Polynesian tattoo Island

Polynesian tattoos are an ancient art that has been receiving a lot of attention in modern times  

Polynesian tattoos are an ancient art that has received a lot of attention in modern times. Although some of us who are not from the Polynesian Islands are willing to go through the awkward and lengthy approach to the needs of real Polynesian tattoos, we can be attracted to the elements of traditional tribal designs and want to include them in our own tattoos. The modern method (most of us anyway).

Polynesian tattoo Island

The people of the Polynesian Islands have developed their own unique culture for hundreds and even thousands of years. Although there are many islands in the area, all of the people are from a common homeland - though no one is quite sure where it was, or when they came or how.


        polynesian designs

This article will give you an in-depth look at the art of Polynesian tattooing.

What is Polynesian tattoo art?
The history of the Polynesian tattoo
The Process, Main Approach and Tradition
Designs, Symbols and Meanings

Credit; MIN 2 PLUS

The origins of Polynesian society
There is still debate about the definitive origins of the Polynesian culture and that also carries over to the notion of tattooing.

One thing that is certain is that the term Polynesian or Polynesian incorporates many tribes including Marquesans, Samoans, Niueans, Tongans, Cook Islanders, Hawaiians, Tahitians, and Maoris. All of these tribes are genetically linked to the indigenous peoples of parts of Southeast Asia.

Southeast Asia and, in turn, Polynesia are subregions of Oceania, comprising a large grouping of more than 1,000 islands scattered across the central and southern Pacific Ocean, within a triangle encompassing New Zealand, Hawaii, and the Easter Island in its corners.

The people who inhabit the islands of Polynesia are called Polynesians, and they share many similar traits, such as language, culture, and beliefs.

polynesian triangle
the polynesian triangle

However, Polynesian languages can actually vary slightly from each other, and in some cases differ significantly. There are some words, which are basically the same in all Polynesian languages, reflecting the deepest core of all Polynesian cultures. Moana (ocean) and mana (spiritual force and energy) are two terms that transcend all Polynesian cultures.

These words are quite similar and this reflects how closely related Polynesian cultures are to the ocean, as they believe that the ocean guarantees life.

The origins of the art of tattooing in Polynesia
Historically there was no writing in Polynesian culture, so Polynesians used tattoo art that was full of distinctive signs to express their identity and personality. Tattoos would indicate status in a hierarchical society, as well as se*xual maturity, genealogy, and rank within the society. Almost everyone in ancient Polynesian society was tattooed.

The Polynesian islands that were first visited were the Marquesas Islands, which were found by European explorers and the Spanish navigator Álvaro de Mendana de Neira in 1595. However, European navigators showed little interest due to a lack of valuable resources.

Captain James Cook (as mentioned in our complete guide to Maori tattoos) was the first navigator to attempt to explore the aforementioned Polynesian triangle.

In 1771, when James Cook first returned to Tahiti and New Zealand from his first voyage, the word "tattoo" appeared in Europe. He narrated the behaviors of the Polynesians on his journey, which he called tattaw. He also brought a Tahitian named Ma'i to Europe and since then tattooing began to quickly become famous, mainly for Ma'i tattoos.

Another legend is that European sailors were so fond of Polynesian tattoos that they spread extremely fast in Europe because sailors stamped the tattoos on their own bodies.

The royal tradition of Polynesian tattooing existed more than 2,000 years ago, however, in the 18th century, the Old Testament strictly prohibited the operation. Since its revival in the 1980s, many lost arts have been revived, but it became very difficult to sterilize the wood and bone tools used for the tattooing process, so the Ministry of Health banned tattooing in French Polynesia. in 1986.

The renaissance of the art and practice of tattooing, particularly in Tonga, in recent years is mainly mentioned as a result of the work of academics, researchers, visual artists, and tattoo artists.

Tonga and Samoa
It was in Tonga and Samoa that Polynesian tattooing became a highly refined art. The Tongan warriors were tattooed from waist to knee in a series of geometric patterns, mostly consisting of repeating triangular motifs, bands, and also areas of solid black.

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson proudly displays his large traditional Polynesian tattoo

Priests who had gone through a long period of training who strictly followed the prescribed rituals and taboos that took place during the tattooing process. For the Tongan people, the tattoo had deep social and cultural significance, as mentioned above.

In ancient Samoa, tattooing also played a huge role in both religious rituals and warfare. The tattoo artist occupied a hereditary position and therefore a very privileged one. He would usually tattoo groups of six to eight (usually men) during a ceremony attended by friends and family. The Samoan warrior tattoo started at the waist and extended just below the knee.

However, it was not uncommon for Samoan women to get tattooed as well. But the images were limited to such things as a series of delicate flower-like patterns (usually geometric), on the hands and lower parts of the body.

Around the year 200 AD. C., travelers from Samoa and Tonga settled in the Marquesas area. Over a period of more than 1000 years, one of the most complex Polynesian cultures evolved: Marquesan.

Marquesan Art
Marquesan art and architecture were highly developed and Marquesan tattoo designs, which often covered the entire body, were the most elaborate in Polynesia.

tools of the trade
Traditional Polynesian tattoo tools
Traditional Polynesian tattoo tools

Although many years have passed, Polynesian tattooing tools and techniques have changed very little. For a very traditional design, the skill of the art of tattooing was usually passed down from generation to generation. Each tattoo artist, or tufaga, was said to have learned the trade during many years of service as an apprentice.

The advent of Christianity in Tonga saw the loss of various indigenous practices, such as the practice of tattooing. Although the art of tattooing remained in the nation of Samoa, it was completely obliterated in Tonga.

In Samoa, the tradition of applying the tattoo by hand has not been interrupted for more than 2000 years. The tools and techniques have hardly differed at all. The skill is often passed down from father to son, each artist learning the art after many years of service as an apprentice.

A young artist in training would often spend hours at a time, or even days, striking designs into sand or bark cloth using a special tattoo comb or au. In honor of their revered tradition, Samoan tattoo artists crafted this tool from sharp boar teeth joined with a part of a tortoise shell and a wooden handle.


The permanent marks left on someone after getting tattooed will forever remember and commemorate their resilience and dedication to cultural traditions. The pain was extreme and the risk of death from infection was a great concern for many people. However, to avoid tattooing was to risk being labeled a coward or pala'ai and then being hated and insulted by the rest of the tribe or clan. Men who could not bear the pain and abandoned their tattoos were left incomplete, carrying their mark of shame throughout their lives.

There were few men who refused the traditional pe'a, the intricate tattoo that covered their bodies from mid-torso to knees. The artist would use a mallet to strike the teeth of the ink-laden comb into the man's flesh, following only simple markings as a guide.

A tattoo session usually lasted until nightfall or until the men could no longer bear the pain and resumed the next day, unless the inflamed skin needed a few days to heal. The entire process could take up to three or even four months. Later, the man's family would help him celebrate, despite the pain, by organizing a party, and the tufuga broke a pot of water at his feet, marking the end of the painful ordeal.

The healing process
This process generally took months. The tattooed skin would have to be washed with salt water, to keep infection at bay and then the area of the body would have to be massaged to keep out impurities. Family and friends would help in the healing process because even extremely simple tasks, e.g. walking and sitting could irritate the inflamed skin and cause great pain. Within six months, the distinctive patterns would begin to appear on his skin, but it would take almost a year for it to fully heal.

placement on the body
The placement on the body plays a very important role in Polynesian tattoos. There are some items that are related to specific meanings based on where they are placed. In short, its location influences the meaning of a Polynesian tattoo.

Humans are said to be descendants or children of Rangi (Heaven) and Papa (Earth), who are said to have once been conjoined. The man's quest in Polynesian legend is to find that union again, so the body is seen as a link between Rangi and Papa. The upper part of the body is related to the spiritual world and heaven, while the lower part of the body is related to the world and the earth.

The placement of some elements on the body, such as the genealogical traces on the back of the arms, suggest that the back may be related to the past and the front to the future.

Regarding gender, the left is usually associated with women and the right with men.

1. head
It is said that the head is the point of contact with Rangi, so it is related to topics such as spirituality, knowledge, wisdom and intuition.

2. Higher trunk
This area runs from just above the navel to the chest and is related to themes such as generosity, sincerity, honor, and reconciliation. Some may have noticed that this area is located directly between Rangi and Papa, for there to be harmony between them there must be a balance in this area.

3. Lower trunk
This area goes from the thighs to the navel. This part of the body is directly related to vital energy, courage, procreation, independence and se*xuality. In particular, the thighs are related to strength and marriage. The stomach or middle zone is where the shape of the manna originates and the navel represents independence due to the symbolic meaning associated with cutting the umbilical cord.

Independence is a highly valued trait in Polynesian society (as it is in most others), however individualism is not. All people who depend on the sea for their livelihood know the importance of sociability and socialization. Polynesians built their culture around this. The family thus becomes a larger group of people that includes all relatives, friends and neighbors, all of whom play important roles.

A famous word to define this great family comes from Hawaii, the word is 'Ohana, which indicates the family group of people who cooperate in the growth, teaching and feeding of children.

4. Upper arms and shoulders
The shoulders and upper arms above the elbow are associated with strength and bravery and relate to people such as warriors and chiefs. The Maori word kikopuku used to designate this part of the union of the words kiko (meat, body) and puku (swollen). Puku as a prefix or suffix is also used as an intensifier of the qualifying word, reinforcing the idea of strong arms.

5. Lower arms and hands
From below the elbow, the same word is used to refer to both the arm and the hand. This part of the body is related to creativity, creating and making things.

6. Legs and feet
The same word is used to refer to both the leg and the foot. The legs and feet represent advancement, transformation and progress. They are also related to separation and choice. The feet, being our contact with Dad, Mother Nature, are also related to the concrete and the material.

Joints often represent union, contact. If we look at the body as a reflection of society, we can understand why the joints, being the meeting points of the different bones, represent different degrees of relationship between individuals: the further from the head (the head of the family ) the greater the distance in kinship, or the lower status. The ankles and wrists represent a bond and the bracelets placed there often symbolize commitment. Knees are often related to bosses (kneeling before them).

Marginal note:

Traditional positioning shouldn't stop you from placing your tattoos on whatever part of the body you feel is appropriate for you: we believe that a design should be meaningful to its owner before anyone else.

Polynesian images and motifs
1. Enata (singular)

The human figures, also known as enata in the Marquesan language, represent men, women, and sometimes gods. They can be placed within a tattoo to represent people and their relationships. If placed face down, they can be used to represent defeated enemies. This is an example of Enata in its singular form.

2. Enata (pattern)

Overly stylized enata united in a row of people holding hands form the motif called ani ata, which translates as "cloudy sky".
Polynesian languages and a row of enata in a semicircular shape often represent heaven and ancestors protecting their descendants.

3. Shark teeth (simplified)

Shark teeth or niho mano deserve their own space. Sharks are one of the favorite ways the aumakua choose to appear to man. They represent protection, guidance and strength, as well as ferocity; however, they are also symbols of adaptability in many cultures. This is an example of simplified shark teeth.

4. Shark teeth (complex)

Below are stylizations of shark teeth, in their most complex form, as they can be seen in a tattoo.

5. Spearhead

Another classic symbol used to represent the warrior nature is the spear. Spearheads are also highly symbolic in relation to sharp objects and can be used to represent the sting of some animals.

6. Spearhead (pattern)
Spear tips

Often this is stylized as a row of spearheads, a variant is shown below.

7. Ocean (simplified)

The ocean is a second home for Polynesians and the resting place when they leave for their last voyage. Coincidentally, the turtles are said to join the deceased, guiding them to their destinations. So sometimes the ocean can be used to represent death and the afterlife. Since the ocean is the main source of food, it is not surprising that it impacts both lore and myth. All creatures that live in the ocean are associated with various meanings, usually mutated from their characteristic traits and habits. The ocean and the sea can be represented with waves. Here is the simplified version.

8. ocean

Ocean stylizations can often represent ideas such as life, change, and continuity through change. The waves can also be used to represent the world of the afterlife or the place where the deceased go to rest on their last journey.


One of the meanings of the word tiki is figure, so tiki is the name given to human-like figures that generally represent demigods instead of atua, which generally appear to men in the form of animals like lizards.

The tiki can also represent deified ancestors, priests, and chiefs who became demigods after death. They symbolize protection, fertility and serve as guardians.

Stylizing the figure over and over again, a simplified version has been reached, called the "bright eye" where the eyes, nostrils and ears seem to be the prominent elements.

Here is an example of a tiki face.

10. tiki eyes

Tiki figures can be depicted in a frontal view (sometimes with their tongues outstretched as a symbol of defiance to enemies). Here is a close up of one of the most important elements of the tiki, the eyes.

11. Turtle

The turtle or honu is another important creature in all Polynesian cultures and has been associated with various meanings. The first is the fact that turtles symbolize health, fertility, longevity in life, foundation, peace, and rest.

The word hono, which means turtle in the Marquesan language, has other meanings that encompass things like uniting and uniting families and representing the idea of unity.

Contrary to what is sometimes believed, turtles thrown up do not imply that they are carrying the soul of a dead person to the other world. To represent this, a human figure should be placed on or near the turtle's shell.

12. Turtle (shell pattern)

Other patterns can be derived from the shell inlay, this is an example of a shell stylization...

13. Lizard

Lizards and geckos are often called mo'o or moko and play an important role in Polynesian myth. Gods (atua) and lesser spirits often appeared to men in the form of lizards and this may explain why the stylized element used to represent the lizard is very similar to the stylized symbol used to represent man.
Lizards are very powerful creatures that bring good luck, communicate with each other

humans and gods and can access the invisible world. On the other hand, they can also bring death and bad omens to disrespectful people.

14. Lizard (pattern)

This is a pattern or stylization of the lizard symbol and, as mentioned above, closely resembles the stylization of the human form (enata).

15. stingray

tattoos come in various variations and styles, the image can carry symbolic meanings. The stingray has the ability to hide in underwater sands, mainly from sharks.

polynesian tattoo design

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