Tattooing was once considered a sacred art form that was generally performed by shamans throughout Polynesia. These beautiful, intricate designs were meant to represent social status, family and associations, personality and identity. Although Polynesian tattoos are now rarely done by spiritual leaders, they still retain much of their symbolism. Many people design and wear these pieces as a way to express who they are, where they come from and where they are going. However, it is not uncommon for someone to wear these patterns simply for their aesthetic appeal.
Considered a form of tribal body art, Polynesian tattoos vary from other tribal styles by the use of thick, dark figurative or abstract patterns. Polynesian tattoo designs are typically divided into categories that are based on region. Each area – from Tahiti to the Marquesas islands, Hawaii to Samoa – has its own set of standards when it comes to body art.
Tahitian forms of Polynesian tattoos were once restricted to those in eminent social classes, and were often used to represent position in the wearer’s community, or to show where the wearer was in different stages of life. For example, many of the designs used on women featured thick black patches that were often topped with fine, dotted arcs. Modern forms of this variety of body art often include thick lines and spiraling patterns that are used to create the shape of specific images such as tiki, turtles, and dolphins, which represent protection, fertility and wisdom respectively.
The Marquesan style of body art is exceedingly intricate in design. These pieces are generally made up of distinct geometric patterns that twine around each other to create symbolic pictures. Some of the most common pictures consist of animal-life, like sharks or geckos, or carving-like images of tikis or the Marquesan cross. Patterns that can be made into arm or leg bands are also a popular choice for this style. These patterns are also typically made up of specific objects, such as shark teeth, turtle shells or sugar cane. Though similar in many ways, Marquesan body art was, and still is, known for being unique, as each piece is created specifically for the wearer and no two are identical.
Hawaiian Polynesian tattoos are often colorful, and regularly feature bright, beautiful plants and cheerful-looking creatures. Some designs depict leis made of bold hibiscus or orchid flowers in shades of hot pink, red, orange and yellow, and backed by dark green foliage. Creatures like lizards, dolphins and turtles also feature largely in these designs. Most Hawaiian tattoos that focus on animals show the creature by itself, but they may also be seen in groups or chains that surround arms, leg or abdomens. Tribal designs also occasionally appear in this type of body art, and are generally done in black, sweeping patterns that make up a variety of images.
As is true with other Polynesian tattoos, Samoan styles were done to express the wearer’s rank and status in society. These pieces once covered the bodies of many Samoan men and women. Today, however, these designs are more commonly placed in single, discreet locations. Unlike tattoos from other areas, Samoan designs typically follow a pattern. They are generally done in thick, black ink and are often made up of long lines and arcs, but rarely include circular patterns. These designs are regularly used to create simple, beautiful patterns, but may also occasionally be used to depict important symbols like centipedes, waves or fish.