Polynesian tattoos are rooted deeply in history and tradition. When people talk about tribal tattoos, there’s a good chance they’re talking about these. Of course, they could also be talking about Celtic-inspired abstract designs, too. Traditional Polynesian tattoos stand out from other tribal tattoos due to their intricacy and deliberate detail. Rather than throwing together a bunch of cool looking lines or solid black waves, Polynesian tattoos actually tell a story and try to invoke different abilities depending on the symbols on the skin. Thanks to aftercare tattoo lotion, the risk brought about by these traditional tattoos is greatly diminished, but their meaning remains clear and resilient.
Related Article: History of Tattooing
The word ‘tattoo’ actually derives from the Samoan word ‘tatau,’ which translates directly into ‘hand-drawn tattoos.’ Although tattoos existed throughout the world for ages, the distinctive tattoos that covered the bodies of Samoans reignited the passion of tattooing around the world. Traditionally seen as the practice of cultists, tattoos had been incredibly suppressed for centuries before word of these amazing tattoos spread. As such, tattoos were given a second chance to prosper. And prosper they did! Lidocaine cream further spread their influence, thanks to its ability to numb pain during tattoo sessions.
Polynesian Tattoo Designs
Polynesian tattoos were a quick indicator of rank among tribes. Chiefs would have tattoos inscribed as a symbol of power—but that power did come at a cost. The risk of infection was far greater than it is today, and because of the technique used, the tattoos were incredibly painful. Numbing cream just didn’t exist back then. If you didn’t want to risk your life to get a tattoo, or if you couldn’t bear the pain of getting a tattoo, then you would be unable to ascend to power. The healing process took many months, and relatives had to help them with their daily lives, as the wound from the tattoo was much more intense than our modern tattoos.
The content of the tattoos themselves was intended to give people power. The exact symbols vary depending on the region, but you could expect to see many spears, ears, noses, eyes, hands, and sea creatures decorating the skin. The body parts all served to enhance the corresponding trait of whomever they were tattooed on. Because of the abstract style, these body parts could blend in seamlessly with larger designs. Spears instilled power, while sea creatures showed a reverence for nature.
Polynesian Tattoo for Men
Men are expected to get tattoos, while it is optional for women. However, that doesn’t mean that women saw no benefit from getting a tattoo—just as it was for men, tattoos were a status symbol that showed a woman’s dedication to her craft and family. Tattoos were considered sacred, so women who wanted to partake in certain ceremonies absolutely needed to have tattoos. Having a tattoo and being able to participate in these ceremonies was an honor.
The practice of Polynesian tattoos still exists today. As I mentioned before, the common ‘tribal’ armband originated from this area. Just because someone has an armband, that doesn’t mean they have a Polynesian tattoo. American sailors often desired a tattoo to take home as a souvenir—the classic armband was designed to have something that could be quickly and safely applied. An actual Polynesian tattoo would take up at least the whole arm and part of the chest. If you’re an artist, grab a seriously comfy tattoo chair and tattoo bed, because these tattoos take forever to ink!
So, next time you see someone with a tribal tattoo, be sure to tell them about their origin. If you liked this article, be sure to check out our History of Tattooing article series! Stay tuned for our next installment as well, which will go into more detail about tribal tattoos and their meanings! You can view a gallery of over fifty Polynesian tattoos below and have a look at our other design galleries such as our Underboob Tattoos, Roman Numeral or the White Ink Tattoos. As always, thanks for reading!