Introduction of Polynesian Tattoo History

As this study is all about Polynesian Tattoo History, we’ll introduce as precisely as we can. So where to begin? Before leading you into the detailed explanation of Polynesian Tattoo History, let us give you a glance of Polynesian culture first.


The Origins of Polynesian Culture and its Geographical Covered Area

There’re still debates about the origins of Polynesian culture (debate details can be found by searching “Polynesian Culture” in wikipedia), but one thing we can ensure is that Polynesia is not a single tribe but a complex one. Polynesians which includes Marquesans, Samoans, Niueans, Tongans, Cook Islanders, Hawaiians, Tahitians, and Māori, are genetically linked to indigenous peoples of parts of Southeast Asia. It’s a sub-region of Oceania, comprising of a large grouping of over 1 ,000 islands scattered over the central and southern Pacific Ocean, within a triangle that has New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island as its corners. The two pictures below clearly show this triangle:

 Earth view of Polynesia triangle map

The Map View of Polynesia Triangle

People who live in these islands are regarded as Polynesians for their similar traits in language, customs, society and culture. Some people’s question about the differences between Polynesian and Samoan, Marquesans, Tongans or Tahitian tattoos (e.g.) can be answered here: They are just a branch of Polynesian Tattoos and each branch has its own subtle features. However few people know or realize the differences among them today.


The Origins of the Word “Tattoo”

The Spanish navigator, Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira

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

Captain James Cook was the first navigator trying to explore the whole Polynesia Triangle. The naturalist aboard “the HMS Endeavour” (Captain Cook’s ship), Joseph Banks, first mentioned the word “tattoo” (Also called “Tatau” by Samoan and “Tatu” by Tahitian) in his journal: “I shall now mention the way they mark themselves indelibly, each of them is so marked by their humor or disposition”.

Captain James CookIn 1771, when James Cook first returned to Tahiti and New Zealand from his first Voyage, the word “tattoo” appeared in Europe. He narrated a behavior of Polynesian in his voyage, which is called “tattaw”. He also brought a Tahitian named Ma’i to Europe and since then tattoo started to become rapidly famous because of the tattoos of Ma’i. Another saying is that the Polynesian tattoos were fond of by European sailors and spread extremely fast in Europe because they were with the tattoos emblazoned on their bodies when back home after voyages.


The Development and Inheritance of Polynesian Tattoos

Traditional Polynesian Tattooing ToolsThe tradition of Polynesian tattooing existed from 2000 years ago. In 18th century this operation was strictly banned by the Old Testament. In early 1980’s, tattooing started to get a renaissance. Since then many lost arts were retrieved by Polynesians. But due to the difficulty in sterilizing the traditional tools, the Ministry of Health banned tattooing in French Polynesia in 1986.

Although many years passed, tools and techniques of Polynesian tattooing have changed little. For a strictly traditional design, the skill gets handed from father to son, or master to disciple. Each tattoo artist, or tufuga, learned the craft over many years of serving as his master’s apprentice. They vertically passed their knowledge and rarely spread it widely because of its sacred nature.


Tattoo’s role in Polynesian Culture

Tattoo was a way delivering information of its owner. It’s also a traditional method to fetch spiritual power, protection and strength. The Polynesians use this as a sign of character, position and levels in a hierarchy. Polynesian peoples believe that a person’s mana, their spiritual power or life force, is displayed through their tattoo. Almost every Polynesian got a tattoo in ancient times.


The Importance of Tattoo Masters

Polynesian tattoo master tattooingTattoo masters are the most crucial people because they bear the meaning of symbols and motifs in memory and know how to combine them to create a meaningful work of art to each person. For example, sea creatures are very common Polynesian symbols, like mantas, sharks, bonitos and sea urchins. Each of them has a meaning related to its inner nature and embodies the meaning by tattooing it on to the body. Polynesian tattoo masters can express varieties of meanings by combining different Polynesian symbols and motifs together.



The styles of ancient Polynesian Tattoo

A man with ancient Polynesian tattoo styles with single patterns repeating.Polynesian tattoo style can vary from island to island. It depends on the degree of evolution of various traditions from the original common tattoo designs, like Lapita, which is a former Pacific archeological culture. Ancient original styles mainly consist of some simple patterns, like straight lines, repeating on the body. These geometrical styles can be found in Hawaiian and Samoan tattoo traditions, or in tattoos from Fiji, Palau, Tonga, etc. Because the age is too far from nowadays, the meanings of these patterns are almost lost, or debatable. The most used styles nowadays, which instead consist of rounded patterns, are from Marquesas Island.

Today’s Polynesian tattoo styles are much more figurative. Click here to view plenty of Polynesian Tattoo Designs.


A Sacred Art

Tattooing is a sacred ceremony in Polynesian culture. The tattoos and their location on the body were determined by one’s genealogy, position within the society and personal achievements. According to the culture of Maori, all high-ranking Māori were tattooed, and those who went without tattoos were seen as people with lowest social level.

On the basis of mythology, human learned the art of tattooing from the 2sons of the God of Creation Ta’aroa. Tattooing was operated by high trained shamans (tahua) in the religious ceremony, who was an expert in the meanings of the tattoo and skills of the art.

Before getting tattooed, a person should experience a long period of cleansing. During this period one would fast for a fixed length of time and abstaining from sexual intercourse or contact with women. The tattoo practice generally marked both rites of passage and important events in a person’s life. The addition of tattoos also made a warrior much more attractive to women.

3 samples of ancient Polynesian head tattoos showing ranks.Generally, the head was considered the most sacred part of the body, and because tattooing caused blood to run, the tattoo craftsmen, or “tohunga-ta-oko”, were very tapu persons. The full faced tattoo was very time consuming, and a skilled tattoo craftsman would carefully study a person’s bone structure before getting his art process start.


Tattooing Related to Women

Ancient Polynesian tattooing of womenGenerally, the women were not as extensively tattooed as the men. The position of tattoo on women’s body was limited to hand, arms, feet, ears and lips. One saying is that girls at the age of twelve would get tattooed on their right hands, and since when they were permitted to prepare the meals and join in the process of rubbing of dead bodies.


  1. I would like to learn more about Polynesian Tattoos and their meanings.

    • We will update soon:)

      • Great history! Awaiting your update about Polynesian Tattoos meanings.
        Cheers for info.

        • Mads Krabbe Christiansen says:

          Awsome site.
          I´am really interested in the hawaiian polynesian designs.. I have my both arms covered with traditional japanese style and a back with haida. After my participation in the 2013 Ironman world championship I got stunned after seeing the locals with their polynesian tattos. I wanted to give myself a souvenir and something that always give back the great memories from my trip to hawaii.
          It is difficault to find out which style belongs to polynesian hawaii style.. Do you have a link only with that kind of style ?

  2. I am soo glad I found this site! I am half Samoan and have been searching for information on the tribe and learning more about the culture.

    • You should visit Samoa sometime. It’s beautiful and filled with mythology and folklore I doubt many people have heard about. Maybe go with the Samoan side of your aiga For full effect.

      Or, if anything, the Brigham Young University of Hawaii offers a Samoan course where you learn the language and history of the people of Samoa.

      *fun fact: The famous author Robert Louis Stevenson visited the islands of Samoa and loved it so much, he ended up staying there! His book, ‘Treasure Island,’ is said to have been inspired by his love for Samoa.
      If you ever get the chance to visit, he is entombed on Mt. Vaia on the island of Upolu, Western Samoa.

  3. Nice designs and history hope to read more about the tattoo history and meaning.


  4. Amazing work of art, looking forward to know more about the meaning of the tattoo

  5. This site is awsome im half hawaiian and wanted to get my first tribal on my arm this was very helpful in helping me decide and learn more about the symbols and culture

  6. This was a really awesome article to read, the tattoo culture is something very special. I believe there’s more meaning to these tattoo’s than what we could ever read online. Honestly, receiving one of these’s tattoo’s have to be life changing physically and mentally.

    • Alekona Keoho says:

      Merissa…you are correct in thinking a tattoo of this type can be life changing. In fact, It is a spiritual experience which embodies our Ohana (family) ancestry. Within our culture, we have many rites of passage, father to son, Island to Island, and so on. The transformations of a person, is like wanting to be a kapu kau’lua (warrior), but not having the right mind. The choice in design is not ours, but our ancestors. The markings are our identity, strength, and symbols of reverence. Some are inked to invoke ferocity such as a Chieftain or Warrior. Others for a sacred rite and hold the passages of life for our dead. Personally, I have experienced someone’s spirit in my transition, whom possessed my being to assure their respect, status and stature. It would be too simple to say it was amazing. In fact, I still have not found the word to describe how it feels to have the mana (spirit) of my ancestors come to life in me. If you’re truly interested, I hope you DO find an artist whom you can trust, and will have the skills required to bring the infinite meanings of our tattoos to life in you. Ke Aloha Akua! Be good to yourself and others. Live Aloha!

  7. Santiago R. says:

    I would look the opinion of anyone that has something constructive to say. My name is obviously hispanic, so yes I consider myself 100% latino but with an amazing love of Polynesian culture. I guess I was too lose with the 100% comment because my estrange great grandpa was actually from Samoa. I would like to get a tribal tattoo but I wouldn’t want to claim any tribal rights as to not offend anyone. I just love the designs and I would like something that could represent who I am and what I have accomplished so far. Do you all think I should get a Polynesian/tribal-like tattoo? Is it appropriate?

    • Alekona Keoho says:

      Santiago…the fact that you have already shown regard for your almost overlooked Polynesian culture, is truly a step in the right direction. Your Great Grandfather would be proud of you for acknowledging you have a link to our ways, his ways. If you can find out more about his place or status in Samoa, you may be entitled to his markings. If not, there are plenty of modern designs which have no direct tribal or lineage link, you could conceivably choose from. If that is the case however, you should choose based on your personality, and indications of strength and honor. Be good to yourself and others. Live Aloha! Or as your Grandfather would say…Talofa!

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