Hawaiian tattoos are beautiful and carry meaning and a deeper connection to culture and faith—BYU-Hawaii students who have them shared their stories and a bit about the symbols and motifs they represent.
If you’re interested in getting a Polynesian tattoo, you have many symbols to choose from. Among the most popular are:
Another classic symbol in Polynesian tattoo Hawaii is the spearhead. The spearhead symbolizes courage, heroism, strength, and warrior nature. It can also represent sharp items and the sting of an animal. These Kakau designs are often paired with symbols and motifs to express specific meanings.
The gecko is a common Polynesian tattoo symbol that represents stickiness and being able to climb onto anything. Geckos are believed to ward off evil spirits, making them a protective symbol. The lizard Kakau design is simple, usually made up of different tribal patterns shaped into the shape of a lizard. It can symbolize toughness, fearlessness, and longevity as the lizard can lose its tail and grow it back.
Aside from those mentioned earlier, many other flora and fauna were commonly used as tattoo symbols. Aside from the fish, representing prosperity, richness, and fertility, a shark represents power and ferocity.
In a world where tattoos can be a way to showcase one’s beliefs and culture, Polynesian tribal patterns are becoming more and more popular. These designs range from traditional to more decorative motifs. Modern designs can also integrate them.
The fish hook symbol, makau, symbolizes the ocean’s abundance and our connection to it. It can be carved from human bone or koa wood and adorned with precious stones, pearls, or turtle shells.
Shark teeth, niho mano, are another classic Polynesian symbol representing protection and guidance. They can be shown as simple triangles or stylized to represent arrows and spearheads.
Dolphins, like stingrays, are symbols of freedom. They are believed to connect us with the gods, as they can access the spiritual realm. Many people believe that they are a symbol of good fortune.
In Polynesian culture, the body represents a link between Rangi (Heaven) and Papa (Earth). When tattoos of people are placed in a row across the back, it is a sign that the ancestors are watching over you. The ocean design is also a sign of protection since the sea is where people go to rest and die.
Other common Polynesian motifs include the lizard (moo) and gecko (moko). These creatures symbolize good luck, communication between humans and gods, and strength. Shark teeth or niho mano are another classic Polynesia symbol of protection, guidance, and strength.
Flowers are another popular choice for Hawaiian tattoos. Orchids represent beauty, luxury, and love. Honu is a common theme that symbolizes fertility and longevity. The anthurium is another flower that symbolizes hospitality, friendship, and love. These plants are native to Hawaii and are considered a part of the culture. They are also often used in traditional Hawaiian funerals.
For Polynesians who didn’t have writing, tattoo art was an important tool to communicate their unique identity. Known as Kakau, these artistic marks showed one’s social rank, sexual maturity, and genealogy and offered spiritual protection. Warriors were typically full-body tattooed and a symbol of their courage.
Across Polynesia, the tiki symbolizes gods, spirits, and ancestors bridging the mortal and spirit worlds. The turtle is another meaningful Polynesian tattoo meaning health, fertility, long life, foundation, and peace.
The Hawaiian tattoos depicted in journals, drawings, and prints by European voyagers are a critical resource in understanding these ancient traditions. Contemporary Hawaiian practitioners blend traditional designs with cultural elements to form a distinct style. The result is a unique and vibrant form of Hawaiian tattooing that continues to be celebrated and enjoyed by all those who embrace it. Whether you’re looking for an ancient-inspired or modern Hawaiian tattoo, the options are endless.