Receiving a malu can be a deeply personal and empowering thing and I have great admiration for all those women who have undergone this ritual ceremony and bear their malu with pride. I don’t have a malu. I am not an expert in Samoan cultural practises or the historical background of them – so this blog speaks from the position of an (ignorant) outsider observer.
In our Samoan culture, the art of traditional tattooing is a male domain with no female ‘tufuga’ /tattooists. When a woman gets a malu, she literally subjects herself – her will, her body – to a team of men who are the supposed ‘experts’ and chosen ones who carry the lineage and knowledge – and they hold her still and write on her body. The tattooist is assisted by at least two men who spread the skin, holding it taut for the detailing work to be done. Detailing which runs from the thighs to the knees, so that you the woman, must agree to have a trio of males (usually strangers to you) placing their hands all over your legs and thighs. You cannot tell the tufuga (tattooist) what symbols to use, you don’t even know what he’s going to tattoo you with until he’s done. You can of course discuss it with him, and there are basic designs that make up the malu which he will use – but the final decision is left to him for how your malu is executed.
Why is it that a ritual/ceremony/process that for many is essentially linked to “being a tamaitai Samoa” – is entirely controlled, mastered and carried out by men? The symbolism in the process disturbs me and is a key reason why I have not yet gotten a malu. Is it a feminist issue with me that I don’t like how its men who have the knowledge and authority over this intrinsically female part of our measina? Or is it a body control, personal space issue with me that I don’t want men who I don’t know or personally trust, touching my body in such intimate ways over a protracted and painful period of time? I’m not the only one who finds the process problematic. One woman I know, even made the somewhat extreme comment, that observing a malu being done should come with a rape-trigger warning – because for her, even though a woman wanted that tattoo, there were too many connotations about having a young woman lying on the ground, in tears, gritting her teeth against the pain, while three or four men clustered around her administering the source of that pain.
Whatever the reasons may be for my unease, the fact is that I am uneasy. No matter how professional, talented, skilled, friendly the tattooist may be, I would still prefer to have a female tufuga with an all-female team of assistants. Has it always been this way I wonder? Has there ever been a time in our long-ago history, where getting a malu was a woman-centered thing from its beginning to end?
Which is why I was excited to find out that there IS one female tattooist who has been trained by the legendary Suluape family and can tattoo the malu for women. Her name is Su’a Sulu’ape Angela and she has a tattoo company in San Diego, California. (So if you’ve ever thought about getting a malu but you too would prefer to have a woman do it – then check out Angela’s page on Facebook.)
My discomfort with the ‘traditionally applied’ malu is what inspired the malu scene in my Telesa Series. (This is why, it’s kinda cool to be a fiction writer…so one can re-mythologize the things about one’s cultural legacy that one does not particularly feel good about.) In the first book TELESA, I reclaim the female tattoo malu as an empowering thing that is done by women and for women. Not only that, it’s done in sisterhood, as a way to strengthen ties between sisters, mothers and daughters and to deepen ones understanding and knowledge of her matrilineal heritage.
It’s complete fantasy – but it’s the way I wish the malu could be.
‘While the tattooist does her work, women sit there beside the recipient. They sing songs of her ancestors. They tell stories of the women who walked before her – the lives they led, the battle they fought, the children they bore, the men they loved. They trace her lineage back to Nafanua the war goddess. Back to Tangaloa-langi, goddess of the earth….they will her the strength to endure.
My mother was with me as my sisters held me down, pulled my skin taut and cut me. I heard her voice sing to me through a haze of endless pain. And tell me stories of ancient telesa. At night when the moon called to a silken sea, she helped carry me to the ocean so I could bathe the open wounds in salt water. And she cut fresh banana leaf fronds for me to lie on, their coolness soothing the cuts that burned with chilli pepper and lemon leaf. When the malu was complete, my mother fed me with vaisalo and succulent baked crab. Salty limu seaweed and raw fish in coconut cream. Slices of papaya soaked in lemon. Food for healing. Food for strengthening.
By day five, my malu was just a dull ache. And my sisters planned the celebratory feast for the displaying of my tattoo. My mother helped me dress. In a brief piece of unpatterned siapo cloth, soft and gentle against the healing skin. A shift that ended where the malu began, at the thigh, so as to better display its beauty. They rubbed my skin with mosooi coconut oil and put a red hibiscus in my hair. The celebration was outdoors. Feather-edged mats spread out underneath the trees, awaiting the first time I would expose my malu to the sun….the sun was a glorious blaze of gold and the gardenia was in full bloom. I sat there and looked at these women, my sisters – and my malu spoke to theirs, adding to the story of our ancestry.’
What are your thoughts on the malu and what’s required to get one? Anyone else out there wishing there were female tattooists trained in the traditional method for doing them?