Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics RoomLog 12 - The Pink and Blue Number
Log 12 - The Pink and Blue Number

<By Culture> Siamese twins, forked columns and tattooing in Samoa - Albert Refiti 


Duality is a characteristic of traditional Samoan culture, a quality that is often written out of its history. It is connected with ‘the dread’- ‘walkers between the living and the dead’, powerful entities which have the capacity to exist in both worlds. They lie at the core of art making in Samoa and the Pacific. Writings on Pacific art have too often focussed on the ‘shape’ and content of the work or become trapped in the issues of identity and place, overlooking the compelling evidence of another reading (by culture or beside culture)of Pacific art contained in legends, myths, stories and language of the area.

So for this ‘boy-girl/blue-pink’ issue of Log I wish to propose a culture-beside, nature-freak, something-aside, hushed-up, center-periphery synthesis of everything else I can muster up in a thousand words or so. Culture is what boys do best and this is beside that.

A story goes like this: the origin of tattooing in Samoa revolves around the figure of the maga, a forked entity or duality manifested in the one. This is because it was the Siamese twins Taema and Tilafaga who brought the knowledge of tattooing to Samoa from Fiji. The twins born undivided were severed violently by a ship’s spar, became warlike and fled to Fiji where they acquired the art of tattooing. As they swam along their return journey to Samoa the sight of a large clam on the seabed distracted the twins and when they surfaced from retrieving it, muddled their chant. The chant, Tatau fafine,ae le tatau tane (tattoo the women, don’t tattoo the men) became Tatau tane,ae le tatau fafine (tattoo the men, don’t tattoo the women). Dual entities tend to muddle things up and confuse predetermined orientation in space.

Gell suggests that Siamese twins are human figures possessing an additional dimension of symmetry compared to a ‘normal’ human figure as they have two-fold symmetry (side-by-side and front-to-back) rather than symmetry in only one dimension (side-to-side). They have no canonical orientation in space - no left or right, no front or back, and lacking a front and a back, a left and a right. Siamese twins have only a centre - the fused spine from which both twins emerge - and a periphery. The combined gaze of their two sets of eyes encompasses the whole of space, and no part of the surroundings are inaccessible from their two sets of limbs.

This duality and openness is present in the traditional Samoan round guesthouse, the faletele (there are no walls or divisions in this house). At the centre of a faletele are supporting columns, usually one, two or three. The single central column variety is the one most commonly used and is usually found with a forked shape at the top end of the column. This forked configuration is similar to the Siamese twin schema of a fused spine with two heads protruding from it. So, in a funny way, one can say that at the heart of this public architecture is a form of doubling two-face architecture; and since it’s circular in plan there is little distinction between front-back and side-to-side. This layout plan has a two-fold symmetry (side-by-side and front-to-back) thus there is no canonical orientation in space except that it is entered from and sited next to a village ceremonial ground, the malae. Rather than showing a particular face to the malae and the public, the house’s relation to the overall schema of a village is more like that of a rippling effect in water when a stone or an object is dropped in the liquid causing waves in ringed formation to spread outwards getting larger and larger. This has similarities with Japanese garden designs where objects are isolated in clusters in sand or stones surrounded by concentric circles radiating outwards. These houses are used mainly for receiving guests and not for everyday use, so language, oratory and chants play an important part in the house; firstly, to describe and fix the locations of the players within it - between the host and guests - and secondly, words and metaphors, which already exist in various details of its construction, bring the house to life.

One can see that the central column of a faletele is a kind of public space with an openness, a transparency, at the centre of every domestic space. The only article of furniture in the house is attached to it. This is called the talitali, a carved timber piece in the shape of a boat showing two prows at either end in a symmetrical configuration. This motif can also be seen on the back of a male tattoo as the first design to be inscribed on the body and located high up on the back and around the sides to the rib area. The tattoo appears to hang down the body from this part. The most precious of possessions is hung on the talitali because, being located at the centre of the house, and facing the great openess of the village, it is clearly the most visible and frighteningly public part of the house, so it is the safest place to put them.

Talitali means "to protect" and is related to the idea of shielding or armour, which Gell suggests is the reason for tattooing in Pacific societies. He believes that the tattoo as second skin closes the birth wound - the umbilical cord and connection to the mother’s body - and fortifies the body which has now become a part of a greater social body (men’s group, hunters etc.). Thus, in an ironic way, tattooing in traditional Pacific societies was a public act, not the mark of individuation, as is the case with the majority of tattooing today. So marking and writing on a person’s body makes the individual public property: the marks of the tattoo expose the inside to the outside, making one’s soul visible to the community. Instead of the soul being kept hidden inside as a private act in the Western world, the soul is worn as armour on the outside in the Pacific, much like the make-up of the faletele discussed above where the inner post part of the house - its centre - is the most public of places. At this centre stands a forked column, Siamese twins, two heads and one spine.

Survey drawing of faletele, Lano, Samoa, 1998.
Drawing by Lynda Simmons.

A Suluape Petelo tattooing session, Fasitoouta, Samoa, 1998.

Framework of a tatau pattern on the back with canoe motif from A. Kramer’s book on Samoa.



Albert L Refiti is an architectural theorist who teaches at the Manukau Institute of Technology School of Art and Design, and at the UNITEC School of Architecture.






Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics Room