Polynesian Tattoos’ History, Designs, and Meanings

In the past, tattoos were only practiced during religious ceremonies and as part of a rite of passage. But today they are practiced everywhere, with some people even covering their whole bodies with tattoos. Some of the most popular tattoos in the world today are Polynesian tattoos. This article discusses some of the most popular Polynesian tattoos and their meanings.

History of Polynesian Tattoos

To understand the history of Polynesian tattoos, it is important to know the background of Polynesian society and its culture. Although it is still not definitively clear where the Polynesian culture originated from, the fact of the matter is that the Polynesian society is made up of several tribes, including the Samoans, Tongans, Marquesans, Hawaiians, Maori, Tahitians, and Cook Islanders.

These tribes are genetically related to the native people of Southeast Asia. Polynesia is therefore a sub-region of Oceania, which comprises a large group of more than 1,000 islands dispersed over the central and southern Pacific Ocean. These islands are within a triangle that includes New Zealand, Hawaii, and Easter Island. The inhabitants of these islands are referred to as Polynesians.

The Origin of Polynesian Tattoos

The Origin of Polynesian Tattoos

In the past, the Polynesians couldn’t write and therefore they used tattoos that had distinctive signs as a way of expressing their identities and personalities. For example, they used tattoos to indicate an individual’s status in the hierarchical society, sexual maturity, lineage, and rank in the society. This means that almost everyone in the primeval Polynesian society had a tattoo.

The Polynesian tattoos were introduced to the European world around 1771 by James Cook — a famous explorer — after he visited Hawaii and New Zealand. He described the traditions of Polynesians as tattoos. Since then, these tattoos have become very popular in Europe, America, and other parts of the world.

It has also been reported that the European sailors loved the Polynesian tattoos so much that they emblazoned the tattoos on different parts of their bodies. In ancient Polynesia, tattoos were drawn using wooden and bone tools. But these tools have since been replaced by advanced tattoo machines.

12 Polynesian Tattoo Designs and Meanings

Polynesian tattoos feature several distinctive artistic elements that have special meanings. While these designs are now shared across different Polynesian cultures, every ancient Polynesian culture had its own patterns and twists. Most of these tattoos are made up of geometric patterns, but the shapes, placements, and other details can change depending on the tattoo artist and the location of the tattoo.

1. Shark Teeth

Shark Teeth

Image source: Pinterest

Shark teeth are among the main elements in Polynesian tattoos. They are creatively designed in a unique pattern that symbolizes shelter, power, orientation, fierceness, and adaptableness. Known in the Polynesian language as niho mano, the shark teeth design represents courage, power, ferocity, flexibility, and guidance. It is also important to mention that a shark represents the god of Polynesians.

2. Spearhead


Image source: Pinterest

The spearhead design represents combativeness and bravery. If you consider yourself a warrior, then you should include this spearhead design in your Polynesian tattoo. Sometimes this pattern is designed as a row of several spearheads.

3. Ocean


Image source: Pinterest

In Polynesian society, an ocean represents the water from beyond where the ancestors lived. It can also mean death or life after death. Furthermore, the ocean is the main source of food for the Polynesian people. In some Polynesian cultures, the ocean symbolizes life and fertility.

Sometimes the ocean pattern can be used as a complement to another different tattoo. This pattern comes in different forms, including ocean waves that symbolize the planet or the place where people go when they die.

4. Tiki

Tiki tattoo

Image source: Pinterest

The Tiki pattern represents a being that is half-human and half-god. This being is considered the ancestor of human beings. The Polynesian people believe that Tiki can feel and hunt evil. Therefore, this tattoo pattern represents authority and masculinity.

Sometimes this Tiki tattoo design is used as a lucky charm because some people believe it can protect them against evil spirits. In some Polynesian cultures, Tiki represents sacred ancestors, chiefs, and priests who became semi-gods in their afterlife. Tiki designs are often drawn facing forward, sometimes with a stretched tongue as a sign of defiance.

5. Turtle


Image source: Pinterest

In the Polynesian culture, a turtle is one of the most important animals, if not the most important. It signifies strength and security. The animal is also seen as a spirit that is capable of traversing freely between the world and the ocean.

Many Polynesian people believe that a turtle was created to facilitate the passage of departed souls to their resting place in the world beyond. In the Polynesian language, a turtle is referred to as hono and represents health, peace, richness, foundation, and long life.

6. Lizard

Lizard tattoo

Image source: Pinterest

Among Polynesians, a lizard is a sign of divine appearance. Therefore, it represents divinity and the presence of gods. Many people include a lizard in their Polynesian tattoos as a sign of luck and affluence.

In the Polynesian language, lizards and geckos are referred to as mo’o or moko. Polynesians believe that gods and other minor spirits manifest themselves in the form of lizards. They also believe that these animals facilitate communication between men and spirits.

7. Stingray

Stingray tattoo

Image source: Pinterest

The stingray design represents freedom and quiet force. So, if you consider yourself to be reliable, a person who thinks before acting, or someone who is always pursuing justice, you should consider including a stingray pattern in your Polynesian tattoo. This pattern is available in several styles.

8. The Sun


Image source: Pinterest

The sun pattern in a Polynesian tattoo symbolizes splendor and prosperity. It also indicates eternity, rebirth, and renewal, especially since it brings a new day when it rises. You should include this design in your Polynesian tattoo to symbolize your rebirth or renewal.

9. Marquesan Cross

Marquesan Cross

Image source: Pinterest

In the Polynesian culture, the Marquesan cross symbolizes coordination and peace in different situations.

10. Koru Flower


Image source: Pinterest

Koru is a Polynesian word meaning folded or coiled. It is often styled as a coiled shape in many Polynesian tattoos to signify a sprouting fern. This symbolizes life or new beginnings. It also represents tradition.

11. Dolphin

Dolphin tattoo

Image source: Pinterest

Just like a stingray pattern, a dolphin design in Polynesian tattoos represents freedom. In ancient Polynesia, a dolphin guided the people to the promised land while shielding them from the sharks. Therefore, the animal is very important to the Polynesians because it means complete protection of their guidance.

12. Tribal


Image source: Pinterest

Tribal Polynesian tattoo designs and their meanings vary with culture. But in most Polynesian cultures, a tribal tattoo tells the story of the wearer’s heritage and achievements. Some of them signify protection, authority, and strength.

Polynesian Tattoo Placements

Polynesian Tattoo Placements

Where you place a Polynesian tattoo on your body plays an important role in determining its meaning and significance. In the Polynesian culture, the main responsibility on this earth is to find a connection between heaven (Rangi) and earth (Papa). So, the body is viewed as the link between the two spheres.

In terms of gender, the left side of the body is associated with women while the right side represents men. Here are some of the main parts of the body where Polynesian tattoos are commonly placed.

1. Head

Polynesians believe that the head is the first point of contact with the Rangi. Therefore, they associate tattoos placed on the head with many themes, including spirituality, wisdom, acquaintance, and intuition.

2. Upper Trunk

This is the area between the navel and the chest. Many Polynesians believe that this area sits directly between Rangi and Papa to have coordination between them. Therefore, tattoos placed on this body part symbolize generosity, honor, appeasement, and sincerity.

3. Lower Trunk

This is the area between the navel and thighs. The people of Polynesia associate this area with procreation, life’s energy, sexuality, and independence. In particular, the stomach is believed to be the source of mana (the spiritual life’s force, energy, or the healing power that fills the universe), while the thighs relate to strength and marriage.

The navel is believed to represent independence because of the symbolic meaning associated with the cutting of the umbilical cord.

4. Upper Arms and Shoulders

Polynesian tattoos placed on the shoulders or upper arms are associated with bravery and power. They are also associated with warriors and people in authority, like chiefs.

5. Lower Arms and Hands

This is the area below the elbows. Any tattoos placed on these body parts are associated with creativity, artistry, and creation.

6. Legs and Feet

Polynesian tattoos placed on the legs and feet are associated with progress, moving forward, and transformation. They are also believed to represent departure and choice. And because the feet are seen as the main contact point between human beings and Papa (Mother Nature), tattoos placed on the feet are associated with compactness and material matters.

7. Joints

In many Polynesian cultures, body joints are believed to signify union or contact. Since the human body is regarded as the reflection of society, the joints, being the point of connection between bones, represent various levels of interaction between individuals. Therefore, tattoos placed on joints symbolize commitment.

Frequently Asked Questions About Polynesian Tattoos

1. Can I write names or letters in a Polynesian tattoo?

You are not prohibited to incorporate letters into your Polynesian tattoo, but remember that the ancient Polynesian people didn’t use written words prior to coming into contact with the Europeans.

2. Can I add non-Polynesian elements to a Polynesian tattoo?

Since Polynesian tattoos blend well with visual appeal and storytelling, you are free to add any element that you believe will tell your story more clearly to your Polynesian tattoo. In any case, the world is rapidly shifting toward multiculturalism.

3. Why are there so many Polynesian tattoos?

Polynesian tattoo is a general term that refers to different tattooing traditions of the Polynesian people who are spread across the Polynesian triangle. Since these people have different cultures, they do not share the same tattooing designs and techniques.

In Summary

Now that you understand the history and meanings of Polynesian tattoos, you should not have trouble finding a tattoo that will portray your true image. You also know where to place the tattoo on your body to give it the right meaning.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on email
Share on print

Read More

Scroll to Top