Polynesian Tattoos – Styles, Symbols and Meanings

Polynesian Tattoo is a unique style that has great impact on modern tattoo design. For example, tribal design uses Polynesian symbols and style to make it look masculine or exotic. However, for indigenous Polynesians, the significance is beyond body art to get a tattoo on the body. Tattooing has always been a sacred process in Polynesian culture.

The Polynesian Triangle

Polynesia is a subregion of Oceania, comprising of over 10,000 islands which is generally defined as the Polynesian Triangle. Geographically, the Polynesian Triangle is drawn by connecting the points of Hawaii, New Zealand, and Easter Island. The other main islands within the Polynesian Triangle include Samoa, Tonga, Tahiti and the Cook Islands.

Polynesia triangle
The Polynesian Triangle is a geographical region of the Pacific Ocean with Hawaii (1), New Zealand (2) and Easter Island (3) at its corners. At the center is Tahiti (5), with Samoa (4) to the west.

Polynesian Tattoo Styles

Despite many languages, the people who inhabit in different Polynesian islands share many similar traits in culture and beliefs. Tattoo is certainly one of them. However, the style of tattooing varies from island to island, which are usually named after the names of islands or people.

  • Samoan tattoo – a tattoo style indigenous to Samoa island. The Samoan tattoo for men is called pe’a, which consists of intricate geometrical patterns covering areas from waist to knees. The Samoan tattoo for women is called malu that covers the legs from the upper thighs to the knees.
  • Hawaiian tattoo – the ancient tattoo art also known as Kakau, is sacred to the Hawaiian people, mainly used to represent one’s social status.
  • Maori tattoo – aka Ta Moko, is a form of facial tattoo art practiced by Maori people in New Zealand. Maori tattoos feature intricate spiral or round patterns and symbols with unique meanings. It is a way to tell stories about their owners, reflecting social rank, power and status.
  • Tahitian tattoos – an indigenous tattoo style to Tahiti, the largest island in French Polynesia. The origin of the English word ‘tattoo’ actually came from the Tahitian word ‘tatau’. In ancient Tahitian culture, there were strict codes governing the use of tattooing for it represented one’s e social standing.
  • Marquesan tattoo – aka patutiki, a traditional tattoo design originating from Marquesas Islands. Similar to Maori tattoos, Marquesan tattoos are rich in spiral or rounded elements and share a more figurative style.

Placement of Polynesian tattoos

Despite the distance of the islands, traditional Polynesian tattoos display proximal visual art effect, which embody the spiritual power, lineage or deeds for the wearers. Besides the motifs or symbols, the placement plays role in expressing their meanings.

Head

The head connects to Rangi which means sky. In Maori and other Polynesian mythology, Rangi was a god of the sky, husband of the earth goddess Papa. A tattoo on this placement reminds people of spirituality, knowledge and wisdom.

One of typical head tattoos is Maori facial tattoo or ta moko. Each moko contains ancestral tribal messages specific to the wearer. That’s why copying a facial tattoo is considered greatly offensive.

Higher trunk

The area is from the navel onto the chest, a place between Rangi and Papa, the earth goddess who gave birth to all things by making love to the sky.

Belly

The belly or stomach, is associated to Mana, a supernatural power in Polynesian peoples may exist in person or inanimate objects.

Arms and shoulders

Many people are amazed by the tribal tattoos on this body part. Shoulders and arms are the best places for the masculine designs that represent strength and bravery.

Thigh

The thigh tattoos are of great sentimental value for women. In Samoan culture, it was an important rite of passage for young Samoan women to get tattoo from the upper thighs to the knees. This placement is particularly related to strength and marriage. For young women, it used to be the sole outfit for daughter of the chief.

Leg

In Polynesian tattoos designs, calf, the front of lower leg and the full lower leg are the popular placements for leg tattoos.

Polynesian Tattoo Symbols and their meanings

Polynesian body art is highly associated with their living surroundings. A large number of symbols are used as the motifs in the tattoo designs, . Each of them acquires a meaning related to its inner nature and embodies that meaning to the bearer of the tattoo. Below are some of the examples and their meanings.

Enata

This symbol appears in tattoos representing human figures, men and women and god, beings with powers and qualities of the same kind as living men.

Kena

The motif embodies a Marquesan hero which represents strength, courage and tenacity.

Spear heads

The classic symbol in Polynesian Tattoos which often appears as a row of spearheads, representing warrior and masculine power.

Centipede

A centipede is a creatures that can be found across Polynesian islands. Its aggressive nature makes it perfect symbol of fighting and warrior. In Samoan tattoos, centipede means god of long time since.

Lizard

Lizards and geckos are important and significant to Polynesian myths and culture. The Samoans revered several gods in lizard form. For Maori culture, whilst lizards could be seen as a bad omen representing darkness and death, they are often regarded as protection and guardians. Sometimes, the lizard could resemble enata symbol if portrayed in square shapes.

Turtle

The turtle, or honu, is of great significance throughout all Polynesian cultures. In Hawaiian culture, the turtle symbolizes good luck, endurance and long life. For Maori people, turtles signify travel and navigation as well as fertility and longevity.

Fish

Fish provided the main source of food to Polynesian people. They find their significance both nutritiously and spiritually. They stand for the emblems of nature and symbolize wealth, plenty, prosperity and life. In Maori mythology, the culture hero maui caught a giant fish using a fishhook that would become the North Island of New Zealand.

Shark

In Polynesian waters, sharks strike fear into humans. However, it plays special role in mythology. In Maori culture, sharks are considered as guardian spirits. In Hawaiian mythology, aumakua, a family god often manifested as shark. So that’s why the appearance of the shark is considered as a sign of omen.

Sun

In the Hawaiian culture, the sun can be a symbol of happiness and good feelings. The symbol of sun is usually associated to masculine tattoo which symbolizes energy, bright spirit and greatness. The rise and fall of the sun also embodies the eternal nature of life.

Tiki

The Tiki refers to carved human figures in Polynesian cultures, which could be associated with the myth of Tiki, the first man created by Tane. By wearing the sign of Tiki, people attain protection, strength and power.

Samoan Tattoo for men with spearheads and geometric patterns

 

Gorgeous tribal back tattoo for women in grey style

 

Black and grey sleeve tattoo

Polynesian side tattoo for women

 

Polynesian Maori full sleeve and chest plate tattoo

Cool polynesian tattoo

 

Small Polynesian tattoo

 

Polynesian Maori with flower side tattoo

Maori turtle tattoo with spiral wave

Polynesian calf tattoo

Cool Titan sleeve tattoo

 

polynesian back tattoo for girls

 

Full sleeve tribal tattoo with Tiki and lizard symbols

 

Polynesian Maori half sleeve and chest plate

 
Maori leg tattoo for women

Maori leg tattoo for women

Should arm tattoo with Tiki and sun for men

Should arm tattoo with Tiki and sun for men

 

Shoulder Maori tattoo with rows of spearheads, sharks and red flower

 

Half chest arm tattoo with spear heads, sharks and Tiki

 
Half upper arm tattoo with spearheads and wave

Half upper arm tattoo with spearheads and wave

 

Polynesian sleeve tattoo with Centipedes

 

Polynesian sleeve tattoo

 

Cool polynesian neck tattoo for men

 

Polynesian and flower tattoo for women

 

Beautiful polynesian leg tattoo for women

 

Polynesian back tattoo for women

 
Chest and sleeve Polynesian Tattoo with spearheads and braids

Chest and sleeve Polynesian Tattoo with spearheads and braids

 

Polynesian neck tattoo for men

 

Half sleeve Polynesian tattoo for men

 

polynesian half sleeve tattoo

 

Tribal shoulder and half sleeve tattoo with cross, Japanese letters and Polynesian symbols

 

Polynesian chest tattoo

 

Polynesian tattoos behind the ear

 

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