Polynesian Art and American Interpretation
“He tini nga whetu e ngaro I te kapua iti”
(Translated: Many stars cannot be concealed by a small cloud)
A traditional Maori proverb
The Polynesian islands (which include Samoa, The Cook Islands, Easter Island,
Tonga, French Polynesia, Tahiti, and our own Hawaii, just to name a few) have
been a popular tourist destination across the United States and the world at
large. There is something about the relaxed, friendly, colorful people that
keeps us regularly coming back for more. With a history and culture quite different
from our own, the traditions, mythology and artistic expression of this area
has spread to the world abroad, one foreign visitor at a time.
“Discovered” in the 1500’s, it wouldn’t be for two
or three more centuries that the Polynesian islands would begin to command much
attention from the world at large. This attention came at a high price for the
native inhabitants. By the time the missionaries arrived and got settled down,
they quickly strived to erase a good portion of the native culture, from the
seductive dancing of the native women to the widely used practice of tattoo.
As a matter of fact, the widely popular tribal tattoo style of today can be
traced back to the Pacific Rim and Southeast Asia. Even the word “tattoo”
is said to have derived from that area. Polynesians used the word “tatao”
meaning “to tap”. Tahitians used the word “tatu”, which
means to mark something. Tattoo, the word most commonly used today, was said
to have been penned by Caption Cook when he explored those same areas.
Fortunately, today things are much more relaxed, and the native culture of
the many different Polynesian islands is able to be expressed much more freely.
Recently, the first international festival of tattooing was organized in this
area in April of 2000 on the “sacred island” of Raiatea. It gathered
50 tattoo masters from all over the world and was a huge success.
A Gallery of Popular Polynesian Tattoo Designs
There are two different types of Polynesian (or Tahitian, words we’ll
use interchangeably) tattoo. The first is Enata. Enata designs are natural designs
that come to symbolize a person’s life history, island of origin, social
level, type of work done, etc. For example, if you were a fisherman, you might
have a symbol that is there to protect you from dangerous sharks, or to protect
your fishing vessel.
The other type of Polynesian tattoo is the Etua. This form has a much stronger
spiritual, magical or religious meaning to it. These symbols might show particular
honor to one or more people in a tribe, or offer protection from (as in, “by”)
However, the more popular Polynesian tattoos of today carry a slightly less
weighty meaning. The most popular and appreciated designs are the tiki, the
turtle, the gecko, the ray, the shark, the dolphin, as well as a lot of abstract
symbolic designs. In order to receive these tattoos, it isn’t necessary
to go through any rites of passage, or to sit before the special tattoo shaman
to be marked. All you need to have is access to a tattoo artist, a design you
like, and the money to pay for it to be done.
Despite that fact, following an ancient tradition, many of the Polynesian tattoo
designs which are so popular today earned that esteem because of what they traditionally
stand for or symbolize.
Tiki: Tiki is a god, most often depicted with his eyes closed.
His eyes are closed because Tiki is reported to smell trouble before he sees
Shells: Shells represent wealth to the Polynesian cultures,
most likely because they were used as a type of currency.
Sharks’ teeth: Tattoos of sharks’ teeth denote
Sharks: Sharks were sacred animals. Powerful and mighty, Polynesian
shark tattoos were often used as a protection from enemies.
Turtles: Turtles symbolized fertility and long life.
Gecko: The gecko is supposed to have supernatural powers,
and is regarded by Polynesians with fear and awe. It is rumored that if a green
gecko “laughs” at you, it’s a terrible omen of illness and
While hardly covering all, or even a good portion, of the Polynesian tattoo
designs that are available today, this should give a pretty good idea of what
you could expect to find on your search for your own personally perfect design.
With their bold black ink, whimsical abstract geometrical shapes and deep-seated
history and legends, the tribal style Polynesian tattoo has fans all across
the globe. Whether you decide upon a flash design, or create or modify your
own custom design, there’s a Polynesian tattoo that will allow you to
express yourself however you may choose.
The art of tattoo in the Polynesian islands has lived and learned to be a bit
like the old Maori proverb we heard earlier. Just as the stars cannot be eclipsed
by a lone, small cloud, so too, the practice and history of tattoo weren’t
lost. It has even managed to experience a new rebirth and popularity despite
the fact that missionaries and other foreigners tried to abolish this rich cultural
Now, in addition to a wide popularity in the States, tattoo has once again
found itself back at home in the Polynesian islands, and again are being administered
by the local tattoo shamans and artists who picture taking back their traditional
role and meaning in this rich, magical, tranquil paradise.
Show me more Polynesian Tattoo Designs