Vaimoana Tapaleao is the New Zealand Herald's Pacific Affairs and People reporter.

Nike commits cultural faux pas

Sports print made for women based on Pacific tattoos reserved for men.

Nike says its Pro Tattoo Tech gear - leggings, sports bras, jump suits and singlets - features designs "inspired by tattoos from the southwest Pacific".
Nike says its Pro Tattoo Tech gear - leggings, sports bras, jump suits and singlets - features designs "inspired by tattoos from the southwest Pacific".

Nike has released a set of women's sports gear inspired by traditional tatau - tattoos of the Pacific.

But the international sports brand has made a cultural faux pas, with the women's leggings creating the appearance that the wearer has a traditional Samoan tattoo, the pe'a, which is reserved for men.

Pasifika blog sites have attracted hundreds of comments since Nike released the Pro Tattoo Tech gear - leggings, sports bras, jump suits and singlets - last week.

Some are unhappy about the use of the designs, which are viewed as sacred.

Others have mocked the women's leggings, calling them manly and inappropriate for women.

A blogger on the One Samoana Facebook page called Nike's use of the tatau an "ugly exploitation of culture".

On, which is organising a petition to stop the sale of the gear, one person wrote:

"This reduces [tatau] to patterned tights rather than assigning it the mana it warrants."

Freddie Ika said:

"To the outside world it's just a design. But to my Polynesian people, it's sacred."

The Samoan pe'a is a tattoo reserved for men. The intricate lines and colour-blocking are tattooed on to the body using tools made of carved bone or animal tusks.

The Samoan pe'a. Photo / Getty Images
The Samoan pe'a. Photo / Getty Images

It is a painful process that sometimes takes months to complete.

The malu is the tattoo for women and is a simpler pattern, but just as painful to apply.

Both forms of the tatau are a rite of passage for men and women.

Victoria University Pacific Studies lecturer Galumalemana Alfred Hunkin said he did not support such use of the tatau and would support a campaign to stop the sale of the gear.

Mangere MP Su'a William Sio was tattooed in 1988. He said seeing the pe'a designs on a woman was upsetting.

"It's disturbing. This is a treasure that is held dear to the Samoan community. The patterns have a spiritual meaning that come from one's family and ancestors.

"This just cheapens and belittles all of that. It's a total disregard of cultural protocol."

Manu Samoa rugby legend Brian Lima and former Hurricanes winger Lome Fa'atau are proud wearers of the pe'a.

The tatau has also appeared in more contemporary forms among several sports stars including All Blacks Ma'a Nonu, Ne'emia Tialata, Sonny Bill Williams and wrestler-turned-Hollywood actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

Nike did not return a request for comment yesterday, but on its website says: "These tights feature a distinctive black and white print inspired by tattoos from the southwest Pacific - Fiji, Samoa, New Zealand - with flattering, hand-drawn graphics celebrating the stories culture of Oceana [sic]."

Tatau - Pacific tattoos

Pe'a: Traditional Samoan tattoo reserved only for men. Made up mostly of lines and triangular patterns, the tattoo covers the abdomen, buttocks, thighs and ends at the knee.

Malu: Traditional Samoan women's tattoo. Simpler patterns start from the upper thigh to just below the knee.

- NZ Herald

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