Hawaiian tattooing has a rich and vibrant history, which continues into the present day. If you are interested in both the native culture of the Hawaiian Islands and tattooing, these two interests are a natural fit. Learn about the art's history to gain a deeper understanding of it, and get a better idea of what you wish to get tattooed on your body.
History Behind Hawaiian Tattoos
Hawaiian tattooing comes from a broader Polynesian tradition of tattooing known as kakau. The first Polynesian settlers brought this art to the islands with them. It is a part of a broader system of totems and taboos among the Polynesian people. While the pre-modern Hawaiians certainly got tattoos for the purpose of esthetic adornment, their tattoos had meaning and cultural significance far beyond just looking good. The ancient Hawaiians believed their ink protected them both spiritually and physically. Tattoos were also markers of social status, with some tattoo designs being reserved only for the highest-ranking members of Hawaiian society.
In ancient Hawaii, tattoos on the arms were generally reserved for men. Other places considered acceptable for a man to be tattooed included the legs, torso and even the face. Women, on the other hand, were expected to keep their tattoos on the fingers, hands, wrists and tongue. If you are a woman concerned with making your Hawaiian tattoo authentic and traditional, choose one of these locations rather than the arms.
Most "Hawaiian tattoos" today have little to do with the Hawaiian tattooing traditions of old. Rather, they are images that reflect the culture and natural environment of the island in the 21st Century. Still, there are those who prefer the more traditional tattooing of old. Fortunately, a qualified tattoo artist can cater to either the modern or traditional client, though you may have trouble getting tattooed with traditional tattooing instruments. Many designs can be done in either a traditional or a contemporary fashion, allowing each side of the cultural divide to get a little taste of the other if they so wish.
Designs for Hawaiian Arm Tattoos
Traditional or contemporary, there are a number of designs strongly associated with the history and culture of the Hawaiian islands. Some popular designs include:
Lizards are creatures greatly respected and sometimes feared among the Hawaiian people. In the days of ancient Hawaii, tattoos of lizards were reserved only for the highest ranking members of Hawaiian society. To make this more traditional, ink the lizard in color and give it a more "cartoon-like" feel.
Peahi niu is the Hawaiian name for the traditional crescent-shaped Hawaiian fan. Like the lizard, this is a design once reserved for high-ranking members of Hawaiian society. A more traditional version of the peahi niu would be a full-color, life-like representation of the instrument.
Kapa patterns are the distinctive Polynesian patterns used in Hawaii to adorn almost the entire body. These tattoos are meant to mimic the sight of tightly woven reeds. Get one as an arm band for a more contemporary take.
Tiki gods are a subject no traditional Hawaiian would likely have gotten tattooed on themselves. However, if you are of a more modern mind, this can be a way to represent your love for the island and its culture. Before getting a tattoo of any such deity, do the research and make sure you are representing something you want on your body for the rest of your life.
Hawaiian flowers are a way to show your love of the famous (and gorgeous) natural scenery of the islands. The hibiscus flower is the state flower of Hawaii and when worn behind the left ear indicates you are in a relationship, while the right ear represents single life. This would make a left arm hibiscus tattoo the perfect choice for a couple honeymooning on the island.
If you are not from the Hawaiian culture, it is important to maintain a degree of cultural sensitivity. If you do not carefully research your Hawaiian arm tattoo, those from that culture may regard your tattoo as insulting. This is particularly true whether you choose a more cartoonish design or a more traditional one. Remember to be respectful of the culture as you represent it on your arm. Do the research and know what you are getting into. Once you have learned about your Hawaiian tattoo design, find a good shop to give this ancient culture the respect it deserves.