Polynesia is defined as a small amount of land spread across around 70 million square miles in the Pacific Ocean. Known as the Polynesian Triangle, islands like Hawaii, New Zealand, Easter Island, and Somoa (not technically in the triangle) are included in this area. In this area was born one of the most intricate styles of tattooing. Polynesian tribal tattoos are different depending on the island from which the individual originates and are deeply rooted in the cultural history of that place.
Polynesian tattooing was the most skillful and complex tattooing at the time before the arrival of Europeans in the South Pacific. There was no writing in the culture so Polynesians used this art to express who a person was including genealogy, sexual maturity, status, and rank. The meanings of these tattoos all depend on the personal history of the individual upon whom the work is completed. Essentially, the markings tell a life story which makes each tattoo both personal and unique. Tattooing in this way becomes a rite of passage and a marker of family lineage.
Generally, among the wide array of unique cultures within the spectrum of Polynesian tattoos there are a few commonalities in the designs. Polynesian designs rely on a variety of patterns designed together, overlapping and complementing one another to create a complex and well-detailed appearance. Thick and thin bold lines are woven together, often with triangles and crescents introduced in circular patterns. A motif similar to the Greek meander pattern is often included as well in Polynesian designs where a continuous line rises and falls in a square or rectangular form in between two parallel lines. Some or all of these designs are used together to create the tribal tattoos that originated in the many islands of the Polynesian region.
Sea turtles are prominent in island life and so they are featured in many designs. They are composed of thick, flat shapes and are usually surrounded by more tribal designs. A sun with encircling rays is another frequently seen symbol that is included with curving and arching tribal designs. Sea shells made from geometric, symmetrical shapes are often used as well to symbolize one’s ancestor’s centuries of sea life.
In Hawaii, the tattoos are a bit different from other Polynesian tattoos in that they have a more personal meaning. Today, Hawaiian flowers, abstract tribal designs, and turtles are very popular and are often designed in unique ways to differ slightly from the traditional tribal design. The sea turtle is integral to Hawaiian culture and is a traditional symbol of prosperity. Receiving a sea turtle tattoo design is also a representation of one’s ancestry and serves as a tribute to the ancestors. The turtle is associated with the spirit world and was believed to have moved freely between the two realms.
Specifically, one of the most popular tattoo designs in Hawaii is the hibiscus flower. To the women of Hawaii, the Hawaiian hibiscus flower is very symbolic and has a great deal of meaning. It is also the state flower of Hawaii. The hibiscus, tattooed with the typical thick, black, and interweaving lines of the Polynesian style, is a symbol of fertility and womanhood. Modern tattooing has allowed for the introduction of an array of colors that help brighten the flowers.
For many of the Polynesian islands, individual island culture and history stem from a common origin that eventually grew into many varied branches of peoples. The Tiki, a humanoid-like figure, is a representation of the creation myth that is common in various forms to many of the islands. Most prominent in Hawaiian and Maori cultures, the Tiki figure is often designed with a disproportionate head, nearly as large as the body, with an expressive face. It is often rendered as a wooden carving to symbolize his prominence in Polynesian art works and worship.
The Marquesan Cross (referring to the people of the Marquesan Islands) is another common symbol found amongst Polynesian tattoo designs and can be rendered in several ways. The cross is a combination of four waving lines that intersect one another and is contained within a circle, representing the ocean and the earth. The center of the cross is like a large diamond shape, thicker than the intersecting lines. Tribal designs surround the circle and can be simple or extend into a much larger tribal piece. The Marquesan Cross is an image of balance and harmony, as the lines are all symmetrical and rely on a perfect balance between the lines, circles, and arches.
In Samoa, tattoos (or tatau) are large pieces that can run over the entire body and tell of social status and the rank of who wears it. As a rite of passage, until a young man’s tattooing is complete, they’re still considered boys in the Samoan culture. Women are also tattooed. Not as much as the men but much more than women in other areas.
Samoan tattoo designs, specifically on men, generally cover the chest and back and/or the waist, thighs, and buttocks. When covered from waist to knees or lower thighs, the tattoo is referred to as Pe’a and is a measure of strength and endurance as it takes hundreds of hours to complete. These body-covering types of tattoos is meant to replicate armour and represents the strength of a warrior. Tatau is so deeply rooted in Samoan culture that Samoan men without tattoos are referred to separately than tattooed men by a word that means “naked”. Tattooed Samoan men are revered for their courage for undergoing the intense procedures. True Samoan tattooing is more painful than Western tattooing and is done without machines using inks made from soot and a bone or shell for a needle.
Maori Polynesian tattoos were born in New Zealand, the native land of the indigenous Maori people. The Maori tattoo (or Ta Moko) is one of the most important parts of the Maori culture. The meanings behind these tattoos are to show tribal history, family history, rank, and other identifying factors. Men and women had different styles of this tattoo but the theme is these tattoos carry a great deal of weight throughout the culture. Today, many other people outside the Maori culture are getting these kinds of tattoos much to the chagrin of the native people.
For the Maori aboriginals of New Zealand, Ta Moko is also a rite of passage into manhood and womanhood. Face tattoos are culturally popular and include many swirling and arching thin lines that flow over the curves of the cheekbones, nose, chin and forehead. For men, the entire face is usually consumed by the tattoos while women frequently were only tattooed around the lips and chin. Maori men often receive full-body or waist to thigh tattoos as a symbol of their incredible pain tolerance.
Traditional Maori tattoos differ from other Polynesian tattoos in that they majorly consist of groupings of thin lines formed into arches and swirls whereas Hawaiian or Samoan designs utilize thicker, bolder black lines. Regardless, Maori tattoos are prominent, expansive, and meant to be visible to all who look upon the tattooed individual. The myth of Maori Ta Maoko originates in a marriage between a man and a princess of the underworld. Tattooing was an ancient art known only to the gods of the underworld and was eventually taught to the man as a sign of his tribute to his wife. According to the legend, tattoos are a representation of love and a connection between the world and the underworld. In this way, the ritual of tattooing is both sacred and spiritual.
Polynesian tattoos have a rich history and have become one of the most popular styles of tattooing in the world. The intricacies and detail of these tattoos create beautiful stories that tell about the life and family of the person tattooed. It is understandable why others outside of the culture would imitate this kind of tattoo but these types of tattoos should be received with caution. Polynesian tattoos and the process through which they are traditionally done are sacred and a rite of passage within the culture. Without Polynesian heritage, careful research should be done before any tattoo is received.