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History of a Polynesian Tattoo and it's Meaning

Updated: Jan 24

Does Polynesian tattoo have a meaning and if so how can anyone decode the same?

Yes, Polynesian tattoos do have meaning associated with them. To understand this in detail I would like to explain a bit about the origin and tradition of Polynesian tattoos which is older than 2000 years.

The Polynesian Islands are located all across the Pacific Ocean, yes, you read that right. Polynesian Island is an ancient name for over 1000 islands in the Pacific Ocean.

If we consider that writing is a form of expression in this age then Polynesian people considered tattoos to be a form of expression in their culture.

Tattooing was used to indicate the status of the person in their hierarchical society. A tattoo would reveal a person's identity, personality, genealogy, and rank in their society.

In the Polynesian culture, tattooing is considered more than just an art form because it's more of a spiritual ritual. The artist is the one who decides the design for the individual based on their social status.

The Polynesian Tattoos are symbolic and usually pictorial representations of humans, animals, birds, flowers, etc.

Meanings of Symbols in Polynesian Tattoos

There is a meaning behind all Polynesian Tattoos however the meaning change depending on cultural background. A Polynesian Tattoo can be inked because of the personal attachment to their tribe or can be depicted as a means to gain spiritual protection.

The Polynesian Tattoos are based on the four elements Earth, Wind, Water, and Fire. It was believed that tattoos would guide them during a battle for the warriors however the nonwarrior race also got tattoos based on their role and rank in society along with their relation towards the four elements.

The most important symbols that you need to understand to de-script a Polynesian tattoo are as below.

Shells: The Shells in a Polynesian tattoo represent longevity, wellness, fertility, and peace symbolizing shield, protection, and intimacy. Shells protect the bearer from surroundings like crabs, turtles, and scallops.

In some designs, the number of shells determines the rank in the tribe. The more shells were represented, the higher the rank of the person.

Shark teeth: Multiple triangles together form a sequence in a Polynesian tattoo. In Hawaiian tradition, they are called "niho mano" meaning many teeth. The Shark teeth represent shelter or coverage, guidance, power, ferocity, and adaptability. According to a Polynesian legend, the sharks represent gods.

Spearhead: The spearhead represents both fishermen and warriors as it's used by both of them. it symbolizes the warrior, prosperity, and providing for the family. There are variants of this design based on the origination of the pattern. Hawaiian. Tahitian, or Samoan.

Spearheads sometimes are represented by a man throwing a spear.

Tikis: A human-like figure that can represent a semi-god (Similar to the talking tattoo of the Maui from the movie Moana) The word tiki indicates any figure, or any image, especially when it has human-like traits,

Maori legends say that Tiki was the first man created by the god Tane. Over time, tiki have taken on additional roles, embodying deified ancestors, priests, and chiefs who ascended to demigod status after death. As symbols of protection, fertility, and guardian spirits.

Over time, the intricate lines of tiki figures have yielded to a bold simplicity, culminating in the "brilliant eye" form, where eyes, nostrils, and ears reign supreme.

Sun: The most important symbol in Polynesian tattoo form. It stands for rebirth, richness, brilliance, leadership, and grandness. Just as many culture Sun has been considered as a biginer of life and thus its has been also considered as symbol of joy, peace, and serenity.

Waves: There is no doubt that water is a constant and ubiquitous presence throughout the lives of people who live on the islands. The Pacific Ocean was particularly rich, providing food and survival for those who depended on it.

Symbolic of the ocean and water, waves can symbolize the continuity of change (like waves that never stop washing the shore rhythmically).

Enata: Enata is a word used to describe people. There are multiple variants of this symbol. Usually easily identified by the positioning of hands and legs.

A) The body and legs are in contact. It's a common way to represent people.

B) Some space between the body and legs. It's more defined and independent. It's common for variants called Kena and Pohu, two legendary heroes.

C) Legs are bent. They represent an ancestor, divinity, or etua with a sitting person.

A simplified version of Enata is usually arranged in rows and according to the legends the Earth and Sky were once tightly embracing each other. Their children (we humans) lived in the darkness between them until they joined to push their father up, thus letting the light in between them for humanity to see and prosper. So this motif represents ancestors and the sky as well, being known by the name ani ata, "cloudy sky".

The mirror image of 2 Enata facing eachothert represents couple

Lizard: Lizards and geckos, often called mou or moko, They play an important role in Polynesian mythology. They are said to bare the power of bringing good luck to the bearer of the tattoo. It is also believed to communicate between humans and gods and access the unseen world. The darker side of this tattoo is that it is also believed to bring death and or ominous omens to rude world.

Stingray: A stingray in its natural habitat is very good in hiding itself from predators like shark under the sand is know to be almost invisible in the sand. in spite of sharks having a capability of sensing pray hidden in sand most of the singray is covered and well hidden. So these symbols have represented Protection, Adaptaion, Graceful, Peaceful, Agility, Stelth. Its also believed to be the carrier of would to the other world in some culture.

Turtle: Turtles have been known around the world for its long life and peaceful nature. It plays a vital role in polynesian tattoo culture. Apart from logitivity in life turtles are considered as symbol for health, fertility, foundation, peace and rest. In some culture its also believed to carry the human soul to the other world. This was generally represented by drawing a human fegireine in the shell of the turtle.

Marquesan cross: A Symbol of peace balance and harmony. Its known as peak 'enana which means "cross of the people"

Its also believed to symbolise the balance between all elements of nature. the usual representation of the Marquesan cross can be in a square or circle.

Palm Leaves: Palm trees are symbolic images of the Pacific Islands and represent peace, positive vibes and serenity.

Coconut palms have many benefits, such as fiber that can be used to weave clothes or rope, wood to strengthen roofs, and fruit and tools.

Coconut trees, leaves and flowers are represented by several symbols and are associated with wealth, origin and lineage.

Flowers: Flowers have played an important role in any culture as are usually linked with beauty.

These 3 flowers have been very evident in the Polynesian tattoo future.

  1. Tiare: Symbolises beauty, grace, and sensuality. Usually used to make garlands and gifted to visitors it's called ei or lei in Hawaii, and it's therefore a symbol of hospitality too.

  2. Hibiscus: A very common design found in most of the women's tattoos of modern Polynesian culture. It symbolizes beauty, femininity, and passion. It's a Symbol used to represent "Carpe Diem" which means living life to the fullest.

  3. Plumeria: Symbolises Beauty, Love, and Children.

These are just a few commonly found symbols and its meaning which I have come across. You should surely walking to the studio to get to know more about Polynesian tattoo and get detailed idea before designing a customised tattoo that either represents your culture or you as a person.

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