Polynesians were among the first to incorporate body art into their culture. Each and every Polynesian tattoo was designed specifically for the wearer. Chiefs would have amazing details on their bodies to show their status and power. The same goes for every elder and warrior.
Polynesian tattoo designs are not just made to be beautiful. These tell stories about the person and the culture itself. While tribal tattoos these days are more for show, traditional Polynesian inks were rich in meaning and history.
For the natives of Samoa, Hawaii, Marquesa islands, New Zealand, and the Cook islands, tattoos are a part of their identity.
History of the Polynesian Tattoo
- 1 History of the Polynesian Tattoo
- 2 Tattoos in Tonga and Samoa
- 3 Tattoos in Different Parts of Polynesia
- 4 Polynesian Tattoo Dictionary
- 5 Placement of the Tattoo
- 6 Polynesian Tattoos Today
Polynesian cultures didn’t have a writing system, historically. Tattoo art and the images they conjure have been one of the ways that they were able to communicate with each other and with other tribes. The majority of Polynesian society got inked back then. These were their way of indicating social hierarchy, sexual maturity, and ranks in the society.
Captain James Cook was the one who brought the word “tattoo” in Europe after he explored the islands in the Polynesian triangle. He also brought a Tahitian with him to Europe, and it was then that tattooing became widespread.
Stories about European sailors who got tattooed by Polynesian tribes were also abundant. As they sailed back home, their adorned bodies brought the culture of Polynesia to their countries.
Polynesian tattoos are believed to have been around for 2000 years.
Tattoos in Tonga and Samoa
Polynesian tattoo started being a highly refined art around Tonga and Samoa. Tongan warriors would have tattoos from the waist to their knees. Designs were often in geometrical patterns – with a repeated triangle motif and solid black areas. They would get tattoos from priests that have undergone long training and rituals.
Samoan culture also highly revered their tattooing process. It will be done by a person from the lineage of tattoo artist – it was one of the highly respected positions in the tribe. Just with Tongan tattoo, Samoans would have their from the waist down to the knees.
Even women in Samoa would get tattoos. While men’s designs are bolder, theirs are often more delicate. Geometrical flower-like patterns would adorn their hands and the lower part of the body.
Tattoos in Different Parts of Polynesia
Polynesia has over 1000 islands. Each of these place has their own culture and society so it’s not surprising to know that each tribe and island has their own way of tattooing. It could be based by the design or how they are made.
Historians believe that the first people of Polynesia landed on the Marquesa Islands. As time went by, they spread around the the surrounding islands.
In the island, tattoos are known as marks of beauty. They get inked for aesthetic purposes and appear more attractive. Apart from that, getting tattooed also marked the rites of passage they went through in life.
Samoan tattoos were all about the wearer. It signifies his or her social status – narrating everything about him/her from their age, social standing, and rank in place in their life. Both men and women get larger sized tattoos that could take a grueling experience.
Men’s tattoos are known as pe’a. This is usually done under the rib cage to the ankles and have larger solid black areas. Female tattoos are known as malu. Although the tattoos are bigger in size, they lack the black spaces. Most Samoan females also have tattoos on their hands.
This kind of Polynesian tattoo would be done with a pig or shark’s teeth. Once the tattooing has started, they have to continue doing it until the very done. Otherwise, it would mean disgrace for the wearer.
Tonga tattoos were very similar to Samoan tattoos. That’s because both art define the wearer and his life. They are more than just art that adorns their bodies like accessories; these are their life story.
Hawaiian tattoos are personal to the wearer – but not as extensively as both Tongan and Samoan tattoos. The designs often have a meaning that is related to the wearer. They also wear designs that are used to dedicate to their deceased loved ones.
However, most Hawaiian tattoos were known as talismans or protections. Usual elements include abstract tribal patterns, turtles, and flowers.
Maori tattoos from New Zealand
The Maori tribe which inhabits New Zealand are perhaps well known for their unique Polynesian tattoo style. Theirs consists of spirals which is then modified as the wearer gains age and experience. However, it’s not just the design that made them world-famous. It’s where they place their tattoos.
Maori tattoos are often done on the head. They believe that it’s the most sacred part of the body and denotes their pride in their culture.
According to Polynesian belief, Tiki was the first human being. Because of its great significance to the culture, Tiki tattoos are among the most popular.
Most Polynesian temples have the image of this mythical ancestor – most of the time in the form of statues. The statues’ hands and face are adorned with distinct designs. These designs are also what inspire some Polynesian tattoos.
Tahiti as we know it is also known as French Polynesia. In this island, only those of high social status are inked. It can be a man or a woman but they must have gone through various stages of life to get a complete tattoo. This could go around the entire body with the exception of the head.
Women get tattoos at a very young age. As they grow into adults, the tattoos are modified. Having great tattoo plays a vital role for women to get a partner.
Easter Island tattoos
In Easter Island, there is a belief that the body becomes more sacred once it is inked. If they get a tattoo, they are able to communicate with the divine. Both men and women can get a tattoo.
The most prominent Polynesian tattoo in this area are dots and lines that extend from one ear to the other. This often covers the forehead of the wearer. Apart from that, designs also vary from spears, turtles, boats and birds.
Cook Island tattoos
The tattoos in this area of Polynesia are comprised of larger designs. These typically cover the entire body of the wearer.
Polynesian Tattoo Dictionary
Polynesian tattoo designs are still alive to this day. However, they are far from the usual tribal tattoos we see nowadays. Most of the tribal styles we see today are more for aesthetics and are usually just well-thought shapes and patterns.
But that from Polynesian countries were often inspired by what they see around them. Each design holds a story and a deeper meaning.
Usually, a Polynesian tattoo is one big design with various elements working together as one. Here are some of the most common elements you’ll see in a Polynesian tattoo and what they tell:
The Marquesan cross is based off of a turtle’s shell. This is an abstract design that symbolizes the balance between the elements. It also represents universal harmony.
The entata is known as a “human symbol.” This element symbolizes both men and gods. A circle of entata signifies a group of people in a common activity. It could signify warriors, a family, or brothers in arms. An upside-down entata denotes the enemy.
The turtle tattoo is one of the most common motifs in a Polynesian tattoo. While the traditional design was more simple, turtle tribal tattoos today are more grand. It resembles a real life turtle more – with regards to the shape and the patterns at the back.
As a tattoo, this means long life, wellness, union, family, and harmony. It also symbolizes the navigator. A turtle design is one of the most common centerpieces.
The sun is perhaps the most important element in any Polynesian society. As a tattoo design, it’s a lot simpler. But it is also one of the main centerpieces of huge designs. This means richness, brilliance, and rebirth.
Lizard or usually gecko tattoos have different meanings on various areas of Polynesia.
One meaning is the power to communicate with the gods. When you have a lizard tribal tattoo, they believe it will bring good luck and fortune. The Maori, on the other hand, believe that this motif is a ward against evils and illnesses. Until now, lizard tattoos remain to be one of the most popular tribal designs around the world.
Lizards could be done one its own or can be a stylized pattern that you can use for a bigger design.
In Polynesian culture, the people believe that the ocean is their final destination – the place where they go if they die. With that, ocean waves are the symbol of death and the world beyond.
Ironically though, the ocean is their main source of food. That’s why it also signifies fertility, abundance, and persistence. Ocean waves are often used as patterns surrounding the main motif of a tattoo. There is a simplified and stylized version of ocean waves with the latter more similar to real life.
The shark teeth pattern or “nino mano” is a rather popular Polynesian tattoo motif. It’s one of the patterns that are most used in tattoos. This stems from the belief that the shark was the god of the Polynesian people. Therefore, this became a symbol of shelter, power, and guidance.
As a design, the shark teeth is simple. It’s a pattern of triangles that resemble the shark points of a shark’s teeth.
Spearheads are geometrical patterns that is used as an expression of courage and fight. A line of spearheads that are facing the same direction means the defeat of the enemy.
Since this design is connected to battles, warriors often have this design as part of their tattoos.
This human-like image is a particularly familiar sight around the world. It’s one of the best symbols that represent the Polynesian culture. It can be found as a statue and a decor in some tropical-themed places even in USA or Europe.
The tiki is an important sign in Polynesia. People believe that it possesses supernatural powers which it uses to protect and guard the people. As a tattoo design, it also represents the first man or the creator of the first man.
Tikis are also one of the main centerpieces of Polynesian body art.
The stingray can be designed in many ways, but usually with geometric patterns.
The stingray’s ability to hide in the sides, even from a perceptive shark, has earned its meaning of protection. Apart from that, it also means gracefulness, agility, speed, peacefulness, and stealth.
Placement of the Tattoo
When it comes to Polynesian tattooing, the placement is vital. There are some elements that relate to specific meanings of each placement in the body. That means where you have your tattoo has an influence on the meaning of your Polynesian tattoo.
According to Polynesian legend, humans are the children of Rangi (Heaven) and Papa (Earth). They believe heaven and Earth was once united. Man’s quest is to find that union again. Therefore, the body is known as the link between Rangi and Papa.
The upper part of the body is apparently related to heaven while the lower part of the body is related to earth. The left side of the body is also associated with women and the right with the mean.
Polynesian Tattoos Today
Polynesian tattoos are very important. Up until now, these are still done by many tribes in the area. But it has also gained international popularity with many tattoo enthusiasts wanting to get one.
But because of their importance to the people of Polynesia, everyone should be well aware of what they’re going to have. A design should be made with research and with an artist that knows how to do the job well. This is to help maintain the rich culture of Polynesian countries and of tattooing.