Most Polynesian islands used tattoos as a form of status. In Hawaii, this did not hold true. Families, groups, and occupations all use their own symbols, but overall, tattoos mainly serve as a form of identification. There are specific designs for men or women, warriors or fishermen, and newlyweds or widowers. A traditional Hawaiian tattoo is less about making a pretty design and more about telling the life story of an individual. Even though the invention of the tattoo machine revolutionized the tattoo world, traditional Hawaiian tattoo artists are still able to compete in both efficiency and quality with their mechanized peers. Here’s a look into the awesome world of Hawaiian tattoos!
Hawaiian Tattoo History
Hawaiians have been tattooing since before they were Hawaiians! When humans migrated into the Polynesian islands, they already knew about the art of tattooing. They brought their techniques with them to the islands and developed unique traditions of their own. Their tattoos focused on identity of the individual and their ancestors, but they were also used to ward off ill will and misfortune.
After the Europeans started to colonize the islands, traditional Hawaiian culture started to collapse. Along with it went traditional tattooing. Since the art of tattooing was secretive in the first place, it became even more difficult to teach and learn about these tattoos. Everything was lost, but thanks to the permanent nature of tattoos, Hawaiians have a way to look at tattoo designs and traditions even with all of the artists gone!
Traditional Hawaiian Tattoos
Getting a traditional Hawaiian design is not as simple as asking for one at the tattoo shop. You have to seek out an artist who actually owns the tools needed. Keone Nunes, the most well-known traditional Hawaiian tattoo artist, even requires an interview. This is because in authentic Hawaiian tattooing, the artist is the one who chooses the design. If you are Hawaiian, there are different kinds of designs that could be associated with your family, and traditional artists have to take that into account. Traditional artists decline clients far more often for this reason—if they cannot think of a significant design based on your lineage or your lifestyle, you aren’t fit for a tattoo yet.
Once they select the design, your artist uses the kakau method to deliver the ink. They take a tool with a saw-like edge, cover it in handcrafted ink, and use their hands to tap the tool into the skin. For designs that only use straight edges, this method is much faster than even modern tattoo machines. It delivers more ink to a wider surface area. The process is spiritual, with some clients experiencing visions or dreams while they get tattooed.
Hawaiian Symbols & Meanings
The designs chosen have a deep significance to them, and while it is always best to have your tattoo artist select your Hawaiian design, knowing what all the symbols mean can help you understand the tattoos of others in this exclusive inked community. The following five subjects are the most common Hawaiian designs.
- Gecko – People both fear and respect the gecko. It is seen as a constant guardian. Its magical powers ward off illness and misfortune.
- Sea Turtle – There’s a saying about turtles—they don’t die, they are killed. Turtles will live until disease or a predator strikes them, which can take over a hundred years. Because of this, turtles represent long life and fertility.
- Sharks – Sharks represent relatives that returned after they died to protect the island of their loved one. They also represent intelligence, curiosity, and strength.
- Shells – People once used sea shells as a form of currency on the island. They represent wealth and prosperity.
- Tiki – Tiki makes a subtle appearance in most Hawaiian designs. Sometimes the artist inks the whole face. Other times, they just ink the nose, mouth, eyes, or ears. A tiki represents the original ancestor of all humans, known for his ability to sniff danger before it occurred.
Hawaiian Flower Tattoos
Along with those common subjects, you are likely to find lots of people with inked flowers in Hawaii! Flowers hold a special place in the hearts of Hawaiians. Hundreds of flower species cover the beautiful islands, which feature in many of their traditions. It is courtesy to greet or congratulate someone by giving them a lei of fragrant flowers. Getting a Hawaiian flower tattoo is a way of marking a fortunate occasion.
- Bird of Paradise – These flowers represent joy, both in Hawaii and the rest of the world!
- Hibiscus – This is the state flower of Hawaii and they represent beauty. Women wear the flower behind their right ear to signify that they are currently seeking partners. Outside of Hawaii, this flower can represent immortality, courage, honor, and life.
- Orchid – These flowers represent sophistication and beauty. Outside of Hawaii, there are a huge number of color variations that each have their own separate meaning.
- Plumeria – These flowers show up commonly in leis. They bloom in Spring, so we associate them with life. We also associate their beautiful scent with royalty and wealth.
- Red Tower Ginger – These unique and beautiful flowers epitomize the concept of wealth. Their odd shape makes them stand out from the other common Hawaiian flowers.
The Best Hawaiian Tattoos
If you are just looking for a tribal design, any tattoo shop can help you—but for authentic Hawaiian designs, you need your tattoo artist to pick it and ink you with traditional tools. If you are lucky enough to find a traditional Hawaiian tattoo artist who will give you a tattoo, take them up on their offer! These tattoos have a rich history and you will help perpetuate the wonderful culture behind your design.
Related Article: Traditional Tattoo Designs
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