Tattoo meanings are frequently personal and applied by the wearer; Polynesian tattoo meanings are no different with meanings varying widely by culture.
It is impossible to consider the history of body art without stopping to consider Polynesian tattoos. Tattooing is an integral part of the culture of each Polynesian island, and many of the tattoos seen today have roots in the islands.
Each one of the Polynesian islands has a different culture and reason for tattoos, making Polynesian tattoo meanings both varied and similar across regions. These include:
- Easter Island
- The Cook Islands
- The Marquesa Islands
- New Zealand
Polynesian Tattoo Meanings
While each one of the Polynesian islands has its own reasons, customs and meanings to attach to their tattoos, there are some similarities between them as well. These can include the meanings of:
- Rite of passage
- Sexual attractiveness
- A talisman
Tattoo Meanings by Culture
To truly understand the nuances of Polynesian tattoo meanings, you'll need to look closer at each particular heritage.
Samoan tattoos are large and complicated, sported by both men and women. A Samoan tattoo can be read like a book to tell the story of the wear's rank, societal position, age and place in life.
Easter Island Tattoos
Tattoos given in Easter Island were thought to make the skin sacred. This in turn allowed the wearer to communicate more closely with the gods. Therefore tattoos themselves were often stylized versions of what the wearer wanted sway or to have control over including turtles, boats, spears and birds.
Like the Samoan tattoos, Tonga tattoos were created to tell the story of the wearer's journey through life. They include rank, social status and age in the designs.
Cook Island Tattoos
Tattoos indigenous to the Cook Islands frequently included the symbol that connected the wearer to his or her tribe.
In Tahiti, tattoos were typically given only to those of the upper classes. A tattoo may be given to mark passage through life, and while frequently displayed all over the body, few were ever found on the face.
The Marquesa Islands
Tattooing was an incredibly integral part of life in the Marquesa Islands. Tattoos were worn for appearance enhancing purposes, to make one appear more attractive to a mate, for social purposes and to mark the passage of time through life.
Hawaiian tattoos are often thought to be the most personal of the Polynesian tattoos. A Hawaiian tattoo may mean personal identification or simply adornment on the wearer. Tattoos in Hawaii were also thought to provide protection, and were frequently worn in honor of a loved one who had passed.
The distinctive spirals of the Mori tattoos of New Zealand are a show of strength, courage, passion and social status. The complete tattoos may take years to complete and a ritual is created for each wearer in which they add to the designs with each new rank or passage in life.
Tattoo Meanings Today
Like all tattoos worn today, Polynesian inspired tattoos are sported by those who both embrace their tradition and history and those who bring their own meaning to them. Whether you enjoy the rich culture of the Polynesian islands and wish to honor them with a tattoo of your own, or you enjoy the appearance of these traditional tattoos and want one for your own reasons, each wearer of any tattoo creates his own meaning. Look closer into the meaning of Polynesian tattoos to help discover the history of the art of tattoos, and bring your own tattoo journey into greater clarity.