Maori man with full moko tattoo
Maori man with full moko tattoo
Role of Tattoo
Tattoo Stories

Skin Stories: The Art and Culture of Polynesian Tattoo

Maori carving showing tattoo styles.

excerpts from an interview with Tupuola Savea

A Tattoo Makes the Gentleman

My name is Tupuola Savea. I was born in Samoa, Siumu Village. And I have eight brothers and five sisters from the same parents. Then in 1964, I went to college in Western Samoa. That's Mormon, and I graduated from there in 1967. Then, in the same year, I feel that I'd like to have a tattoo.

If you do have a tattoo in my opinion, you are responsible for the serving the people of the village, the country, the family, and the church.
In August [1967], my dad [who is a tattoo artist] and my mom went to the Big Island of Hawai'i to do the tattoo. So I went there with them, and I watch the people lying down, screaming, yelling when they have tattoo. I decided I want to get one, because it's no sense for me to [assist in giving tattoos when] I don't have a tattoo. And that's the way I feel, and I remember what my grandmother used to say, when I grow up she likes me to have a tattoo… to be a gentleman and a man with heart. So that's why I thinking to myself, when we come home, I will ask my dad to have one for me. And that's what happened. And then my mother was crying, she don't like me to have because I was young. And my older brothers, they didn't have one. And I told him, if I don't have one right now, that time, I will never have a tattoo in my life. So we take two days. My mother still don't want me to have one. But I say, I told him [what] Grandma told me. I finish school, so I gotta have one. Be a gentleman, you know. And I want to do things, work in the plantation, things like that.

Getting the Tattoo

Tupuola SaveaWhen I got my tattoo done, I feel like a man. I'm a gentleman. When I did have one, I feel responsible for the family, for anything that a gentleman can do. That's why it is from my heart.

My father [gave me my tattoo]. But when he finish drawing the pictures to start, he told me, first thing, you like to have a tattoo. Secondly, don't scream. And third, if I move, [he] will hit me with the stick. I said, well, okay. I did not move. I didn't scream. I feel [in] my heart, this is what I want. So I feel the pain, I just put [it] inside me, not to yell out. But it was kinda relaxing to me, the time when I had my tattoo. Because of course, my dad was waking me when I was having a tattoo. I fell asleep sometimes. And the people who were over there, sitting over there, they just wonder well how come I fell asleep. I do believe God was with me all the time when I had my tattoo.

Tattoo and Responsibility

If you do have a tattoo in my opinion, you are responsible for the serving the people of the village, the country, the family, and the church. Things like you can do by working or by speaking. So some people, they don't have a tattoo in Samoa because of the situation. They feel they can't do it on their body. And they believe the Bible say not to have one. But in Samoa, I feel that's [a choice] from the heart. So you can have tattoo. And that if you do have tattoo, it means you have the heart to serve people. It's just few times, few hours, and the pains will go. It's from the heart. That's why you feel [a call] to have one. When you finish, you gotta have the heart to serve people. So that's my real feeling about having the tattoo.

A Life-Saving Tattoo

I work in the fire department for a year and a half, then I joined the Army. I went straight to the mainland and had the basic training. But I had another three months to train, as an Airborne at Fort Bragg, 882nd Division. So I went there for another six months for training before I came home to visit. When I went back, I was supposed to be four years in the service.

We were arrested by the Vietnamese... And they start picking on me and they try to scratch [the tattoo] out.
But in the meantime, what happened in the second year, I went back [and they sent us to] Vietnam. And [there were] six of us in the helicopter. But the pilot, the captain, he put it down. We landed good, and we swam down the beach [towards a plane]. And that's why we got caught. We never get to the plane. They arrested us in the ocean, down on the beach. We were arrested by the Vietnamese. What happened in Vietnam was a sad story. And these five of us and me, they going to put us inside a swampy place. And they remove our clothes and everything, and they throw us inside. And all of a sudden they pick me up again. And they say, "What is that?"

And they start picking on me and they try to scratch [the tattoo] out. Then I don't know if that was the leader or the commander, call to bring me over to the headquarters. And then I turn around and around, and they trying to peel the tattoo out. He say, "It can't come out?" I say, "No, I gotta take that with me down to the ground when I die." And they ask, "Where you from?" I say, from Samoa. And [they ask] "Why I'm here?" I'm here to serve the United States, [in the] U.S. Army. And they are laughing and, you know, make fun of me. And they want me to serve them. I never got back to the mud where my other friends are. And I was [there] almost two and a half years. They put me in a good chair and I sleep on a bunk. But it makes me feel weak and I don't know what to think, because my friends are suffer. Not only them, but when I look, some people are maybe for more than ten years in there. Some people were there already before us. And that makes me feel really down, and I pray to God to help us in any way so to save these people.

And some [Vietnamese], they feel I'm one of them... And every so often, I talk to the colonel to do something for them to help or give them the good food, things like that.
But sometime I walk around, I want to see my friends. And second time I went, they all right, they pull away from the mud and they wear clothes and they stay in the bamboo things like prison. And one of them was down in a ditch, in a hole. And that one was okay when I talked to the boss, the colonel of the Vietnamese. You know, please to release him from down there. It's better to put together, they are together. So he agree with me, so he take this guy out and put all together, five of them.

And every so often, I talk to the colonel to do something for them to help or give them the good food, things like that. They treat them good. Some medicine, medication, things like that. And some [Vietnamese], they feel I'm one of them. And anything I like, they gave me, "Take one six-pack, give them." Sometimes left over food from these people, I collect together and I say I gotta take this for my friends. And I stand over there until they finish. Then I come back. Talk stories, make me feel better. We talk the United States talk, you know, joking. And I tell them, well, I pray for you guys. I can do anything, I can help.

And that's why I thank God. Without my tattoo, I never come home. Because one of my friends was killed. It's not weapons, but killed by the disease in there. So he passed away. I think my tattoo saved me. And if I think about my friends, I feel so down... every time. Because I'm free. To me, I was free, and my friends are still in prison. And the time that we get this message, {the U.S. and Vietnam are] exchanging prisoners. And they never call my name to come out. They like me to stay. And I say no, I gotta go. And that's why I left the Vietnamese.

And that's why I thank God. Without my tattoo, I never come home. I think my tattoo saved me.
So [the U.S. Army] sent to my wife this plaque [declaring me] dead. But we came back, after that. So my wife, she didn't believe I still alive when she heard the prisoners are returning to the United States. And she didn't believe I was there. I came back to Honolulu, and I was looking for them. But I went back and talked to [the Army] and they gave me the address where my wife [was living]. So I went down and I found them in a house in Honolulu. And that's where we met. She didn't believe I still alive. So even my young boy, he don't know who I was. I came back, he was seven years old. When I left, he was just four months. And he doesn't know me.