Shark teeth, suns, and spearheads: We’ve all seen these impressive tribal-style tattoos. They look cool, but where did they come from? Do they have special meaning? Are they more than just a stylish design?
Tattoos have been an essential element to Polynesian culture for many centuries. The term “Polynesian tattoo” encompasses a wide variety of tattoo styles that originate from many different Pacific Islands, such as Hawaii, Samoa, and New Zealand.
Each of Polynesia’s 10,000 islands is unique; therefore, tattoo styles vary somewhat depending on each island’s culture. They do, however, have similar designs and styles, which are often very intricate.
Let’s dig a little deeper into the origin of these tattoos, their significance, and meanings of common Polynesian tattoo designs.
Where and why did Polynesian tattoos originate?
The Polynesian tattoo tradition began over 2,000 years ago in the Polynesian, Samoan, and Māori cultures. In ancient Polynesian societies, almost everyone had tattoos. It was often a rite of passage and was considered a very revered tradition.
This type of tattooing developed into a highly refined artform over many centuries. The shapes, designs, and placement all worked together to tell a unique life story.
Polynesian tattooing took a hit in the 1800s when Christian missionaries moved into the area. Because tattoos were viewed as sinful in the western world at that time, this special art form went into decline.
Despite this, there were many Polynesian artists who rebelled and continued tattooing. Thanks to these committed artists, this ancient tradition was preserved, and many people still enjoy these unique, meaningful designs today.
What Polynesian tattoos are sacred?
Polynesian tattoos were instrumental in telling one’s story. Many designs were very sacred to the Polynesian people. Oftentimes, certain tattoos were placed as a sign of protection or to harness power from the spirit realm.
Many patterns were believed to preserve one’s life energy, or mana, which helped protect health, fertility, and overall wellbeing.
Because the tattooing process was so sacred in Polynesian culture, many groups, including the Māori, would forbid the person receiving the tattoo and the artist from eating with their hands or speaking to anyone besides each other. Sometimes they were required to abstain from sex and weren’t allowed to eat solid foods.
Where the tattoo was placed held special meaning- It was believed that upper body tattoos had a connection with the spiritual realm. A tattoo on one’s head or face was often considered the most sacred of all.
Lizard designs were viewed as sacred, as they were considered divine animals. Polynesians believed that lizards were able to communicate to the gods, linking them to the spirit world.
Why are Polynesian tattoos important?
These unique tattoos held great importance for the ancient people of the Polynesian Islands. For women, tattoos were sometimes used to as a sign of sexual maturity.
For men, it usually signified their strength, wealth, character, and levels of hierarchy. Warriors typically had very elaborate tattoos. These tattoos indicated their rank, power, and ability to endure pain.
Oftentimes, tattoos in the Polynesian culture even shared one’s genealogy, occupation, and spirituality. These tattoos usually had great significance, but occasionally Polynesian’s received ink simply for cosmetic purposes.
Many people still receive Polynesian tattoos today. Those who live in this area of the world often get tattoos as a tribute to their history. Others feel that it is a valuable link to their ancestors and pays homage to those that have gone before.
There are even people who are not of Polynesian descent that enjoy these incredible tattoos today. For many, the unique designs represent things of importance in their lives. These intricate, beautiful designs continue to hold a special place in modern society.
What are the meanings to these common Polynesian tattoo designs?
Did you know that roughly 50% of all Polynesian tattoos have shark teeth, or niho mano, incorporated into the tattoo?
Because sharks are fearless hunters, shark teeth tattoos often represent ferocity, strength, protection, and guidance.
Sometimes shark teeth are used to symbolize an ‘aumakua, which is a supernatural entity such as an ancestor. It is believed that these tattoos often help ancestors or spirits protect and guide the individual. Shark teeth tattoos are sometimes considered sacred among the Polynesian people.
The turtle, or honu, is usually associated with fertility, health, wellness, peace, and longevity.
It can also represent unity. Many people use turtle tattoos to symbolize joining families together.
Seashells had many purposes in ancient Polynesian culture. They ate the meat and used the shells to make decorations, trumpets, and other horns.
Just as they had many functions, seashell tattoos also represent many different things. They can be a symbol of prosperity and plenty. Historically, theses type of tattoos helped identify chiefs and priests and were often located on the back of one’s knees.
Another type of seashell design can represent two people joining as one in marriage. They help show unity, love, and intimacy.
Third, seashells can symbolize protection. The shell is viewed as a shield, which stands as a safeguard against enemies.
Tiki means figure or image in Polynesian cultures. Tiki designs usually have large ears, eyes, nose, and mouth.
According to Māori legend, the god Tane created the first man, which was named Tiki. Other legends say that Tiki was the god, and he created the first man.
A tiki tattoo usually represents ancestors, chiefs, and priests that have transitioned to a semi-god status after dying. It can also symbolize masculinity and power.
Enata, which means human figures, usually represents people or gods. Enata designs can be singular or plural. A singular motif often shows a person’s relationship. If the design is placed upside down, it sometimes represents enemies that have been defeated.
Plural, or repeating, human figures often represent a group of ancestors that are guiding and protecting their descendants.
In many Polynesian cultures, the sun’s rising symbolizes rebirth. A sun tattoo often shows leadership, eternity, renewal, riches, and brilliance.
As previously mentioned, lizards represented a connection the gods. They are viewed as very robust creatures that bring good luck.
Polynesian myths claim that spirits often appeared to men as lizards, and this more than likely contributed to the significance of lizards and gecko tattoos.
However, it was also believed that lizards could bring death to disrespectful people, so these creatures were to be revered and highly respected.
A spearhead, or Fa’aulutao in Samoan, usually symbolizes providing for one’s family. Warriors typically got spearhead tattoos, as did fishermen.
Spearheads can also represent courage and one’s fighting abilities.
What are the most common areas to get Polynesian tattoos?
The placement of Polynesian tattoos was very crucial in ancient times and is still important to many Polynesian individuals today. The tattoo location is just as vital as the tattoo design itself.
Getting a tattoo on the head represents spirituality, wisdom, and knowledge. The upper abdomen usually symbolizes sincerity, kindness, and resolution.
The lower trunk area is related to themes like courage, sexuality, and independence. Meanwhile, the lower arms and hands represent creativity. The legs and feet relate to transformation and change.
Many Polynesian women have thigh tattoos. They usually represent marriage and power.
Perhaps two of the most popular locations for modern Polynesian tattoos are the upper arms and shoulders. These sites symbolize strength and valor. In ancient times, they were associated with powerful individuals, such as chiefs, talking chiefs, and priests. These days, men commonly enjoy these types of tattoos, as they are considered masculine.
What is the difference in Samoan and Polynesian tattoos?
“Polynesian tattoo” is a general term that refers to all tattoo traditions of the Polynesian people. Polynesians include Hawaiians, Tongans, Tahitians, Samoans, Māori, and several other groups of people.
Simply put, Samoan tattoos are a more specific “branch” of the Polynesian tattoo family. For Samoans, family hierarchy was extremely important. This group of people were also sea travelers and expert builders, which probably contributed to their tattoo culture.
Just like with many other Polynesian cultures, tattoos, or tataus, were very important to the Samoan people. Tattoos often marked the beginning of adulthood, and most Samoan men received an intricate tattoo that started at the torso and ended at the knees. The process was very long and painful, and healing often took months.
These tattoos also have very deep meanings, just like with other Polynesian designs. Every symbol implies a greater meaning and is significant to the individual. Placement of the tattoo was of the utmost importance as well.
Samoan tattoos often feature turtle shells and seashells. You’ll also find arrowheads, water, animals, triangles, spearheads, “v” shapes, and so many other incredible designs.
These tattoos are beautiful and usually tell the individual’s whole story. They have been loved by many across the globe for centuries.
Polynesian tattoos have made a significant impact on modern-day tattooing. Many people get these types of tattoos, even if they aren’t of Polynesian descent. Those who choose one should consider its meaning and the significance of its placement. You should know and understand the importance of this type of tattoo. Perhaps you can tell your life’s story through one of these special tattoos, just as many Polynesian warriors did centuries ago.