Posted on June 26 2018
Polynesian tattoos are extremely popular today, and for good reason. The art is simply beautiful, and the deep roots and cultural significance add meaning that goes well beyond simply decorating the body.
Each Pacific culture had their own very specific styles and tattoo motifs with their own set of meanings. Many of these symbols are present in today's pan Polynesian tattoos (aka tribal tattoos), but many of the original meanings were lost along the way.
Read on for 10 facts you didn't know about Polynesian tattoos.
1. The Origin of the Word "Tattoo" is Polynesian
Tattoos are found in many cultures throughout time, and today, tattoos are alive and well in countries around the world. But the word "tattoo" itself stems from Polynesia.
The traditional word for tattoo in Samoa was "tatau" and "tatu" in Tahiti. The word first appeared in the journals of Joseph Banks who came to the region with Captain James Cook.
Cook and his crew visited all major islands of the Polynesian Triangle, and brought the tattoo tradition to the European countries.
A Tahitian man, Ma'i, even joined Cook's second voyage and spent years in England before returning home during Cook's third voyage.
The modern spelling of tattoo appeared in the late 1700s after Cook returned to Europe to share his experiences. The word tattoo became official in English when Merriam Webster dictionary included it in 1777.
2. Tattoos Said A Lot About You
The symbolism behind traditional Polynesian tattoos was much more complex than modern work. Tattoos had meanings that represented important information about you.
On many Pacific Islands, someone's social status, role in the community, and even their specific family lineage could be identified by the design of their tattoo.
From simply looking at your tattoo design, people could understand pieces of who you are and where you came from.
Getting a tattoo also often marked the start of adulthood. The actual tattoo was a rite of passage for the recipient and marked a significant moment in their life.
3. The Tradition of Tribal Tattoos Goes Back Over 2,000 Years
The tradition of Polynesian tattoo can be traced back over 2,000 years ago. However, the practice was nearly eradicated in the 18th and 19the centuries by European and American missionaries, and sometimes the local chiefs themselves.
After almost being completely wiped out on all islands except for Samoa, traditional tattoo art has made a comeback starting in the 1980s and 1990s.
Reviving the ancient art was difficult. In the Pacific islands where the knowledge of tattooing had been lost, very little was known of the original meanings of the indigenous tattoo designs.
Thanks to the help of researchers, scholars, and artists, the practice of traditional tribal tattoos has been preserved. You can learn more about this in a future blog article.
4. It Took Years to Learn the Skill
The knowledge and skill of tattooing was usually passed on from master to apprentice, who were often father and son. In many Pacific cultures, it was considered a sacred knowledge.
The artists spent many years working as apprentices, working hard for their masters.
Often, they started by simply watching the master work, then progressing to serve the master throughout each tattoo session. For example, apprentices performed the important task of stretching the skin.
The apprentice also had to learn how to make the traditional tattoo tools and the techniques of using the tools well.
Learning the deeper meanings of the tattoo in their culture was equally important.
You could not become a tattoo artist without knowing the specific construction and placement of the tattoo design, the significance and meanings of the motifs used, how to choose the appropriate tattoo designs for a person, and the rituals and traditions surrounding tattooing.
Today, this tradition is continued by the small number of apprentices of the Samoan Sulu'ape family of tatau masters who have earned their place in the family and the title Sulu'ape.
5. The Tools Haven't Changed Much Over Time - And Have Also Changed Completely
For centuries, the tools used to create these unique pieces of tattoo art did not change.
Polynesians used the materials nature offered. The black color of the tattoo could be made from the soot of burnt coconut shells.
The tools to puncture the skin used bone, animal teeth, shell, bird beaks or fish bone. These were shaped into comb shapes or needles and attached to a stick made from bamboo or some light wood.
Using another stick as a mallet, the tattoo master hand-tapped the black substance into the skin to create the tattoo design while an apprentice stretched the skin in the area that got tattooed.
Today, modern tattoo machines have mostly replaced the traditional tools even in tattoo shops of artists who are steeped in Polynesian culture. Applying the intricate Polynesian tattoo designs is simply easier, faster, and less painful for the client.
However, you can find a few select artists who practice the traditional method of hand tapping in Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, the mainland US, and even a very few in Europe.
Getting a tattoo by the traditional method is a strong expression of pride in their culture for people with Polynesian heritage. It is a mark of dedication to your culture and its traditions.
6. Tattoos Were Painful - Even Deadly
Not only did these tattoos take a long time to complete, but they were also extremely painful. Depending on the part of the body, the process could be excruciating.
It took a lot of courage and endurance and required recuperation between sessions.
It also took courage because getting the tattoo was risky. Throughout history, people had died from blood loss or infection.
Because of this, sitting through the pain and the healing process was a very big deal. The act of completing a tattoo said a lot about who you were as a person, both inside and out.
No wonder that simply having a completed tattoo was a symbol of your courage, strength and endurance!
Of course, anyone who did not complete their tattoo was viewed as a coward. Instead of a mark of their valor, their unfinished tatau was a mark of shame.
7. The Healing Process Was Just As Painful
While getting the tattoo itself was painful, the healing process was equally risky.
Caring for the inflamed skin was a long and difficult process. There was no such thing as sanitizing the area and tattoo tools were not sterile. The aftermath of the tattoo sessions could include painful, and even deadly, infections.
From getting the tattoo to when it's healed, the entire ordeal could last many months.
8. Each Island Has Its Own Style
There are many different styles of Polynesian tattoo designs. Each island in the Polynesian Triangle had its own unique set of symbols, each with their own meanings.
For example, traditional Hawaiian, Samoan and Tongan tattoos can be recognized easily by their repetitive geometric shapes.
Maori tattooing has distinctive spiral motifs which were not found in the designs of other Polynesians cultures.
Tahitian tattoos and Marquesas style tattoos have many rounded motifs, arches and circles.
One of the easiest ways to tell if a tattoo artist really knowns about Polynesian tattoos is to listen to the descriptions the artist uses.
Saying "Maori tattoos" while showing you tattoos with spear head motifs, for example, is a clear sign that the artist has never really learned about Polynesian tattoo traditions.
So how likely is this artist to know the Polynesian tattoo meanings?
9. Today's Polynesian tattoos are usually a mixture of styles
It's very unusual today to see a tattoo that is truly in the "historic" style of one of the islands.
That's because the revival and popularity of Polynesian tattoos caused a strong fusion of the indigenous styles. The resulting tattoo designs are hybrids: they include motifs from various Polynesian tattoo traditions.
For example, the Maori spiral motif and the Samoan shark's teeth motif can be found so frequently, that even many artists no longer consider them specific to just one culture.
At the same time, many tattoo artists have assigned similar meanings to these tattoo motifs when they are used in the new hybrid designs.
You might call this modern Polynesian style of most tattoos seen today (including those on NĀ KOA products) neo-Polynesian or pan-Polynesian tattoos.
You can also see the term tribal tattoo used (including on our website). But we really hate having to use it. Confused? Read on!
10. Some people call them tribal tattoos. But you shouldn't.
Yes, we use the term "tribal tattoo". But we really hate to do it. What's wrong with calling them tribal tattoos? Read our take on it here.
Learning About Polynesian Tattoos
The traditions and history of Polynesian tattoo art is fascinating. There is a lot to learn about each culture's specific tattoo styles, symbols and meanings.
Some of the best sources for of information are our three favorite books on the subjects: Tricia Allen's two seminal books Tattoo Traditions of Hawaii and The Polynesian Tattoo Today, and the exhibition catalog to Tatau: Marks of Polynesia.
Check out our blog for more information on traditional Polynesian tattoos.