As the ancestor of modern tribal tattoos, Polynesian tattoos are one of the original tribal tattoo styles that originated in Polynesia, the geographic area located within the Polynesian Triangle (a region of the Pacific Ocean marked by three groups of islands: Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand). Within these islands are many cultures; however, the main Polynesian cultures are derived from Hawaii, Tahiti, Easter Island, Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand and the Marquesa Islands. Early cultures on each of these islands developed their own unique tattoo styles as a form of non-verbal communication that symbolized many things including an individual’s social belonging, level of courage and bravery, tribal status, genealogy and religious beliefs.
Easter Island Tattoos (Rapa Nui): The ancient inhabitants of Easter Island believed tattooing their skin made it sacred and allowed them to speak directly to the Gods. Their tattoos included facial markings of bold lines and dots from one side of their foreheads to the other. Other popular Easter Island tattoos included stylized geometric patterns, boats, spears and birds. They are considered the most sacred of all Polynesian tattoos.
Samoan Tattoos: Extremely large and intricate tattoos representing social status. Women were tattooed as well but only with delicate, geometric patterns (mostly florals) on their hands and lower bodies. Male tattoos were called pe’a and female tattoos were called malu.
Tongan Tattoos: Similar to Samoan tattoos. Extensive tattoos made of many parallel lines. Although Tongan men were heavily tattooed, Tongan women were only tattooed on their arms and on the insides of their hands and fingers.
Tahitian Tattoos (French Polynesia): Both men and women of high ranking received full body tattoos, excluding their faces.
Maori Tattoos: Based on bold spirals and were most commonly located on the face, on the buttocks and legs of men, and on the lips and chins of women.
These cultural tattoos fit into two category types: Enata and Etua tattoos. The first type, Enata tattoos, were designs that represented personal traits including a person’s history, social status, island of origin, and profession to name a few. The second type, Etua tattoos, were designs that represented the spiritual or religious side of a person’s character.
The Application of Early Polynesian Tattoos
Several methods were used to apply early Polynesian tattoos. In some cultures, a tortoise shell or bone comb with needles on the end was hit with a stick. This caused the needles to pierce the skin and inject the pigment underneath it (the tapping sound from this procedure was dubbed “tatau” and would later become known as “tattoo”). Other cultures would create their tattoos by cutting designs into the skin and pushing pigment into the wound (as did the Maori tribes of New Zealand and many African tribes) resulting in both tattooed skin and large scars. Samoans commonly used a pig or shark tooth to puncture the skin of their tribe members.
In all of these cultures, the primary source of pigment was derived from ash, soot and plants mixed with water or oil. In later years, gunpowder was also used.
Popular Polynesian Tattoos
Although there are many different kinds of Polynesian tattoos, there are a few symbols that have become the most popular over the years. These symbols include:
Geckos: Polynesians are both fearful and in awe of geckos as they are believed to have supernatural powers.
Tikis: Polynesian statues made most commonly of wood representing human figures.
Shark Teeth: Signs of protection.
Turtles: Symbols of fertility and longevity.
Shells: Symbols of wealth.
Celebrities with Polynesian Tattoos
Celebrities are among those who have been drawn to the exotic and symbolic nature of Polynesian tattoos. Here is a short list of stars baring Polynesian tattoos of their own:
DWAYNE “THE ROCK” JOHNSON / Wrestler: Marquesan and Tahitian tattoos on left shoulder and back
BEN HARPER / Singer and Guitarist: Numerous Maori tattoos all over body
MIKE TYSON / Boxer: Maori tattoo on face
ROBBIE WILLIAMS / British Singer: Maori tattoo down left arm
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