the community.

“My entire motivation and the message I try to convey are similar to what I am trying to convey behind the ie.”

Li’aifaiva is appreciative of his family and the support from his villages as he looks to the future. He hails from Safotu, Papasataua, Satapuala, Lona i Fagaloa, A’ai o Niue, Salelologa, Asau, Faleasiu and Saleaaumua.

He also has plans to find someone to take over his work.

“I just hope that if there is anyone out there who is aspiring…to take on this craft, let it be that you are at the forefront and our culture is at the forefront and that we remain everything traditional.”

Hero Image: Li'aifaiva Imo Levi, pictured in his younger days, also wears the traditional Samoan tattoo reserved only for men, called the pe'a. Photo / Supplied

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