Polynesian Tattoos: History and Designs

The art of tattooing is far from a contemporary concept and some of the cultures to prove this are the Polynesian, Micronesian, and Filipino. Consisting of numerous islands within the Pacific, Polynesian tattoos boast a rich history, captivating designs, and unique Polynesian tattoo meanings. The term “Polynesia” refers to tribes including Hawaiians, Tahitians, Maori, Cook Islanders, Tongans, Marquesans, and Samoans. While these tattoos are common to see within these areas of the world, the reverence for Polynesian designs and tattooing has extended far past the confines of these regions. 


Chapter One Tattoo is an industry leader in Polynesian tattoos and the studio to receive a Polynesian tattoo. Let’s explore the common features of Polynesian tattoos, the historical significance and meaning behind these tattoos, and some of the most popular designs chosen by those seeking a true Polynesian tattoo.

What Are Traditional Polynesian Tattoos?

Polynesian tattoos stem from numerous different Polynesian regions, each with unique styles and designs around the world. These designs might vary, New Zealand’s “Maori” will have a recognizable style difference from Philippine, Hawaiian (“Kakau”), Polynesian, and Samoan tattoos. Polynesian tattoos are one of the most diverse styles of tattooing. They all share the fact that design elements represent specific milestones in life. All traditional Polynesian tattoos will feature bold black ink, with virtually no color in the piece. Polynesian tattoo designs will typically feature patterns and cultural motifs and symbols of ancient life and everything associated with those respective cultures.

History and Meaning

Each region of Pacific island tattoos will have uniquely identifiable designs and styles depending on the culture represented. Regardless of the origin, there are two distinct styles of Polynesian tattooing, including traditional Polynesian tattoos where they represent rites and life milestones where the tattoo is “tapped” in (known as “Tatau”) and then there are contemporary Polynesian tattoos where a machine is used. The pain endured by receiving one of these tattoos represented endurance and commitment to their people, making these tattoos a right of passage for many young tribe members.

Popular Polynesian Design Types and their Meaning

Among the Polynesian region, there are countless unique designs, each with its own significance and deeper message. When choosing a desired Polynesian tattoo it’s highly suggested to also know the meaning behind the design. Some of the most popularly seen Polynesian tattoo designs include:

  • Turtle Tattoos: Turtles hold a special place within all Polynesian cultures, boasting numerous meanings. Turtles, or “honu” represent peace, rest, fertility, health, and long life. In some cultures, they may also represent unity and familial bonds. If the turtle design also features a human on or near the turtle’s shell the tattoo represents the passage into the afterlife. Designs might include the image of a turtle or the pattern of a turtle’s shell which can accompany a larger piece. 
  • Shark Teeth Tattoos: Shark teeth or “niho mano” are another popular Hawaiian tattoo design, especially among Hawaiian people. Represented by a series of triangles, many Hawaiians believe shark teeth represent strength, guidance, courage, and protection in battle due to the ferocity of a shark’s mouth. This might be designed simplistically with a series of triangles or stylized with more complex triangular patterns. 
  • Spearhead Tattoos: Another popular Polynesian tattoo design is the image of a spearhead. A common choice of weaponry among many tribes, the spearhead image represents courage and valor in battle. Spearhead tattoos will often accompany another image as well, making the entire tattoo carry a different meaning.
  • Flower Tattoos: Polynesian flower tattoos are another popular design. The hibiscus flower represents beauty, elegance, femininity, and vitality. 
  • Ocean Tattoos:Surrounded by gorgeous shores and sprawling coastlines, it’s no surprise that a common Polynesian tattoo design is the ocean. The ocean is a part of their home and the place of rest for many ancestors. Ocean tattoos might represent death and the afterlife, but since the ocean is the main source of Polynesian resources, ocean tattoo meanings can extend even farther than that. A common image is of geometrical wave designs, stylized to represent life, continuity, and the world beyond their culture.

How to Choose the Best Polynesian Tattoo Artist

Because Polynesian tattoos vary so widely in style and designs based on the Polynesian region, choosing a Polynesian tattoo will require a bit of research in order to truly understand what tattoo you’re getting. Since many Polynesian tattoos represent milestones or personal history, each Polynesian tattoo will be unique to the one wearing it. Once an idea for a Polynesian tattoo design has been chosen, it’s time to think about where on the body you’d like it placed. After you know where you’d like the design to be, begin to consider how large the design should be, being mindful that Polynesian tattoos usually take up a large section of the body. Lastly, make sure to choose a tattoo artist that you can trust who understands the fundamentals of Polynesian tattooing that can create and tattoo a design that brings your dream to life.

Polynesian Tattoo Placement

  • Polynesian Face Tattoo
  • Polynesian Neck Tattoo
  • Polynesian Shoulder Tattoo
  • Polynesian Back Tattoo
  • Polynesian Chest Tattoo
  • Polynesian Forearm Tattoo
  • Polynesian Armband Tattoo
  • Polynesian Tattoo sleeve
  • Polynesian Half Sleeve Tattoo
  • Polynesian Leg Tattoo

Book an Appointment with a Polynesian Traditional Tattoo Artist at Chapter One Tattoo

Choosing to get a Polynesian tattoo is a popular and meaningful decision, representing many different morals and landmarks in life. Chapter One Tattoo prides itself on our captivating designs and trusted artists seeking to create a piece of art you’ll always be happy to display. Check out a few of our artists that specialize in traditional Polynesian tattoos and style to begin and book an appointment today! 
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