The use of tattoos as body art is in no way recent. As a matter of fact, it has been a part of the human culture for centuries. When we go back to the roots of tattoo-ing, it’s hard not to include Polynesian tattoos in the conversation. That’s mainly because many of the tattoo designs used today have their roots in the Polynesian islands. Plus, they look totally badass if you ask us.
Polynesian tattoos have been extremely popular for a very long time; and the fact that they’ve been around during ancient times only makes them more alluring and, why not, interesting. Back in the day, getting a Polynesian tattoo meant going through a great deal of pain and testing one’s endurance. That didn’t keep people from getting inked though – tattoos were actually a part of the culture of the Polynesian islands, so sporting body art was a must for island natives belonging to the tribes which resided in one of the islands – Samoa, Tahiti, the Marquesa Islands, the Cook Islands, New Zealand, Tonga, Easter Island and Hawaii.
Polynesian tattoos vary in symbolic meanings depending on the culture of the island they came from. As you might have guessed, each island has its very own customs and traditions. Some locals used tattoos as protective talismans, while others though getting inked was more as a rite of passage to express their belonging to a specific tribe. Moreover, having a tattoo meant you’re strong and courageous, and who wouldn’t want that on their resume?
If you’re looking to get a Polynesian tattoo yourself, it’s best to start by understanding the different nuances of the meaning behind this type of body art. To get you started, here’s a quick look at each island’s particular heritage.
Generally speaking, Samoan tattoos are large and complex, popular with both men and women. Traditionally, a Samoan tattoo can be read like a book and it’s meant to provide some details about the wearer’s rank, age and societal position. In other words, it allows you to figure out some very private details about the owner of the tattoo by just taking a look at their body art.
Easter Island Tattoos
In the Easter Island, tattoos are very closely linked to spirituality. The inhabitants of the island thought the skin is sacred, and getting a tattoo would allow them to communicate more clearly with the gods. As a consequence, tattoos were often stylized versions of what the wearer wanted to have control over. More often birds, boats, or spears.
Tonga tattoos are very similar to Samoan tattoos. They were meant to symbolize one’s journey through life, including details about their age, rand, and status.
Cook Island Tattoos
Inhabitants of the Cook Island used tattoos to symbolize their belonging to a certain tribe. The designs were very specific and allowed the wearer to experience a sense of belonging, which I personally think it’s an amazing feel. Those tribes were close-knit communities, and wearing tattoos gave them the chance to highlight this fact.
Here’s when things get interesting. While some used tattoos to emphasize the fact that they belong to a community, others relied on them to showcase their superiority. In Tahiti, tattoos were reserved to those who belonged to the upper classes. Few were found on the face, while most Tahitian tattoos were displayed all over the body.
The Marquesa Islands
In the Marquesa Islands, tattoos were linked to beauty. People wore them for appearance purposes, to look more attractive for a potential mate. While they were sometimes used to mark the passage of time through life, their main objective was to attract the attention of the opposite sex. And who can blame them, right?
Hawaiian tattoos are the most complex of the Polynesian tattoos. While some used to wear them for protection, they are usually a symbol of personal identification. In the same note, these tattoos are also worn in honor of a loved one who had passed.
In New Zealand, tattoos are a show of strength, courage, and social status. Traditional tattoos are fairly complex and may need years to complete. They are also usually accompanied by a ritual created for the wearer, symbolizing a new rank of passage in life.
When choosing your own Polynesian tattoo, it’s always best to work with an artist who understands traditions and symbols. They can help you come up with a unique design that incorporates important symbols and showcases your personality. As with most tattoos today, Polynesian tattoos are worn by people who want to embrace tradition and history, but are also willing to go the extra mile and bring their own meaning into the mix. You can go for a Polynesian design if you admire or enjoy the rich culture of these wonderful islands, or… well, if you simply enjoy the way they look. After all, there’s nothing wrong with that. However, it’s always best to understand the meaning behind your tattoo, so I strongly advise you to use these designs as inspiration or a starting point from where you build your very own art.
That being said, if you’re set on getting a traditional Polynesian tattoo to pay homage to the culture, it’s always best to start small. Body art can enhance your features and express your personality without occupying a large portion of your skin. You don’t need a large, convoluted design; all you need is an interesting approach to an already popular trend. If this is your first tattoo, you can go for something authentic, rare, beautiful, and interesting. To give you a starting point, I’ve listed a few elements common with Polynesian culture below. You will be able to understand the meaning behind each element, so you’ll make a more informed choice when it comes to deciding what goes on your body.
Tiki is a popular Polynesian tattoo element consisting of a human-like figure representing semi-gods. They usually symbolize protection and they pay a very important role in Polynesian culture. To highlight their importance, Tiki’s organs are often separately drawn – as they represent different meanings. For instance, nose symbols mean sniffing danger before its coming. Smart, right? Most Polynesian tattoo designs contain one or more tiki symbols, depending on the wearer’s preferences.
In Polynesian tattoo designs, shells are very common – especially turtle shells. Turtles are extremely important sea creatures, so it’s only natural they should be vastly featured in body art designs. Turtle shells usually symbolize peace, fertility, longevity, and wellness; which makes them a great choice for anybody looking to live a long, healthy life. Sea shells, on the other hand, can symbolize protection and intimacy. Plenty of couples go for tattoos of sea shells to symbolize love and marriage. They’re not as common as turtle shells, but they’re still fairly popular.
The Marquesan cross is another symbol which is quite popular and widely used in many Polynesian tattoo designs, because it symbolizes the balance between elements. In other words, if you’re a lover of peace and harmony, this symbol may just be the perfect choice for you. It’s often connected to the turtle shell, since the two go very well together.
The sun often goes with other symbols in Polynesian tattoo designs, in order to express specific meanings. On its own, it stands for brilliance, grandness and leadership. The fact that it rises every day gives people a sense of eternity and consistence, which is a common occurrence in many cultures around the world. The sun rising may symbolize rebirth, while the sunset usually stands for a passageway to another world. The meanings of Polynesian tattoo designs which include the sun can vary from design to design. The rays of the sun are usually paired with other symbols express associated meanings.
Ocean symbols are usually used to fill some blank blocks in order to shape complete patterns. Kind of boring, right? Well, if you’re looking for something deeper, Polynesian people also think about the ocean as their final destination where they go when they pass away. It can be a symbol of death, but it’s also a symbol of life – since it’s a source of food. It all depends on how you prefer to look at it. You can use ocean waves are used to symbolize the world beyond, or you can use a symbol of the ocean to convey the idea of fertility and persistence.
This is a pretty popular fish symbol in Polynesian culture. In Polynesian language, shark teeth are called “niho mano.” They generally represent guidance, power, and ferocity. Sharks also represent the god of Polynesian people, so shark teeth are a great symbol for spirituality.
Enata is a typical motif in Polynesian tattoo designs and it usually stands for humans and gods alike. It’s commonly used to represent life experiences – birth, rank in society, marriage, family and so on. Additionally, entire stories can be told with the help of enatas – a combination of such a symbol and a creature means defending this dangerous creature. A reversed enata can be used to symbolize an enemy. To put it simply, it has a lot of meanings and can be used in a variety of ways.
How to choose a design
A veritable Polynesian tattoo is created just for you, based on the information you give to the tattoo artist. That way, besides being beautiful, the tattoo will also have some personal significance. Alternatively, you can go with a design from our examples; each of them make for a great choice even without being especially meaningful to you. After all, a tattoo is meant to showcase who you really are, so if one of the tattoos from our list really speaks to you, there’s no reason you shouldn’t go for it.
Popular designs usually incorporate a multitude of elements – daggers, tikis, masks, waves, stylized animals, abstract swirls and so on. Once you find a design you like, do some further research into it. What other meanings does it represent? Are you comfortable with any other meanings that can be attached to it? It’s best to make sure in order to cover all your bases before getting a permanent tattoo.
The majority of these tattoos are black and white, but you can definitely add some color if you feel like it. I strongly advise you pick a single color to give the design a bit of an edge and use it sparingly. Colors commonly used in Polynesian-inspired tattoos include red, gray, and purple.
Celebrities with Polynesian tattoos
Celebrities are known trend-setters, so there’s no wonder a few of them decided to decorate their bodies with traditional Polynesian body art. Dwayne Johnson, aka “The Rock,” has a large tattoo on his shoulder, which is full of meaning. The tattoo is Samoan and is dedicated to his spirituality and family. As with most Polynesian tattoos, the patterns that make up the sleeve symbolize different things. The Rock used many elements to build the design – a symbol for Samoan Chief Warrior, elements representing his O lo’u to’a (wife) and his lo’u afafine (daughter), a sun for good fortune, wo eyes called “O Mata E Lua” to represent his ancestors watching over his path, swirls that stand for past, present, and future, a face marked with shark teeth that stands for his strength & struggles, stones of achievement, a turtle shell to deflect evil spirit, and , two eyes called “O Mata E Lua” to represent his ancestors. As we’ve already said, Polynesian tattoos are usually complex, so it takes a train eye to decipher them.
Another celebrity rocking a Polynesian tattoo is Michael Tyson, who attracted a lot of criticism (and interest) when he decided to tattoo his face. The design represents his warrior spirit – as such a tattoo usually does in cultures of Maoris and Samoans. Some fans like it, some don’t, but you have to agree it still makes a splash; and its meaning only highlights the fact that Tyson is still a warrior, even though he doesn’t compete anymore.
Robbie William also has a Maori tattoo on his sleeve. The tattoo is about his life and was done by traditional Maori. Rihanna got a traditional Maori tattoo in New Zealand on her hand, but eventually covered it up because she wasn’t happy with the design. David Beckham also sports Polynesian-inspired ink – as does Ben Harper.
Polynesian tattoos are some of the first ever recorded or reproduced. If you want to express your love for the culture, they’re the perfect way to go. Find a skilled tattoo artist and, together, come up with a design that will allow you to truly showcase your island colors.