History of Polynesian Tattoo Designs

Polynesian tattoos are an ancient art that has been receiving a lot of attention in modern times. Though few of us who are not from the Polynesian islands would be willing to undergo the painful and lengthy procedure that real Polynesian tattoos necessitate, we might well be attracted to elements of the traditional tribal designs and wish to incorporate them into our own tattoos using modern methods (most of us anyway).

The people of the Polynesian islands have evolved their own distinct culture over hundreds, even thousands of years. Though there are many islands in this area, the people all came from a common homeland – though no one is exactly sure where this might have been, or when they came or how.

Polynesia is a group of islands spread over the Pacific Ocean (over 1000; Polynesia is the Greek word for many islands). The Marquesa islands are probably where the Polynesian people came to first and they later spread to:

New Zealand

Aotearoa (Maori for NZ) is where the Maori people live. Tattoo art or Ta Moko as they call it, is a very important aspect of their culture. Discover all about Maori Tattoos here


Hawaiian tattoo designs are distinct from other Polynesian tattoos in that sense that they have a more personal meaning. Popular today are Hawaiian flowers, turtles and abstract tribals.

Easter Island (Rapa Nui)

The tattoo designs of the inhabitants of the Easter Island have a huge variety: stylized boats, vaginas, spears, birds, geometrical patterns, Women and men had a combination of bold lines and dots on their forehead, from one ear to the other. The tattoos made their skin sacred and enabled them to communicate with the gods.


Samoan tattoos are generally very large and denote the social status and rank of the man or woman who wears it. See further.


The Tongan tattoo is similar to the Samoan tattoo.

The Cook Islands

The tattoo designs of the Cook Islands were spread over the entire body. Each tribe had its own tattoo sign.

French Polynesia

Traditionally, only people of a high social ranking had tattoos. Tahitian tattoos covered the whole body, except the face. Women as well as men were tattooed. The women were tattooed at a very young age. Later they are tattooed again when they reach sexual maturity. When they desired a man, they would show their tattoos by lifting their skirts.

The Marquesa Islands

A group of islands in French Polynesia with a deeply rooted tattoo tradition. The people of the Marquesa islands were the most heavily tattooed of all the Polynesian tribes.


Other islands which now house distinct ethnic groups.

Though they are distinct, a lot of cultural similarities remain. For example, practically all of these people practice the art of tattooing, and they do so in startlingly similar ways. Tattoo art was very important in the Polynesian culture. Because they had no written language, tattoos were used to depict social status, family history and spirituality.

The Motives For Polynesian Tattoos

Here are some of the reasons the Polynesian people had tattoos:

  • The tattoos were a symbol of courage. The tattoo process was very painful and a lot of perseverance was needed to endure the long tattoo sessions.
  • Getting the first tattoo marks the transition between childhood and adulthood. It is a rite of passage.
  • Tattoos added to the sexual attractiveness of a man.
  • Tattoos offered protection, they were a talisman.
  • Polynesian tattoos read like a book. By looking at a tattoo, insiders get to know the social status and rank of the tattooed person.

Samoan Tattoos

Samoan tattoos received a lot of attention since the time of first contact with people in that region.

There is no doubt that the Samoan tattoo is particularly impressive for several reasons including the intricacy of the design and the painful process that those being tattooed had to undergo.

The tattoos for men are called pe’a. Samoan tattoo designs would be impressive regardless of their size, but when they cover almost half of a man’s body, starting from just under the ribcage, and continuing down to the ankles, they are particularly striking.

The tattoos for women are called malu. They can be as big as the male tattoos, but they don’t have the large black areas. The Samoan women also had tattoos on their hands.

On Samoa the art of tattooing stayed alive throughout history, where in other parts of Polynesia tattoos disappeared after missionaries banned them.

Samoan Tattoo Patterns

Samoan tattoo patterns are highly meaningful to those of that culture, and that is something we can grasp just be looking at a Samoan tattoo, even without knowing what its precise meaning is. The tattoo patterns and symbols are complex and abstract, consisting of a lot of interlocked, interwoven shapes and patterns.

As mentioned before, they are also remarkable because of the sheer expanse of skin that they occupy and especially when the tattooing is done using the traditional methods, this is a real endurance test for the person being tattooed. Instead of needles, the skin is punctured using a pig’s tooth or shark’s tooth.

Not finishing a tattoo once it is started is a source of shame.

Though few of us would be willing to undergo the discomfort necessary to get real Polynesian tattoos, incorporating some of the symbols and patterns into a modern tattoo is a different matter. Polynesian tattoos certainly have a striking, timeless appeal.

Tiki Tattoos

All Polynesian statues and carvings that depict a human figure are known as Tiki art. The word tiki refers to the mythical ancestor and first human called Tiki.

Temples were the home of those large wooden Tiki statues, who have tattoo patterns on the hands and the face.

Nowadays, the Tiki figure has a certain popularity as a tattoo design.

Celebrities With A Polynesian Tattoo

Dwayne Johnson (aka “The Rock”) has a Marquesan tattoo on his left shoulder. He had this tribal tattoo done in 2003 by the famous Tahitian tattoo artist Po’oino Yrondi (Hawaii).

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2 Responses

  1. karmatika says:

    The picture of a man with heavy tattoos…he is prince Giolo from the Philippine Islands. He was taken captive and brought to Europe as an amusement because of his intricate tattoos. He died in Europe

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