Polynesian tattoos are part of a wide genre of tattoo styles that span over many islands in the Pacific.
For some, it may be hard to tell the difference between the various Polynesian cultures and their tattoo art; in a way, they are very similar.
They are all tribal in style and all have meanings related to the relationship between being an individual and being part of a tribe and lineage of ancestors.
However, these tattoo styles come in many different variations.
Each group of Polynesian people have their own tattoo designs that are unique to their culture.
Who Are the Polynesian People?
The Polynesians are a group of about two million people who are closely related and connected in culture because of their close proximity and therefore their ability to travel and settle amongst their neighbors.
The Polynesian people live in the Pacific Ocean and include the Maori, the Hawaiians, the Marquesans, the Samoans, and many other groups.
Living in New Zealand, the Maori people take pride in their warrior culture, yet they practice pacifism when it comes to meeting new cultures.
One important part of Maori culture is mana, which means power or prestige and refers to a powerful gift given to someone by a God or tribal leader.
The chief is allowed to either emphasize that supernatural gift or disintegrate it into nothing.
For this reason, individuals may have their names changed over time to reflect that power be given or lost.
Now a part of the United States, the Hawaiians didn’t always live in the modern way they do today.
Settled by other Polynesians only 800 years ago, these visitors slowly adapted to a new life on the Hawaiian islands and developed their own culture.
The Hawaiians worshiped many Gods including Lono, who is the God of peace and agriculture.
The Marquesan islands are extremely remote and sit somewhere between Tahiti and Mexico.
The Marquesan people celebrate an egalitarian society, unlike many of their Polynesian neighbors.
Everyone in their culture had their duty to society and they worked together to make it a peaceful one.
Samoan culture relies heavily on the hierarchy within the family.
For example, the Matai is the head of the family and instructs all of his family members on social and familial issues.
Also, it is important to know that the Samoans were excellent seafarers and built well-constructed canoes.
They were constantly traveling on the sea.
The Samoans had interesting social structures and were master builders, sea travelers, and had a fascinating tattoo culture.
There Are Many Polynesian Tattoo Cultures: What’s the Difference?
Although we group Polynesians as one group of people, the various groups of people living on the Pacific islands vary in the way they do tattoos.
Each culture uses unique tools, pigments, and manners of tattooing.
Also, there are special traditions or rules associated with each group’s tattoo culture.
We will take a look at how they are very similar as well, but first, let’s see what unique characteristics make up tattoo culture for these Polynesian groups.
The Maori Tattoo Culture
Maori tattoo culture is unique because, traditionally, Maori tattoos are most often done on the head.
This is because the head was considered the most spiritual and sacred part of the human body.
Tattoos on the face were reserved for those with a high social ranking because it was considered a privileged part of the body.
The process of getting a Maori tattoo is different from that of their fellow Polynesian neighbors.
Just like other Polynesian people they use a comb, typically made of bone, and a chisel.
However, the Maori tattoo tools include cerated chisels and flat-bladed chisels, both of which cut deeper into the skin than most other Polynesian tattoo instruments.
Pigment (made from tree resin, caterpillars, or soot) was then hit into the wound created by the chisel, in an extremely painful process.
The Hawaiian Tattoo Culture (Kakau Tattoos)
The Hawaiians call their tattoos Kakau, which is the traditional name for tattoos on the islands.
The Kakau tattoos 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.
Hawaiian tribal tattoos can be one of the most painful Polynesian tattoos as far as in ancient times.
This is because an artist would actually cut the skin open using bone and add pigment to the wound.
This pigment would consist mainly of ash and soot from the kukui tree mixed together.
This was a very painful process and hurt very badly.
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.
The Marquesan Tattoo Culture
So how does the process of a Marquesan tattoo differ from other Polynesian tattoos?
The pigment used was traditionally from the ama nut, which was cooked over a fire and the soot was then captured onto stones and dried on banana leaves.
The resulting soot was then made into an ink concoction with either coconut oil, water, or vegetable juice which makes an ink that is both safe to use in the skin and also permanent.
Ancient Marquesans used an interesting tool for tattooing, or, should I say, tools.
Each bone had a specifically shaped tip depending on the type of the tattoo, which is interesting because instead of just one comb there were different sized tools for each new line.
Another reason Marquesan tattoos are interesting is that getting a tattoo for a Marquesan wasn’t as simple as sitting down for a few hours.
People went as far as building a house for the tattoo artist to stay in and cooking them meals.
This would be reserved for wealthy families and could take weeks or months depending on how many tattoos the person was going to have done.
The Samoan Tattoo (Tatau) Culture
The Samoans call the word tattoo ‘tatau’ in their culture, and even have more words related to tattoos.
For example, the word ‘pe’a’ means ‘male tattoo’ and often refers to the dark charcoal-colored ink on the tatau.
The word for female tattoo is malu, which also means to be protected.
As for the tattoo process, Samoans use tattoo instruments made from wood, pig tusks, turtle shells, or other organic objects.
Their ink is unique too– they ground Indian ink or Kerosene soot in an empty coconut shell.
There is a misunderstanding that there are spiritual connotations with Samoan tattoos.
What’s unique about how Samoans view tattooing, in general, is that for the most part tattoo markings are simply decorations for the body for them.
The tatau are more of a symbol of pride and beauty in Samoan culture.
For Samoans, there are also societal duties that separate their culture from other Polynesians.
A Samoan male traditionally must ask his elders for approval for his tattoo request, and once it has been approved it is a proud moment for him.
What are the Similarities between Polynesian Tattoos?
Although we have mentioned several unique characteristics for each of these Polynesian cultures, there’s actually quite a lot that they have in common in both culture and technique.
The Polynesian people share many common similarities in the way they perform tattoos that makes their culture cohesive and connected.
Let’s take a look at some of the tattoo culture they all share:
Polynesian Tattoo Technique Similarities
Although there are slight differences between the Polynesian tattoo artists’ techniques, their tools and the way they perform the tattoos is very similar.
For example, a tattoo comb is used across Polynesian cultures and is usually made of similar organic materials such as bones, wood, and various animal parts.
This tattoo comb is very similar among the Polynesian cultures.
Also, all Polynesians use a small hammer to beat the ink-filled comb into the skin.
This technique is widespread and is one that is shared.
Also, don’t forget that all Polynesians tattoos use only black ink, which must be their most important similarity.
Polynesian Tattoos as a Right of Passage
Another similarity among Polynesia tattoo culture is the tattooing of young people as a sign of them entering into adulthood.
For example, a tattoo to the Maori was a right of passage for young people and a mark of identification for all.
They described peoples’ history of their lineage on their skin, as well as their identity within their tribe.
Also, Marquesan tattoos often were done to symbolize an event such as coming of age.
Marquesan men would get a tattoo as early as fourteen years old to signify that they have reached the age of maturity.
This was the same with girls, who when they became a woman (got their first period) they too would receive a tattoo in honor of their adulthood.
Tatau in the Samoan community were meant to be a message to their community that they are prepared to enter adulthood and serve as a respected member of society.
To the Samoan people, tattoos are an intricate part of life, performed with excruciating pain that leads to accepting that person as a mature individual.
It was a common practice for Polynesians to perform this tattoo process as a right of passage for entering society and showing their tribe that they are brave enough to withstand the pain of a tattoo and therefore can enter into adulthood.
Polynesian Tattoos and Men: A Warrior Mentality
It is common for ancient Polynesians and even some today to cover their whole bodies (head to toe) in tattoos.
This is commonly done on men rather than women, who receive fewer tattoos.
For example, both ancient Hawaiian men and women would receive tattoos; however, men tended to cover their entire bodies with ink.
More than just tribal tattoos, Marquesian tattoos were considered body armor that can cover the wearer from head to toe.
This is a good example of how Polynesian tattoos for men were considered a sign of bravery.
The warriors were the most tattooed guys around.
They believed that tattoos offered protection in battle, so they would be tattooed head to toe.
Every time a warrior accomplishes something, they would get another tattoo in honor of that event.
For instance, Hawaiian men received Kakau to make themselves look more fierce in battle and appear more manly and powerful.
The point of being covered in tattoos was to induce fear in their opponents.
This full-body tattoo process as well as the warrior mentality is linked between many Polynesian cultures.
Polynesian Tattoos as Simple Decoration
Although many Polynesian tattoos have important meanings, it is also common for Polynesians to receive tattoos for purely aesthetic purposes.
Just like in modern days, Polynesians wanted tattoos sometimes just to look good!
Many tattoos were used as decoration to make women more beautiful, especially so that when they are dancing their legs would show their tattoos and illuminate their amazing beauty.
Polynesian Tattoos as a Sign of Rank
Many Polynesian cultures view tattoos, whether it be their placement, their design, or simply getting one, as a sign of rank and an important message to society.
This is especially true of tattoos on the face, for some cultures, which can show that you are a high-ranking person in society.
For example, for Samoans, as opposed to the relative ease of men getting tatau, for women, the tatau were typically saved for high-ranking members of society.
There are many different rules about this depending on the culture, however, the Polynesians do share the commonality that tattoos often have the purpose of establishing meaning to society.
Tattoo Design: Common Polynesian Tattoos
Many Polynesian tattoos are shared between the different cultures.
Not to mention, they are all considered tribal tattoos in style and use tribal shapes to create imagery that is simple yet impactful.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common Polynesian tattoos:
Polynesian Triangle Tattoo Meaning
The triangle is one of the most common tribal shapes used in Polynesian tattoos.
The triangle is very versatile: the triangles can be lined up in a horizontal or vertical row, or even diagonally following thick black lines in a large piece.
The meaning of the triangle to Polynesians can vary depending on its placement within a larger shape.
Triangles can often symbolically shark teeth without actually showing a shark.
They also can represent arrows or spearheads when they are shaded to become a symbol of a weapon.
Niho Mano: Polynesian Shark Teeth Tattoos
As we mentioned when describing the meaning of triangles in Polynesian tattoos, shark teeth are usually shown as empty or filled in triangles, sometimes many of them with many rows and columns in a symmetrical form.
There are usually many shark teeth-shaped triangles altogether meant to represent this tribal tattoo artistically.
The meaning of the shark tooth tattoo for Polynesians is often protection from evil spirits or from dangers coming your way.
The shark tooth tattoo is also popular among Polynesian warriors because they believed it brought with them strength and courage in battle because of the fierceness of a shark’s set of razor-sharp teeth.
Polynesian Spearhead Tattoo Meaning
A spearhead or arrow in Polynesian tattoos is typically a triangle that is shaded in to appear to be a sharpened arrow.
This gives the tattoo dimension.
These arrows are often tattooed in a line and sometimes overlap each other.
They follow a band of lines, for example, flowing around someone’s wrist or arm and accented with black lines and typically surrounded by even more tribal tattoos.
The spearhead symbolizes strength and power to the Polynesians and most often is received by warriors who want their opponents to fear them.
They want the tattoo to give them the strength and ferocity to win in battle.
Polynesian Lizard Tattoo Meaning
Commonly found on many Polynesian Islands, Lizards are seen as divine animals.
The lizard tattoo is formed by Polynesian tattoo artists with many tribal symbols that when put together form the shape of the lizard.
This lizard tattoo style may look simple, but it is difficult to put so many tribal designs together to create one image.
The lizard to the Polynesians across the board is a good luck charm.
The Polynesians believed lizards have access to the Gods and are communicators between humans and the spirits above.
Therefore, they are considered a highly prized tattoo to receive and have the power to help the tattoo wearer in many ways.
Polynesian Sea Turtle Tattoo Meaning
For Polynesians, especially for Samoans and Hawaiians, the sea turtle and its shell have a special significance as a tattoo.
The turtle is usually shown as a basic body with its limbs sticking out using dark lines and a basic, tribal shape.
Sometimes the turtle is formed with simple lines and dots.
Though many Polynesians share this tattoo, the meaning of it differs depending on the specific culture.
For example, the meaning of the sea turtle and its shell for the Samoans is protection because of the turtle’s strong shield.
However, for the Hawaiians, they believe the turtle tattoo brings people peace in life and a long, happy life too.
If you are thinking about getting a tribal tattoo, you may want to seriously consider getting a Polynesian tattoo.
With so many cultures to choose from, there’s no way you can’t find a specific Polynesian culture that works with your philosophy or whatever design you desire.
Polynesian tattoos have many similarities and differences which allow you to decide which one is right for you.
The designs that are similar among the Polynesian cultures hold ties to many ancient cultures and will live on by modern people getting these designs.
Polynesian tattoos are perfect tribal tattoos for your first tribal tattoo, a sleeve, or even a small wrist tattoo.
The best part is there’s no need to make up a design: they are all right here for you to choose from and you have the chance to enter a tattoo lineage from an ancient past.
Alyssa Renee Hardy is a writer, curator, and photographer who publishes articles on the topics of the arts, culture, and social justice. She graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology with a degree in fashion business and art history and museum professions. Her experience working with a variety of art institutions, her world travel, and her inquisitive nature provides her with a unique insight. Check out her about page, she would love to connect with you!