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My malu, my pride

Ruby Taylor-Newton
Sunday, December 09, 2012

South Pacific Pageant contestant, Ms American Samoa, Lorisa Matautia's tattoo-clad thighs caused quite a stir during the week-long 2009 Ms South Pacific Pageant scene.

The malu (tattoo designed on a girl's thighs) and sogaimiti (tattoo designed on a boy or man's waist down to his thighs) are a traditional practice and form of identity in the Samoan culture.

Lorisa's tattoos tell a story of its own.

"It's a culture. I had this tattoo on my 21st birthday, but back in the old generation from my grandfather's time, the tattoo is important for a girl of a family (or a taupou), of a high chief family, for her to do the ava traditional ceremony (similar to the Fijian traditional yaqona ceremony)," she says.

Lorisa's dad's grandfather was a high chief back in Upolu, Western Samoa.

Her father is from the recent tsunami-afflicted village of Aleipata in Samoa.

Lorisa was raised in American Samoa.

Lorisa says Samoan culture is fading with all sorts of people using the malu for body decoration.

"Right now, it's more like our culture's fading. And people just have a tattoo like this when they feel like, but really, you have to have the honour. You must have the spirit of your culture and speak the Samoan language.

"You have to be good in talking with Samoan elders in a specific (traditional) way. These days, there are so many people from the States who weren't even raised in Samoa that are having these kind of tattoos. No offense personally. But it's kind of offensive to our elderly who see it as a sacred thing which originated from our Samoan ancestors," she says.

Lorisa says if the Samoan culture is to be preserved, a person getting a malu or sogaimiti tattoo must be well versed and respectful of Samoan traditions.

"You have to know how to talk, you speak politely to the people, then you can get that," she points out.

"It's like, you get your tatt-tatt on your mouth first, then you get your tatt-tatt on your thighs," she humbly laughs.

Being the daughter of a well respected Christian pastor back home, Lorisa is expected to dress modestly at all times, nothing above her knees. She can only reveal her malu tattoos during Samoan dances.

Lorisa says wearing the malu or sogaimiti means you're like a leader or role model for the family.

"My dad's a pastor and I'm well prepared for any traditional family obligations or saofai'i, and that's when the girl from the family, like myself, is allowed to participate."

Lorisa is the second youngest in a family of eight brothers and sisters.

Her brother, who is a year older than her, had the sogaimiti tattooed from his waist to his knees, that same day.

"The sogaimiti that my brother had that night is more important than us women. They're more painful because they have their's on their stomach...".

So, why her?

"I guess it's because I'm the outgoing one. They usually give it to someone that's interesting, someone that's ready to tackle any traditional obligation in the Samoan culture. I'm always ready to present myself, speak the Samoan language.

"I had this tatt (malu) on my 21st birthday.

"I really wanted a "kavai' tatt on my leg instead of this malu, but my dad said 'No'."

Lorisa says she had to bear close to three hours of tattooing that day. The artist, a man from Western Samoa, used the traditional Samoan instruments (tui, la'au), and not the tattoo machine "because that's not really painful.

"There was a lot of pain. I was lying down facing up, and then sideways, because the tattoos were designed on the front and back of my thighs. I had my sister-in-law hold my hand," she recalls.

"Yes, it's painful, but if you have the Samoan heart then you can bear it," she smiles.

Lorisa says she took tylenol tablets about an hour before tattooing and thinks she cried when it came to her knees.

"They didn't really ask me what kind of design I wanted. The artist decided," she says.

"To me, this tattoo represents my cultural identity. It is with me everytime, which means I must always be mindful of the way I portray myself to others, and the way I speak," she says.

"On the back of my leg, there's a designed triangle — it means a combined family and strong family culture," she points out.

And now that she's got them forever, Lorisa says she feels nothing but pride for her Samoan identity.

"I'm proud that I can represent Samoa, that I have the culture in me. That wherever I go, regardless of whether I speak English or whatever, I have the malu tattoo that carries me on, and reminds me that I am Samoan, that I was raised from a humble background, and I must speak politely to people, and just be myself.

"You're more like a faloalo which means you have respect for your ancestors, for your friends, and family."

"This malu reminds me that I must have respect for all people, and I don't have to point fingers at others.

"Because people can easily say, 'what's the use of her tatt if she can't even speak Samoan and she doesn't have the heart of respect. I have to be careful what I do and what I say, especially if I speak Samoan in front of chiefs or elders.

"It's with me now and it's a source of pride," the Samoan beauty said.

(Sunday Times, 29.11.09)

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