Polynesian tattoo history, meanings and traditional designs

However, Polynesian languages may actually vary slightly from each other, and in some cases they actually differ quite significantly. There are some words, which are basically the same throughout all Polynesian languages, reflecting the deepest core of all Polynesian cultures. Moana (ocean) and mana (spiritual force and energy) are two terms that transcend all Polynesian cultures.

Historically there was no writing in Polynesian culture so the Polynesian’s used tattoo art that was full of distinctive signs to express their identity and personality. Tattoos would indicate status in a hierarchical society as well as sexual maturity, genealogy and ones rank within the society. Nearly everyone in ancient Polynesian society was tattooed.


In 1771, when James Cook first returned to Tahiti and New Zealand from his first voyage, the word “tattoo” appeared in Europe. He narrated the behaviours of the Polynesian people in his voyage, which he called tattaw. He also brought a Tahitian named Ma’i to Europe and since then tattoo started to become rapidly famous, predominently because of the tattoos of Ma’i.

The actual tradition of Polynesian tattooing existed more than 2000 years ago, however in the 18th century the Old Testament strictly banned the operation. Since it’s renaissance in the 1980s, many lost arts were revived but it became very difficult to sterilise the wooden and bone tools that were used for the tattooing process so the Ministry of Health banned tattooing in French Polynesia in 1986.

The permanent marks left on someone after they have been tattooed would forever remember and commemorate their endurance and dedication to cultural traditions. The pain was extreme and the risk of death by infection was a huge concern for many people. However, to shy away from tattooing was to risk being labeled a coward or a pala’ai and to then be hated and insulted by the rest of the tribe or clan. The men who could not endure the pain and abandoned their tattooing were left incomplete, wearing their mark of shame throughout their life.

A tattooing session typically lasted until dusk or until the men could no longer stand the pain and would resume the following day, unless the inflamed skin needed a few days to heal. The entire process could last up to three or even four months. Afterwards, the man’s family would help him to celebrate, despite the pain, by throwing a party and the tufuga smashed a water vessel at his feet, marking the end of the painful ordeal. The healing process

This process usually took months. The tattooed skin would have to be washed in salt water, to keep infection at bay and then the body area had to be massaged to keep out impurities. Family and friends would assist in the healing process because even extremely simple tasks e.g. walking and sitting, could irritate the inflamed skin and cause great pain. Within six months, the distinctive designs would begin to appear on their skin but it would take almost a year to completely heal. Placement on the body

Humans are said to be descendants or children of Rangi (Heaven) and Papa (Earth), which were said to once be united. Man’s quest in Polynesian legend is to find that union again, so the body is seen as a link between Rangi and Papa. The upper part of the body is related to the spiritual world and heaven, whilst the lower part of the body is related to the world and to earth.

This area goes from the thighs to the navel. This part of the body directly relates to life’s energy, courage, procreation, independence and sexuality. In particular, thighs relate to strength and marriage. The stomach or mid area, is where mana originates form and the navel represents independence due to the symbolic meaning associated to the cutting of the umbilical cord.

Independence is a trait that is valued highly in Polynesian society (as in most others), however individualism is not. All people depending on the sea for sustenance know the important of sociality and socialising. Polynesian people built their culture around this. Family thus becomes a larger group of people that includes all relatives, friends and neighbours, all of which play an important role.

The shoulders and upper arms above the elbow are associated with strength and bravery and they relate to people such as warriors and chiefs. The Maori word kikopuku used to designate this part of the union of the words kiko (flesh, body) and puku (swollen). Puku as a prefix or suffix is also used as an intensifier of the word it qualifies, enforcing the idea of strong arms. 5. Lower arms and hands

The ocean is a second home to Polynesian people and the place of rest when they leave for their last voyage. Coincidentally, turtles are said to join the departed guiding them to their destinations. So sometimes, the ocean can be used to represent death and the beyond. Since the ocean is the primary source of food, it is no wonder it impacts so much tradition and myth. All the creatures living in the ocean are associated with several meanings, usually mutated from their characteristic traits and habits. The ocean and the sea can be represented by waves. Here is the simplified version. 8. Ocean

Stingray tattoos come in several variations and styles, the image can hold symbolic meanings. The stingray has the ability to hide in the underwater sands, mainly from sharks and is able to cover up with sand and lay still. Most sharks can sense prey in the sand based on movement but for the most part the stingray is able to hide and for this reason, it’s image is classed as a symbol of protection. Other themes that go hand in hand with the sting-ray image are adaptation, gracefulness, peacefulness, danger, agility, speed and stealth. We specialise in Polynesian and Maori Tattoo Artwork