Polynesian Tattoo Designs


Polynesia refers to a group of islands located in the Pacific Ocean where tattooing had been a traditional practice since several centuries. Though with the arrival of the English as well as the Christian missionaries it began to vanish, this traditional art of tattooing was not only revived, but even gathered immense popularity during the 20th century.

However, the purpose for which tattoos are done today is totally different from those of ancient times. While today, tattooing is seen as a symbol of style and fashion; for the Polynesian men and women it had a deep religious as well as cultural significance. They believed that the art of tattooing was handed over to their ancestors from the Gods themselves and hence it was considered to be very sacred. Although tattooing was common among all the islands, each created a style that was distinct and different from others.

Significance of Tattoo Symbols

As the Polynesian people did not have a written language, tattoo designs were used to depict various symbols pertaining to a person’s life, spirituality, family history, etc. These designs are surely different among the different islands. However, they can be classified into two basic types, ‘the Etua’ and ‘the Enata’. The Etua tattoo designs had a spiritual or religious significance and were considered to be a talisman that protected people. On the other hand, the Enata designs had a natural or social significance as it symbolized an individual’s life.

The early process of making tattoos is much different from what is seen today. With the emergence of technology, lots of tattoo piercing equipment have been introduced, and though people have to go through a painful process to get a tattoo done, it is nothing compared to what it was earlier. The traditional designs were created by making cuts on the person’s body with equipment like bird bone, turtle shell, bamboo, etc. and later these holes were filled with tattoo inks. These tattoo inks were produced from an organism which was believed to be half caterpillar and half vegetable. Usually this was used for the body color while ink made from burned wood was used for the face. As this process was quite painful and took a long time to heal, these tattoos symbolized courage and endurance.

The tattoos were also considered to be a symbol of status and rank of an individual in the society. Tattooing was usually introduced when a person turned twelve years old to show that he has now become an adult, and gradually more tattoos were added according to his achievements and experiences in life. On the other hand, women were tattooed when they achieved sexual maturity. The person who had the maximum number of tattoos was considered to be the most respectful person and those who had very less or no tattoos were considered to be inferior.

Designs and Meanings

As I said earlier, each island of Polynesia has a particular style of tattoo art. However, here I will discuss the three types of tattoo designs that are the most popular throughout the world.

Maori Tattoos
Maori tattoos are said to be one of the most popular ones. The Maori people, who are said to be the cultural minority of New Zealand, are believed to have adopted the idea of tattooing from East Polynesian islands. One of the main features of Maori tattoo designs that distinguishes them from others is their complex patterns made of curved shapes and spirals. These designs were made with a chisel by the male tattoo specialists and the process of tattooing was attached to rituals, fasting, music as well as chanting. For men, designs were made on their entire face, legs and buttocks, while for the women the tattoos were made on their lips, neck, back and chin.

Hawaiian Tattoos
The most important feature of Hawaiian tattoo designs is that they are the largest among all the other designs. These designs are made with pointy and sharp animal parts like claws, bird beaks, etc., are usually fully black in color. Also, they do not have a religious significance, rather they are made for personal identification. They also represented mourning for a loved person and sometimes were made just for the purpose of decoration.

Among the different types of Hawaiian tattoos, the most popular ones are the flower tattoos. Though they have a feminine appeal, they are popular with men too. They also include the hibiscus, orchids and other flowers, and are flaunted in colors like red, yellow, purple, pink and white. Other designs include arrows, dolphins, sea turtle, lizards, etc.

Samoan Tattoos
The best feature of Samoan tattoo designs is that they contain detailed and intricate designs. It is also said that the more intricate the designs are, the meaning of the tattoos becomes more complex. These tattoos were made with a shark or pig’s tooth and the whole process was truly painful. For this reason, they were considered to be a status symbol and those who left their tattoos unfinished because of their inability to endure the pain, were looked down upon.

Tattoos for men were called pe’a whereas those for women were known as malu. The designs came in different sizes, sometimes just covering a small area, especially for women, while for the men, they were made to cover almost half of their body.

The cultural and traditional significance attached to the tattoos is what makes them very popular even in the modern world. Moreover, the best part is one can get these amazing tattoos done without bearing half the pain that the Polynesian men and women had to suffer during olden times.

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