Hawaiian Tribal Tattoo

Kākau: The History and Meaning of Hawaiian Tribal Tattoos

Hawaiian Tribal Tattoos

Kakau is the name of the traditional tattoo art of the Hawaiian Islands.

This traditional style represents protection, war hula, and honoring the Gods.

It is also a representation of your family ancestors and honors their traditions and values.

This is such a fact, that for example, if a person is not honoring their ancestors in a favorable way with their lifestyle choices, they are deemed not ready to honor their ancestors with a tattoo.

Hawaiian Tribal Tattoo

Kakau tattoos differ from only Pacific tattoos because they use many overlapping symbols and line work that combine together and create an interesting piece of art.

This traditional art form still lives on today.

What are Kakau Tattoos?

The Kakau tattoos from the Hawaiian Islands are unusual in the way they shape and layer different elements of the tribal patterns into one larger piece.

This interesting style creates a Pacific islander tattoo type that’s unique to the Hawaiian Islands.

The word Kakau comes from the ancient tradition of Hawaiian tattooing, where the artist would actually cut the skin open using bone and add pigment to the wound.

Hawaiian Tribal Tattoo

This pigment would consist mainly of ash and soot from the kukui tree mixed together.

Kakau is a very painful process and although it came out like black ink afterward, it was only able to be done in black ink and hurt very badly.

Hawaiian Tribal Tattoo

For this reason, the mere act of receiving a tattoo was seen as a great act of bravery and the sign of a powerful person.

Both ancient Hawaiian men and women would receive tattoos however, men tended to cover their entire bodies with ink while women wouldn’t get as many.

These tattoos, for both genders, told stories and symbolized that individual’s past and what is important to them.

Hawaiian Tribal Tattoo

One reason a Hawaiian would traditionally get a tattoo is for the loss of a loved one.

This is an expression of deep pain and sorrow for their loss and also a way to remember them.

Men received Kakau in order to make themselves look more fierce in battle and appear more manly and powerful.

Hawaiian Tribal Tattoo

The point of being covered in tattoos was to induce fear in their opponents.

Today, people in Hawaii still get traditional tattoos to honor their past, however, modern tattoo art has taken shape in Hawaii and there is now a true mix of the old style and the new creations.

The History of Hawaiian Tribal Tattoos

The Hawaiian islands were settled over 800 years ago by Polynesian explorers who over time became further and further away culturally from their homeland and started to form their own distinct culture in Hawaii.

Captain Cook arrived on the islands in 1778.

He arrived on the coast of Kaua’i with great surprise to have a warm and friendly welcome to the island.

Hawaiian Tribal Tattoo

This may be because the Hawaiian people had mistaken him for the God Lono, the God of peace and agriculture.

Due to the mysteriousness of his ship and outfit, they took him for being a God rather than someone to oppose.

Hawaiian Tribal Tattoo

Captain Cook did not stay long on the Islands but did notice that there was a strong culture there that was built to support a population of around 500,000 people, as a rough estimate.

Tattoos on the islands used to be done by a kahuna, who was a tattoo master and highly respected.

Hawaiian Tribal Tattoo

Although it is known that the skin was cut open to add ink, there is also evidence that a needle was attached to a bone and pushed into the skin with a mallet.

The needles that could have been used were anything from a bird’s beak to fish bones tied to sticks or other bones.

The entire process is hard to have records of because it was done in absolute secrecy.

It was such a mystical and hidden process that the tattoo tools were actually destroyed after the tattoo process was finished.

Kakau Tattoo Designs and Their Meanings

Hawaiian tattoo designs can be symbolic in nature or actually be something that is represented in nature.

More typically, they are tribal tattoos that overlap different symbols with each other.

Hawaiian Tribal Tattoo

Each tattoo can be combined with other design elements to create a different meaning.

Hibiscus Kakau Tattoo Meaning

One of the most popular Hawaiian tattoo designs is the Hibiscus tattoo because the hibiscus is a common flower in the Hawaiian Islands and is in fact the state flower.

This tattoo was never done in color during ancient times, however, it is popularly done in color today.

The Hibiscus is considered a symbol of all the women of Hawaii.

The flower is given to women as a gift and is considered the ultimate symbol of femininity on the islands.

For Hawaiians, the hibiscus does not only have associations with femininity.

Each unique color of the hibiscus flower symbolizes something different.

For example, the hibiscus flower is a symbol of friendship, especially if it is a yellow hibiscus.

On the other hand, a white hibiscus flower symbolizes enlightenment and having true knowledge of wisdom about life.

Lizard Kakau Design Meaning

The gecko is the most popular type of lizard shown in Polynesian art.

It is able to stick and climb on nearly anything!

The lizard Kakau design is simple usually made up of just a few tribal patterns placed together to form the shape of a lizard.

The gecko was a sign of fear to the ancient Hawaiians and was seen as representing severely bad luck.

Having this tattoo could be seen as a way to ward off evil and carrying a bad omen with you could make you stronger.

It also means that you are bringing good luck to yourself and sending bad luck to your enemies.

Another meaning of Kakau Lizard tattoos is longevity.

The lizard is able to lose its tail and grow it back, signifying its ability to live through tough challenges.

The Kakau lizard tattoo may represent being tough and fearless through life and the hope that you will live for a very long time.

Sea Turtle Kakau Design Meaning

The sea turtle is an important symbol to Hawaiians because of their special relationship with their people and they sit closely in their hearts.

The tattoo typically shows the turtle laying flat with its legs sticking out, with its limbs and shell completely covered in tribal patterns.

The sea turtle to the ancient Hawaiians symbolized long life and a peaceful one.

The symbols tattooed within the turtle often emphasize the meaning of peace.

It also symbolized to Hawaiians the meaning of fertility because the sea turtle multiplies and creates life constantly.

These ancient meanings of the sea turtle apply today in new ways.

For example, a modern sea turtle tattoo could still mean that you wish to live a long life and perhaps want to create a symbol on your body of your desire for it to be a peaceful one.

Dolphin Kakau Design Meaning

Kakau dolphin tattoos usually are symbolic in nature.

The tattoo artist uses thick dark lines to create waves, triangles, and other shapes to form the body of the dolphin.

These waves that create the body often are reminiscent of the ocean and bring the tattoo to life.

To the ancient Hawaiians, as well as Polynesians in general, the dolphin symbolizes protection for anyone traveling in the sea.

Dolphins are seen as animals of guidance for seafarers.

As a tattoo, the Kakau dolphin symbolizes protection in your travels and will help to provide guidance for you especially if you travel a lot by sea.

Shark Kakau Design Meaning

The Kakau shark tattoo consists of many thin lines outlining the body as well as rows of triangles to form its sharp teeth and tribal symbols in thick black shapes to form the tail and the more intricate parts of the body.

The Kakau shark tattoo is an amazing display of tribal tattooing and is very meaningful as well.

Sometimes, it is also common for only the shark’s teeth to be displayed.

In that case, it is shown with rows of triangles placed in multiple different figurations, usually symmetrical.

Having a Kakau shark or shark teeth tattoo may provide you with shelter from evil spirits or from tragic events that could happen to you in your life.

It can also represent power and was a popular tattoo to bring protection to Hawaiian warriors.

The powerfulness and ferocity of the shark may provide its tattoo wearer the ability to increase their own power and give those who see it the idea that you are not to be messed with.

Finally, one last meaning of the Kakau shark tattoo is adaptability because of the shark’s ability to adapt to what nature throws at them.

Arrow Kakau Design Meaning

Also called spearheads, this Kakau design is essentially a triangle with a line going through its center as well as some shading to express the shape of a spearhead or arrow.

They are often placed one on top of another or lined up in a row.

They are also often part of a larger design, adding a central component inside of a larger Hawaiian shape or tribal design.

The Kakau arrow tattoo’s meaning is courage.

This too was a common tattoo for ancient Hawaiian warriors for two reasons.

They wanted others in the battle to fear them, but also, they wanted to enhance their own spiritual powers for strength and resilience.

This would be a good tattoo for someone to get who wants to embody a warrior’s spirit and courage.


Kakau tattoos are not only beautiful tribal tattoos but also have individualized meanings spanning back to ancient times.

Having a Kakau tattoo is like tapping into the history of the Hawaiian people.

These ancient relics of a wonderful group of people each have their own meaning, and as we have explained, may have multiple meanings, too.

Choosing a Kakau design depends on which meaning you want to take with you on life’s adventure.

It is important to note that the Kakau design you pick out may have to do a lot with aesthetics.

The overlapping tribal sequences and the creatures that are formed by tribal designs are pleasing to the eye and are definitely a reason to get a Kakau tattoo.

Whatever your reason is, a Kakau tattoo in any design is a great Polynesian tattoo for anyone.

Whether it be a small tattoo behind the ear or a full sleeve, Kakau tattoos and great for anyone who wants something different and something tribal.


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