Revealing the Tattooist Behind Deputy PM Carmel Sepuloni’s Authentic Samoan Tatau

The tufuga behind Carmel Sepuloni’s malu hopes that his work will inspire everyone to do positive things for others. He talks to Te Rito journalism student Grace Fiavaai.

Li’aifaiva Imo Lavea Levi, a tattooist who also resurrects his tatau heritage and inspires others to do the same.

The 34-year-old tufuga is a master of his craft. He has been studying tatau for over a decade after becoming fascinated by the art a few short years after finishing his studies in Auckland.

In 2006, he was on a rugby scholarship for two years at Mt Albert Grammar School. He then studied civil engineering at Unitec before returning to his motherland, where he discovered his true calling.

He talks about his sudden interest in tatau before realizing his family did not have tufuga. He said he felt the craft needed revival.

“I returned home to Samoa, where I completed my tattooing apprenticeship. “I attended Leulumoega Fine Arts School during this period.”

He was an assistant for several well-known Samoan tufuga, such as Su’a Suluape.

Li'aifaiva Imo Levi, pictured in his younger days, also wears the traditional Samoan tattoo reserved only for men, called the pe'a. Photo / Supplied
Li’aifaiva, imo Levi, in his youth, wore the traditional Samoan pea tattoo reserved for men only. Photo / Source

The young tattooist, his wife Roberta, and their three children have lived in West Auckland for four years.

Since 2008, he has tattooed many of the most famous people in the Pacific.

Tufuga, the stars

The group includes To’aletai David Tua (former boxing champ), American actor Tano’ai Reese – stuntman of Dwayne “The Rock Johnson,” Hawaiian Michael Alisa, singers Lesalani Alo and members of Punialava’a as well as Sol3 Mio tenor Amitai Patri.

He also created a special hand tatau for Samoan Prime Minister Fiamē Naomi Mata’afa.

He is a well-known name in the tatau industry and made history when he tattooed Deputy PM Carmel Sepuloni. She received a Malu, a traditional Samoan Tatau reserved for women. The design is on her thighs, just below her knees.

Li’aifaiva: “It was a humbling experience and a treasured memory to serve as tufuga (tufuga) for the vice prime minister.”

Tufuga ta tatau master tattooist, Li'aifaiva Imo Levi, is all concentration as he tattoos Deputy PM Carmel Sepuloni. Photo / Michael Craig
Li’aifaiva Imo Levi is concentrated as he tattoos Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni. Photo by Michael Craig

Li’aifaiva claims that his clients are treated equally, no matter their status.

“That is my approach. I’m very humble, and I always feel privileged.”

Mau Movement: Inspiration for the Mau Movement

The tufuga says he was inspired by the non-violent Mau movement of Samoa, which fought to free the country from colonial rule during the first half 20th century.

Li’aifaiva, a tatau artist and a member of the Mau tribe, says that Li’aifaiva lives by the unity message conveyed in The Mau.

The unity theme is a great inspiration for him, and he has incorporated it into the lavalava he gives to all his clients who have completed their tattoos. This week, this included Sepuloni.

Tufuga ta tatau master tattooist, Li'aifaiva Imo Levi, wears the special ie he gifts to each of his clients on completion of their tatau. Photo / Michael Craig
Li’aifaiva Imo Levi is a master tattooist who specializes in tatau. He gives each client a special ie, when they complete their tatau. Photo by Michael Craig

During Mau’s movement, the navy blue lavalava had a white stripe to identify them. The colonial government made it illegal at one time to wear.

Li’aifaiva gives his clients a black lavalava with a golden stripe after each tatau. This is a symbol that unites those who received a tatau.

The lavalava is sewn and sold by a Grey Lynn church. The money collected is then given to the homeless, needy, and other churches.

“We feed low-income families in the city, with the money from the, i.e.,” Li’aifaiva confirms that the, i.e., has a charitable purpose.

“But really, it’s just an initiation to encourage those who wear the ie, to do good works for the community.

“My motivations and messages are similar to those I convey in the, i.e.,”

Li’aifaiva looks forward to his future with gratitude for his family and support from the villages he comes from. He is from Safotu. Papasataua. Satapuala. Lona i Fagaloa. A’ai o Niue. Salelologa. Asau. Faleasiu.

He is also planning to find someone else to take on his job.

“I just hope that if there is anyone out there who is aspiring…to take on this craft, let it be that you are at the forefront and our culture is at the forefront and that we remain everything traditional.”

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