Posted on June 6, 2024

Soldier Is First to Get Approval for Traditional Samoan Hand Tattoos

Jonathan Lehrfeld and Jon Simkins, Army Times, June 3, 2024

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Etched into her skin from the wrists up to her nail beds, the markings are no ordinary tattoos, but symbols of traditional “tatau” found among the people of the Polynesian island country Samoa.

Looking down at the body art, Army Capt. Isis Sake, 38, is reminded of the significance that each of the representations holds in her culture. After receiving approval, Sake’s tatau now also serve as a symbol of her service’s acceptance of her traditional heritage.

“One of the things that was a common question by other senior leaders was, ‘Wait, that’s not already approved?’” she said. “This is such a huge part of the Samoan culture. So, it’s just educating and then really sharing the symbolism behind it.”

In February, the Samoan officer became the first soldier to receive Army approval to possess such tattoos on her hands, a mark of recognition of the diverse communities that comprise the force and carry a calling for service.

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Seeking to visualize that commitment to selfless service, and inspired by a reverence for her culture, in 2017 Sake obtained the Samoan tatau for women — known as “malu” — on her legs before adding the traditional tattoos to her hands in 2022.

Tattoos have long served more than a skin-deep purpose for troops, with many opting to showcase pride for their service, unit or occupational specialty through the body art medium.

Each of the services, however, maintain strict rules on what tattoos are or are not within standards, allowing for individual expression while also aiming to ensure a professional, uniform appearance.

The tattoos on Sake’s legs were permitted, she said, but at the time of their fashioning those on her hands were not {snip}

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She noted that there are numerous others in the Army that have the tatau, just not on their hands, which she said typically only women get and which carries the added significance of being culturally identified as a “weaver.”

The first in her family to experience the sacred rite of passage, a birthright passed on by the chiefdom lines in Samoa, Sake received the needed blessing from her familial leaders to get her skin punctured with her initial tattoos in 2017. Those, as they do for other Samoan women, cover from the bottom of her knees to the top of her thighs.

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