Tattoo is an art that expresses one’s individuality. Do you find Polynesian tattoos creative, distinctive, and unique? The ancient tattoo art has been passed down through legends, traditions, cultures, and ritual ceremonies, making them more expressive and personal on our modern times. If you wish to decode the symbols behind the body art, keep reading for the 30 Polynesian tattoo designs and meanings to guide you all along.
The Origins of Tattoo Art in Polynesia
If you’re still wondering where Polynesia is in the map, then it’s actually an old name for over a 1000 islands across the Pacific Ocean. Historians say that the Polynesian people influenced our modern art, particularly the tattoo body art.
If writing is the form of expression in our modern times, tattoo is the form of expression in the Polynesian culture. In fact, there was no writing in Polynesia—the people only express themselves in their tattoos. Do you know that tattoos are an indication of their status is their hierarchical society? Yes, you can know their personalities, identities, genealogy, and even the rank in their society through their tattoos.
In Polynesian culture, tattoo is more than an art—it’s more spiritual. Instead of deciding for the design of your tattoo, their tattoo artist or ones they call as “master” will decide depending on your social status. Do you know that their “master” often worship gods for the gift of tattooing given to him? That’s why Polynesian people consider tattoos as holy, and they even refraining from certain activities that might offend their gods during the process of tattooing.
That’s the reason why the designs of their tattoos are more symbolical, where you can see pictographic representation of human, animals, birds, flowers and such. Also, the placement of the geometric design of their tattoos had different meanings, depending on the person being tattooed and his rank on their society. Instead of you explaining the tattoo design with your tattoo artist, in the Polynesian tradition, it was the master who explains the interpretation of tattoos to the person.
If you’ll dig deeper in the history, you’ll know that Marquesas Islands were the first Polynesian islands discovered by Alvaro de Mendana de Neira—a Spanish navigator in 1595. In 1771, Captain James Cook navigated the Polynesian triangle and found out “tattaw” or Polynesian people. Cook brought a native to the Europe, where tattoos became popular due to the body art in the Polynesian’s body.
According to researchers, the tattoo art in Polynesia existed more than 2000 years ago, but it was banned in the 18th century until 1980s. Fortunately, the art of tattoo revived in our present times, thanks to the hard work of scholars and tattoo artists.
Tribal Tattoo and Polynesian Tattoo—Are They the Same Thing?
When people think of tribal tattoos, the designs that come up to their minds are Polynesian tattoos in origin. If you would like to get a tribal tattoo or a Polynesian tattoo because they look cool, think again. A Polynesian culture might have a tribal nature into them, but the Polynesian tattoos are not tribal tattoos.
Do you still remember that Polynesian tattoos are more spiritual and personal, rather than just being artistic and creative? The tattoos of Polynesian people have significant meanings—genealogy, community rankings, personal records, professional skills—that can complete one’s story. You can see in their tattoos where they grew up and from which tribe they came from, along with their accomplishment in their life. In fact, the Polynesian warriors and chiefs wore tattoos that symbolize power—and it couldn’t be worn by a non-warrior Polynesian.
So, before getting random symbols for your tribal tattoos, take time to decode their meanings first so you’ll be able to express your body art accurately. Working with a tattoo artist who understands the traditions and symbols of Polynesian tattoos can be great. For Polynesian people, tattoos should be treated with honor and respect, and they get tattoos because they want to embrace their tradition and history.
Meanings of Polynesian Tattoos
If you’re looking for the rulebook of Polynesian people on their tattoo designs, then you have to know that their tattoos vary in meanings depending on the island they came from. While some use their tattoos to show their personal attachment to their tribes, some use the body art as a form of spiritual protection. You’ll see visual representations of birds, daggers, animals, human, and such that can symbolize different things.
All symbols in Polynesian tattoos are based on the elements of Water, Earth, Wind, and Fire.
The process of tattooing is considered spiritual, that’s why each symbol calls for a ritual ceremony. If you’re a warrior, your tattoo will be more elaborate, perhaps including the symbolism of the four elements of water, earth, wind, and fire to guide you on your battle.
On the other hand, a non-warrior Polynesian may only have tattoo that’s relevant to his society’s rank or role. A farmer can be seen in a tattoos related to earth symbolism, while a fisherman can be seen in tattoos inspired from the water element.
Shells in the Polynesian tattoo represent peace and fertility.
Have you noticed that shells are common in Polynesian tattoo design? In fact, the sea shells symbolize protection and intimacy, where turtle shells signify peace and wellness. For Polynesian people, sea is the source of their food, and the place they will rest after death. They perceive turtles as the creature that will bring them to the sea, since it moves between the land and the sea. On the other hand, bivalves represent the union or marriage of couples.
Shark teeth represent power and courage.
Do you know that sharks are considered as gods in Polynesian lore? In fact, sea-faring Polynesians actually wear the tattoo since they believe it will protect them from shark attacks when at the sea. Polynesian people even get not only one shark tattoo, but a full set of teeth to show their courage in their body art. Shark teeth are called as “niho mano”—the symbolism consists of pattern of triangles that represents the shark teeth. If you like, you can even get multiple rows of shark teeth that can signify adaptability and bravery.
Spearhead can represent the power of the individual.
The spearhead details are the ones that make the Polynesian tattoos look more tribal. However, it represents the power, courage, and dominance of the person wearing it, since the symbol was derived from the weapon itself. In fact, the spearhead detail on their tattoos is designed to express courage and fight. According to the historians, a line of spearheads can signify that one can stand for the defeat of his rivals.
Tikis are considered to be ancestors that drove out bad energy.
More than just a tattoo symbol, Tiki is a style of Hawaiian tattooing. The pattern consists of human figures depicted with eyes closed. Polynesian people wear this tattoo as protection, that’s why you can see this symbol in many ancient temples and pillars.
The sun symbolizes grandness and riches.
Like the other symbolisms, the sun symbol can be interpreted in many ways. While the rising of the sun can symbolize rebirth, the rays of the sun can mean eternity, brilliance, leadership and more. Also, it can be a passage to the other world as what Polynesian people believed.
Ocean symbolizes their final destination.
Do you know that ocean is the symbol of death for Polynesian people? However, it’s also considered as their source of food, along with fertility and homeland of their ancestors. The pattern usually consists of geometric blank blocks that complete other patterns in the tattoo.
The Process of Polynesian Tattooing
The process of tattooing in our modern days is more reliable and safe compared to the indigenous practices of Polynesian people. While the designs of their tattoos were outlined on the skin, the needles that they used were often made of bird bone, shark teeth, bamboo, and even turtle shell. Could you imagine that your skin will be cut first before injecting the ink formulated from plant-based liquids, coconut milk, sugar cane juice, and candlenut oil? Of course they might have rituals for the healing of their wounds, but there are no specific guidelines that were used.
The Placement of Tattoo and Polynesian Tradition
The placement of your tattoo may be a personal choice—you may show it off on your arms or keep them private on your back. But, do you know that the location of your tattoo in your body signifies different meanings when it comes to Polynesian tradition? Yes, the placement of your Polynesian tattoo can influence the thoughts you’re trying to express.
According to their legend, the two were once united, and the man’s quest is to reunite them again—one of the reasons why Polynesian people make the placement of their tattoos relevant to the said union of heaven and earth. While the upper body is associated to the heaven or spiritual world, the lower body represents the earth or our physical world. They also believe that the back of their body is associated with the past, and their front body with the future. Polynesian people associate their head with spirituality, wisdom, and intuition, while their hands with creativity, especially when they perform the Kava ritual at sacred ceremonies.
The higher trunk signifies balance, while the lower trunk signifies independence.
If you’re looking for the exact location of the higher trunk, this is located from just above the navel to the chest. Polynesian people associate them with traits like generosity and honor, as well as the balance and harmony between heaven and earth.
On the other hand, the lower trunk is located below the navel to the thighs. Polynesian people associate them with independence, sexuality, and energy. Do you know that Polynesian culture have a deep appreciation for independence? In fact, the navel symbolizes the cutting of the umbilical cord that associates with the strength of a person. However, Polynesian people are strongly connected—they have close family ties where their family includes all their relatives, neighbors, and friends.
The upper arms and shoulders are the symbols of strength.
Do you know that Polynesian people associate their upper arms and shoulders with bravery and strength, and relate them to warriors and chiefs? They even use the term “kikopuku” where “kiko” means flesh and “puku” means swollen to express the idea of strong arms.
Apart from these beliefs, the placement of your tattoo will affect the way it looks. Keep in mind that Polynesian tattoos are elaborate and needs a great amount of skin to be covered. Think of your shoulders, back, and hips that can be a great canvas a tattoo artist can work on.
The Future of Polynesian Tattoo
Just like any art, Polynesian tattoos can be influenced by different cultures and traditions, making the ancient designs of the body art modern and even personal. The exchange of cultural concepts from countries to countries and person to person could alter the styles and design of the native Polynesian tattoos.
If you have a deep love for your culture and tradition, preserving them in body art or tattoo would be great. That will also give your ancestors some respect since they dedicated their lives to channel the culture and tradition through art that can still be seen in our present time.