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Male and female tattoos have different names in Samoan. The word for male tattoo is pe'a, which means flying fox and refers to the dark charcoal colour of the tattoo. It covers the area from the knee to the waist. Each tattoo is completely unique, but specific elements of the designs recur. The order in which the tattoo is applied is always the same - the lumbar region (the small of the back where the Samoan mythical figures Taema and Tilafaiga were joined) is always tattooed first and the navel is always last. The navel design is very important and is called the pute. Without the pute, the tattoo is unfinished and the wearer carries a sense of shame because he was not able to complete the ceremony.

The word for a female tattoo is malu, which means to be protected and sheltered. Most of the elements of the designs are purely ornamental and do not follow any specific pattern. However, the diamond shaped design on the back of the knee, which is also called a malu, is always present. The taupou (village maiden), who has an important ceremonial role in the community, is always tattooed from her knee to the top of her leg and sometimes on her hands.

Both male and female tattoos show that you are ready for life, for adulthood and to be of service to your community.

One story of how tatau came to Samoa

Taema and Tilafaiga were female siamese twins who were joined at the spine. When the twins were grown, they decided to travel away from Ta'u, the island of their birth. As they were swimming, the spar of a canoe struck them and severed the join between them. After several adventures on other islands, the twins reached Fiji where they meet two tatau (tattoo) artists, Tufou and Filelei, who taught them the art of tattooing. They also taught them a song (or a spell according to some sources) to recite when they were tattooing someone. When the twins returned to Samoa, Tilafaiga became a war goddess, while Taema became a tattooist and teacher of the art that she had learned in Fiji.