The Polynesian Islands have a long history of tattooing, and Polynesian tattoos are popular today among both Polynesians and those who simply embrace Polynesian culture or design. Though true Polynesian tattoos mean a traditional, and generally painful, tattooing process, Polynesian designs are easy to incorporate into a modern tattoo.
Perhaps the most well-known of the Polynesian tattoos is the Maori tattoo, consisting of intricate spirals for men, often covering the entire face as well as the legs and buttocks, and of curved designs covering the chin for women. For Maoris, the process of getting tattooed is traditionally seen as a ritual mark of courage, and the tattoos themselves continue to be viewed as an element of personal identification. This strong cultural connection exists today so if you are not Maori, using a Maori design for your tattoo is seen as deeply disrespectful. For this reason, if you love the Maori sense of design, you should find someone who understands the cultural issues around this tattoo style—and can design a tattoo for you that uses the spirals and curves of the Maori tattoo but that doesn’t borrow the cultural significance. Maori-inspired designs work well anywhere on the body, and are especially well-suited for facial Polynesian tattoos.
Other Polynesian tattoos are similarly abstract in design but loaded with cultural significance, such as Samoan tattoos, which cover large areas of the body with intricate designs. Men’s tattoos traditionally run from under the ribcage all the way to the ankles, with large areas of the design completely black, while women’s traditional Polynesian tattoos may cover as much skin, but without as many solid areas. These designs can be a source of great inspiration if you want to design a large tattoo composed of relatively small repeating elements, especially if you create your own personal symbols as the basis of the tattoo.
It’s important to note that not all traditional Polynesian tattoos are completely abstract. For example, though traditional Hawaiian tattoos often include personally and culturally significant abstract designs, the flora and fauna of Hawaii is often incorporated into the designs. Lizards, sea turtles, dolphins and flowers all find their way into traditional Hawaiian tattoos, though they’re much stylized. Each of these design elements denotes respect for that particular animal or plant, especially for its unique qualities or attributes. If you like Hawaiian style, you can have an artist design a beautiful tribal interpretation of your favorite animal or plant.
However, Polynesian tattoos don’t just encompass tribal tattoo designs. They also include designs inspired by Polynesia. Hawaii inspires many of these designs, with Hawaiian hibiscus and ghost orchids being especially popular designs, announcing the wearer’s love of the island while acknowledging the beauty and the fragility of life. Tiki tattoos are another popular design inspired by Polynesia, and are often used in a playful manner. Some people with tiki tattoos may actually feel a connection to the culture that inspired the design, but most that use tikis as a tattoo design are showing their interest in the tiki culture of the 1950s and 1960s.
Whatever your interest in Polynesian tattoos, you can find inspiration for a personally meaningful tattoo design within the Polynesian tradition.