Throughout history, people used tattoos to honor their tribes, nations, or just themselves. Tattoos were a tool to mark themselves as members of a tribe or specific culture and their status in it. One of the most mystical and, at the same time, fascinating tattoos is the Polynesian tattoo. Polynesian tattoos have a long history.
Tattoo artists strongly suggest researching the meaning behind this type of ink before you decide which element of the Polynesian tattoo you want. Choose wisely the design and respect the culture from which it came.
If you want to learn the meanings behind Polynesian tattoos keep reading this post.
History of the Polynesian Tattoo
Polynesian cultures include Samoans, Marquanes, Niueans, Tongans, Cook Island Maori, Hawaiian Maoli, Tahitian Ma’ohi, and New Zealand Maori. Genetically speaking, they are linked to indigenous peoples from regions of South Asia.
The skill and art of tattooing are important aspects of Polynesian cultures. In history, Polynesian people used tattoo art to express their personality, identity, tribe, place within tribe, achievements, status, etc. Their tattoo design was and, still is, full of distinctive signs. Almost everyone in Polynesian culture was tattooed. Since many islands in the Pacific belong to Polynesian culture, tattoo styles vary.
When James Cook first returned from his trip to New Zealand and Tahiti in 1771, the word „tattoo“ first appeared in Europe. James Cook followed the behaviors of the Polynesian people and he called it tattaw. A tradition of the Polynesian tattoo existed for over 2000 years. But in the 18th century, the Old Testament strictly banned this action. Since then, many lost arts were revived in the 1980s.
Tattoo art in Polynesia first started in Tonga and Samoa. Tongan warriors were tattooed from the waist to the knees. Tattoo designs included shapes, patterns, triangles, and solid black. The tattooing process was slow and very painful. But those people who wore tattoos prided themselves on the endurance of the pain and bravery.
The tattoo ritual was done in separate sitting, usually lasting a whole day, and they had a healing time between each one. The whole tattoo usually took a month to complete. Islanders went to multiple tattoo rituals throughout their whole life until the whole body was covered in the tattoo. Only priests that took a long time to specialize in the tattooing process were able to perform these rituals. The tattoo was mostly for men but some Samoan women wore this body art. In women, tattoos were more subtle and delicate.
The placement of the Polynesian tattoo has a very important role in their tradition. Some elements are related to a specific meaning based on where you put your tattoo.
40+ Polynesian Tattoo Design Ideas (And Meanings Behind Them)
Scroll down to see some of the best Polynesian tattoo designs you can choose.
1. Head Polynesian Tattoo Designs
In Polynesian tradition, humans are children of Rangi, which represents Heaven, and Papa which represents Earth. Rangi and Papa had 70 children and would lie locked in a tight embrace while their kids were cramped in the darkness underneath. Children would often discuss how great it would be to see the light. One child suggests they should kill them, while others propose it would be best to separate Rangi and Papa.
Polynesian people believe men’s quest in his life is to find that union. So the body is the link between Rangi and Papa. The upper part of the body is linked to the spiritual aspect while the low part of the body is linked to the earth.
With that been said the head is the direct link to Rangi. This placement of Polynesian tattoos means knowledge, spirituality, intuition, and of course wisdom.
2. Arm Polynesian Tattoo Designs
In Polynesian tradition shoulder and upper arm tattoos represent strength and bravery. They are associated with warriors. And lower arm and hand represent creativity or making things.
If you opt for a Polynesian tattoo there is no better way to represent your strength and masculinity than to get one on your arm area. Use your life story, an important milestone, or something that makes you stronger and powerful as a design inspiration for your tattoo. That way, your tattoo will be unique.
3. Leg Polynesian Tattoo Designs
In Polynesian culture legs and feet represent progress or moving forward. Legs and feet may also stand for choice or separation. Feet are the direct link to the Papa and symbolize material things. But the joints represent the union.
Traditionally, Polynesian warriors would wear these kinds of tattoos. This is, actually, the most compelling leg art in the world. With its traditional warrior leg design and meaning behind it, the Polynesian tattoo perfectly alines in the frame of the men’s leg and shapes it perfectly. This kind of tattoo shows your muscle, strength, and endurance linked to your ability to focus on the body and its image.
4. Polynesian Sea Turtle Tattoo Design
The turtle or honu is one of the most important creatures in Polynesian culture, especially for the Samoans and Hawaiians. Polynesian cultures associate turtles with many meanings. First is that the turtle symbolizes health and fertility, peace and rest.
The turtle represents unity among the families. It is usually designed as a basic body, with its limbs sticking out of the shell, using dark lines and tribal shapes. And sometimes tattoo artists use lines and dots to draw the turtle.
For the Polynesian people, the ocean is the source of food and they also believed it’s the place where they are going to rest afterlife. Because the turtle moves from the shore to the ocean, Polynesians believed these lovely animals bring them closer to their final resting place.
Contrary to some beliefs, turtles drawn upwards don’t imply they’re taking the soul of the dead to the opposite world. If you want to represent this idea, the design needs to feature a person’s figure on or near the shell of the turtle.
5. Lizard Polynesian Tattoo Designs
Lizards and geckos are called mo’o or moko. They play an important role in Polynesian tradition. Gods or atua and other spirits in Polynesian myths often appeared in form of the lizard. This is the reason Polynesian lizard tattoos are designed in a similar form as the form of humans.
For Polynesian people, a lizard is a very powerful creature and it represents good luck, communication between God and humans, and it is believed they can access the invisible world. But they can bring bad luck and bad omens to those who are disrespectful.
Lizard tattoos look simple but actually, it’s very difficult and requires great skill to incorporate the image in many tribal designs and create one single piece of art. It is considered lizard tattoos bring power and help wearers in many ways.
6. Polynesian Spearhead Tattoo Designs
In Polynesian tattoo designs, a spearhead or arrow is typically triangle-shaped and shaded to look like a sharpened arrow. This type of tattooing gives the tattoo a new dimension.
Often arrows or spearheads are placed in a manner to overlap each other. In Polynesian tradition, spearhead symbolizes courage and combativeness, fighting energy and spirit. You can find a spearhead in almost every Polynesian tattoo design. This tattoo is not just for warriors in the battle. If you have an inner warrior or you are fighting for something with yourself this tattoo is perfect for you. Sometimes the inner battle is the most important one.
7. Shark Teeth Polynesian Tattoo Designs
For Polynesian people, shark teeth are usually designed as triangles with empty space or filled with ink. Shark teeth often symbolize protection from evil or sometimes indicate evil is coming your way. For the Polynesian warriors, shark teeth also represent strength in battle. Also, this tattoo could depict shelter, power, ferocity, etc.
Shark teet, or niho mano, are among the most famous symbols in Polynesian culture. They also represent God in Polynesian culture. Almost over 50% of the Polynesian tattoo designs have shark teeth in them.
Tattoo artists often incorporate spearheads, shark teeth, lizards in one tattoo which looks incredible in the end. Every symbol has its meaning and every tattoo has its. Tell your story to your tattoo artist and together you can create a tattoo that is meaningful to you and deserves to be on your skin.
8. Ocean Polynesian Tattoo Designs
The ocean is the second home to Polynesian people. It is the place of rest when they leave for their last voyage. Sometimes the ocean is used to represent death and beyond death.
As we said earlier, ocean is a source of food for the Polynesian people, so it is no surprise it has a big place in their traditions, tattoos and myths. And of course, ocean and sea are represented in form of waves.
Polynesian cultures believed that the ocean is the place where ancestors lived.
For the purpose of tattoo design, the ocean is incorporated with other elements to make a bigger picture. Just remember if you decide to get a Polynesian tattoo, every element has its meaning. Keep in mind Polynesian people preserve their heritage, and be respectful of their traditions and beliefs.
9. Tiki Polynesian Tattoo Designs
In Polynesia, the word tiki represents an image, a human figure with big eyes, nose, ears, and of course mouth. Polynesia has a lot of myths about tiki.
According to the Maori myth, tiki is the first human created by the god called Tane. For the Maori, tiki is a half-human half-god, associated with the ancestors. But in other myths, tiki is the demigod who created the first men.
Demigod is opposite to atua, who often appeared to the humans in non-human form, like a lizard. Traditionally, tiki always has closed eyes, and nostrils are always shown. Mouths are always open and ears are big. These attributes indicated that tiki can smell the danger even when its eyes are closed. It has the ability to chase and feel evil.
Tiki’s hands are usually shown with three fingers. This is especially represented in the Maori tradition where every finger has its own meaning. Generally, they are used to represent fertility and protection. Tiki can also symbolize ancestors, priests, and chiefs. Usually, that image is used to stand for the ancestors who become demigods after their passing. They are like guardian angels to the tattoo wearers.
Over the years, the image of tiki has been simplified. This new, simple design is called the „brilliant eye“. In this case, tiki’s eye, nostrils, and ears appear to be prominent elements.
10. Stingray Polynesian Tattoo Designs
Stingray Polynesian tattoo comes in different forms and designs. This tattoo is a symbol of freedom. But it also represents a quiet force or fighter. Stingray is an animal that hides its world power through wisdom and humility.
You see, the stingray has the power and knowledge to hide and cover within the underwater sand. When the danger is near, the stingray remains still. In most cases, the danger comes from sharks.
Stingray tattoo is a symbol of security, adaptation, peacefulness, speed, and stealth. For many people, this is a top choice for tattoos primarily because stingrays are quiet, have a mild temper, and yet so powerful.
For those who are looking for a tattoo design that represents peace and security, stingray is a perfect choice. In Polynesian design, a stingray is most suitable for people who aren’t afraid to show their emotion on the sleeve or chest even the neck.
Stingray tattoo can be quite challenging due to its shape and placement. The most challenging part to tattoo is the barb because an artist needs to leave space for it behind the body.
The easiest solution, in most cases, is to place the stingray on the chest or the back. These areas are relatively large and give tattoo artists a lot of space to work with. But if you are looking for a smaller or medium size stingray Polynesian tattoo, the arm is also a great space.
Polynesian Tattoo Designs: More FAQ
Can Someone Who is Not Polynesian get a Polynesian Tattoo?
Polynesia tattoo designs use two kinds of symbols. Some of these designs are scared and referred to as tapu, while others are considered noa, or not scared. Tapu elements should be reserved for someone of Polynesian heritage after the do propper ceremonies. So, if you are not Polynesian, you may want to get noa elements.
Of course, these tattoos are most suitable for persons who respect Polynesian cultures. These meaningful tattoos are not for fun or trends.
Is Still Possible to Get a Polynesian Tattoo With Traditional Tools?
Yes, it is. Traditional Polynesian tattoo is hand-poked. In most cases, persons with Polynesian heritage opt for this kind of tattooing in order to preserve their tradition and be closer to their ancestors.
Is it Offensive to Polynesian People When Non-Polynesians Get Their Tattoos?
It all depends on how you approach the culture in the tattoo design. That means, your tattoo should include elements that depict your life story. It is always disrespectful to simply copy someone else’s tattoos without considering the meaning behind them.
Can I Incorporate Non-Polynesian Elements in Polynesian Tattoos?
If it relates to your story, you can. Polynesian tattoos and other images can blend with a great visual appeal. So you can decide to include some elements that are meaningful to you. People always tend to go for multiculturalism, so why not include that into tattoo design.
Is It OK to Add Letters For the Polynesian Tattoo Design?
Yes. But you need to keep in mind this is not a traditional approach. Polynesian people did not use an alphabet in their tattoos. Today, there is a method to incorporate letters in Polynesian tattoo designs and styles.
This method is called Maorigrams and it’s based on two Maori symbols that are shaped in all the letters. But, be wise. If you want to get a tattoo of someone’s name in Polynesian design, you should make sure this person is special. You don’t want to regret it later.
Why There are Different Polynesian Tattoo Designs?
To simplify, the Polynesian tattoo is just a general term used for tattooing traditions throughout the Pacific islands. All traditions share the same technique. The five main Polynesian traditions in tattooing that are still present are Samoan, Marquesan, Tahitian, Maori, and Hawaiian.