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For other uses, see Malu (disambiguation).
A Samoan woman with malu

Malu is a word in the Samoan language for a female-specific tattoo of cultural significance.[1] The malu covers the legs from just below the knee to the upper thighs just below the buttocks, and is typically finer and delicate in design compared to the pe'a, the equivalent tattoo for males. The malu takes its name from a particular motif of the same name, usually tattooed in the popliteal fossa (sometimes referred to as the kneepit, or poplit) behind the knee. It is one of the key motifs not seen on men. According to Samoan scholar Albert Wendt and tattooist Su'a Suluape Paulo II, in tattooing the term ‘malu’ refers to notions of sheltering and protection.[2][3] Samoan women were also tattooed on the hands and sometimes the lower abdomen. These practices have undergone a resurgence since the late 1990s.[4]

Changing Significance[edit]

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, only the chief's daughter was eligible to wear the malu and it was applied to these young women in the years following puberty. Women with the malu were expected to perform key ceremonial tasks and represent their families and villages on ceremonial occasions. However in 1930, anthropologist Te Rangi Hiroa observed that "...the tattooing of a girl is often used as an opportunity for a student to try his prentice hand. This is also rendered possible by the fact that there is no fusita (fine mat) passed or any of the ceremonial that marks the tattooing of the male. It is often sufficient reward for the novice to have the opportunity of practice and to be well fed during the period occupied by the operation...For the daughter of a high chief, who is to become the village taupou, it can be readily understood that an expert artist would be requisitioned and his reward greater."[5] Ceremonial roles are still important in Samoan society and are restricted in similar ways to particular people with the correct qualifications and cultural knowledge, but the significance of the malu has shifted. From at least the 1990s, there has been less emphasis on chiefly qualifications, and women of a variety of backgrounds and ages have been tattooed with the malu. However, the malu is not important to all Samoan, or is otiose only symbol of an individuals commitment or participation in samoan cultural life. In the Samoan congregations of some churches, men and women have been discouraged from getting tattooed.'[6] In New Zealand and Australia, the malu is increasingly important as a symbol of Samoan cultural identity rather than only a signifier of a persons ability to carry out specific Samoan ceremonial roles.[7] The contemporary meanings and significance of malu are often vigorously contested and in recent years this has become especially noticeable in social media forums when tattooists and tattooed people share photographs of their tattoos. It is clear from these most public debates that the changes in meaning for all forms of Samoan tattooing are being made by the people who wear the images as much as the tattooists who create them.[8]

Non-Samoans and the malu[edit]

There are also accounts of non-Samoan women receiving the malu. One relates to an American named Elsie Bach who worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Samoa in the 1970s. She developed strong relationships with families in the Samoan community, and received a malu and a matai (chiefly) title in acknowledgement.[4] As Samoan tattooists have travelled and worked in the United States and Europe, women from other ethnic backgrounds and nationalities have been tattooed with the malu or elements of it.[9]For some Samoans this practice is controversial and is often a topic of debate in social media discussions.


  1. ^ Sowell, Teri (2000). Worn With Pride: Celebrating Samoan Artistic Heritage. Oceanside, CA, USA: Oceanside Museum of Art. pp. 10–17. 
  2. ^ Wendt, A. (1999). Afterword: Tatauing the post-colonial body. Inside out: Literature, cultural politics, and identity in the new Pacific, 399-412.
  3. ^ Mallon, S. (2002). Samoan art and artists. University of Hawaii Press.
  4. ^ Mallon, S. (2005). Samoan tatau as global practice. Tattoo: Bodies, Art, and Exchange in the Pacific and the West, 145-169.
  5. ^ Hiroa, Te Rangi. "Samoan Material Culture". New Zealand Electronic Text Collection. Victoria University of Wellington. Retrieved 28 August 2015. 
  6. ^ Mallon, Sean (2002). Samoan Art and Artists / O Measina a Samoa. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. p. 111. ISBN 0-8248-2675-2. 
  7. ^ Lisa Taouma (Director) Measina Samoa: Stories of the Malu 2003
  8. ^ Mallon, S. (2005). Samoan tatau as global practice. Tattoo: Bodies, Art, and Exchange in the Pacific and the West, 145-169.
  9. ^ Wendt, Albert. "Afterword: Tatauing the post-colonial body." Inside out: Literature, cultural politics, and identity in the new Pacific (1999): 399-412.

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