The Most Staggering Traditional Hawaiian Tattoos

Most Polynesian islands used tattoos as a form of status. In Hawaii, this did not hold true. There are a few designs for certain families, certain groups, and certain occupations, but overall the tattoos were used mainly 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! As humans migrated into the Polynesian islands, they were already well acquainted with 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!

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Photograph by Paul Nicklen / Nationalgeographic


Traditional Hawaiian Tattoos

Getting a traditional Hawaiian tattoo 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.


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Photograph by Paul Nicklen / Nationalgeographic



Once the design is selected, your artist will use 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.

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Photograph by Anthony Nguyen


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 tattoo 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 tattoos.

  • Gecko – The gecko is both feared and respected. 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 are believed to be relatives that returned after they died to protect the island of their loved one. They represent intelligence, curiosity, and strength.
  • Shells – Sea shells were once used as a form of currency on the island. They represent wealth and prosperity.
  • Tiki – Tiki can make a subtle appearance in most Hawaiian tattoos. The face can be drawn in its entirety, or just the nose, mouth, eyes, or ears can be inked. A tiki represents the original ancestor of all humans, known for his ability to sniff danger before it occurred.

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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. The beautiful islands are covered in hundreds of species of flowers, and they 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 are the flowers most commonly used in leis. They bloom in Spring, so they are associated with life. Their beautiful scent is also associated 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.

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If you are just looking for a tribal design, any tattoo shop can help you—but for authentic Hawaiian tattoos, you need your tattoo artist to pick your design 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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