Not widely practiced, the tattooing art of tatau has been a right of passage for men and women in Samoa for centuries, and a small shop in Garden Grove is one of a few places stateside where it is offered.
It’s a painful process. Hours and hours pass as the tattooist and a team labor over your skin, using a traditional tool made from wood, turtle shell and boar’s tusk. The tool looks like a mallet, but instead of a wooden head, there’s a row of little teeth that are dipped in ink, then pushed into the skin when the tool is tapped by hand against the body.
In California there appears only one place to get such a traditional tattoo – at A-Town, which is tucked away in a strip mall off Brookhurst Street and Garden Grove Boulevard. The rights to tatau were recently bestowed upon the shop’s owner by one of Samoa’s most prominent tattooing families, the Sulu’ape.
Owner Si’i Liufau, 39, has done about 60 traditional Samoan tattoos over the last few years, after traveling to Samoa repeatedly and learning from the Sulu’ape family. He’s half Samoan. Before that, he did mostly black and gray ink tattooing and portraiture.
“It’s really a privilege to be around traditional tattooing,” said Liufau, who grew up in Anaheim and Garden Grove. “We look at Polynesian tattooing as the pioneers.”