19 Traditional Polynesian Tattoo Designs With Meanings

Written by Nisha Baghadia

The motifs on a person’s body are a form of self-expression. Sometimes, they proclaim one’s beliefs and identity. Your body is your journal, and tattoos are here to tell its story.

People get tattoos for several reasons: some do it for self-expression, some for creative freedom. It sometimes also symbolizes a soul rebelling against entrapment. Other times, tattoos are a visual display of a person’s narrative and reminders of cultural and spiritual traditions.

Tattoos are an inherent part of some cultures. The Polynesian islands are famous all over the world for their beautiful traditional tattoo designs. To think of Polynesian tattoos as mere body motifs is an insult. They are awash with cultural and spiritual significance. This article will take you through 19 traditional Polynesian tattoo designs and unwrap their spiritual and cultural importance.

19 Polynesian Tattoo Designs With Meanings

1. Polynesian Turtle Tattoo

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Turtle tattoos are popular and play an important role throughout all Polynesian cultures. Turtle or honu is considered a symbol of health, fertility, peace, foundation, and longevity in life.

The word hono, which means ‘turtle’ in the Marquesan language, has several meanings attached to it. It also represents the idea of unity and stitching together families. Turtles are often designed with many patterns and symbols to express different meanings.

Polynesian people revere the sea as a source of food, and they also believe it to be the world beyond where they will rest after death. Since these reptiles move both on land and in water, Polynesians believed that turtles bring them closer to their final resting place.

2. Polynesian Enata Tattoo

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Enata is a typical motif found in Samoan tattoos. This symbol depicts the relationships between humans and also the ones they share with the gods. This symbol originates from the Marquesas language and symbolizes life experiences, birth, and rank in society.

A combination of symbols along with the Enata can be used to represent relationships, such as marriage, family, relatives, and friends. An inverted Enata symbolizes an enemy.

3. Polynesian Tiki Tattoo

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Tiki is the name given to human-like Polynesian demigods. Demigods are representative of deified ancestors, chiefs, and priests.

Tiki symbolizes protection, fertility, and guardianship. Sometimes, the Tiki organs are used to represent different meanings.

4. Polynesian Back Tattoo

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Polynesian tribal art requires a big canvas, so what better choice than your back? Polynesian back tattoos weave beautiful combinations of intricate designs and motifs that cover the whole upper part of your back. Balancing shades are used to lend them the authentic Polynesian tribal art look.

5. Polynesian Ocean Tattoo

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The ocean plays a vital role in the life of Polynesian people. They consider it to be their second home, the place where they will rest when they leave for their last voyage. Therefore, it is the symbol of death and the world beyond.

Since the ocean is a source of food for Polynesian people, it also represents life, fertility, and persistence. The stylization of the waves can be representative of life, change, or continuity through change.

6. Polynesian Sun Tattoos

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Many rounded Polynesian tattoos include the sun symbol. The sun is representative of riches, brilliance, grandness, and leadership.

The rising sun is symbolic of rebirth, and sunset is regarded as the passage to the world beyond. The periodic rising of the sun is regarded as eternity and the consistent source through which life thrives.

7. Polynesian Leg Tattoo

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If you are someone who does not like flaunting or likes to keep your identity or beliefs secret, then your leg can be the perfect alternate area to place a tattoo. The leg tattoo can be just on your calf area or may extend up to your thigh. Most women prefer to get inked on their foot and seldom extend it up to their ankle.

8. Polynesian Sleeve Tattoo

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Dwayne Johnson’s impressive and intricate sleeve tattoo is admired by all. It is a typical Samoan tattoo. Samoan tattoos combine many symbols and are usually huge and intricate. The best spot to sport one is your arm.

9. Samoan Tribal Tattoo

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These tribal tattoos consist of long strokes that look like ribbons. These designs involve mostly linear elements, which is why they are worn mostly around the arm but can fit on any other part of the body as well.

10. Polynesian Shark Teeth Tattoo

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The shark teeth symbol, known as niho mano in Polynesian language, is very popular among Polynesian tattoo fans. Shark teeth are representative of courage, guidance, power, ferocity, and adaptability. They are a part of most Polynesian tattoos. Sharks also represent the god of Polynesian people.

11. Samoan Floral Tattoo

Floral designs make gorgeous tattoos. You get to choose from a lot of options when it comes to floral designs in Samoan tattoos. The most preferred floral tattoo designs are the hibiscus and lotus flowers with tentacles.

12. Polynesian Shell Tattoo

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The shell is a ubiquitous symbol in Polynesian tattoos. They can be seashells or turtle shells, though the latter is more famous because of their significance in Polynesian culture.

Turtle shells symbolize fertility, peace, wealth, and longevity of life. A few intricate turtle shells designs might carry more meaning depending on the elements embedded in them.

Seashell designs come with many variations and stylizations. Seashells are representative of shield, protection, and intimacy.

13. Polynesian Spearhead Motifs

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Another classic symbol that is extensively used in Polynesian tattoos is the spearhead motif. Spearhead is a symbol of courage and warrior nature. It also represents sharp items and the sting of animals. Spearhead symbols are used in combination with other symbols to express different meanings.

14. Polynesian Fish Tattoo

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In Polynesian culture, fish is a symbol of prosperity, riches, fertility, and life. Particular parts of fish are used to represent different meanings. For example, shark teeth are used to symbolize protection and guidance. The fish symbol is widely used in Polynesian tattoo designs.

15. Marquesan Cross Tattoo

The origin of the Marquesan cross is unknown, but some archaeological studies show that it is related to the turtle shell. The Marquesan cross is a popular design that is widely used in Polynesian tattoos. It symbolizes the balance between elements and harmony.

16. Polynesian Upper Arm Tattoo

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Polynesian tribal tattoos are one of the most ancient arm decoration traditions of the world. You can get your upper arm sheathed with beautiful and significant Polynesian tattoo designs. These beautiful cyclical designs start at a center point with concentric and meaningful symbols added until perfection is attained. Polynesian tribal tattoos can be worn on your upper arm to exhibit your story and beliefs.

17. Multiple Polynesian Symbols Tattoo

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Polynesian symbols are not only exotic but also have deep cultural and spiritual meanings attached to them. Each symbol has something to say about the individual who wears it. Polynesian tattoos give you that personal crest to tell your own unique story. You can use a combination of symbols to adorn your body.

18. Polynesian Thigh Tattoo

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Getting inked on the thighs is ideal for someone who does not want to flaunt their tattoos all the time. The meaning of thigh tattoos differs from design to design. Always choose a design based on your personality and not on an impulse.

19. Polynesian Back Tattoo With Turtle Motif

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The turtle symbol is of great significance in the Polynesian culture. It is regarded as a good force in Polynesian culture and, hence, is a good sign to bear. You can combine the turtle symbol with a few other symbols to carve out a complex and intricate design on your back that represents deep spiritual and cultural meaning.

Meaning Of Polynesian Tattoos

Expression, whether visual, written, or verbal, allow us to distinguish ourselves from others and help us reflect upon our own beliefs. In the Polynesian islands, art didn’t exist as mere art. The people of Polynesia didn’t know how to write and, hence, used tattoos to narrate their stories.

The symbolism behind traditional Polynesian tattoos was much more complicated than modern-day art. The enchanting black patterns adorning the bodies of Polynesians were illustrative of their culture, genealogy, spiritual journey, and social status.

Polynesian symbols are based on the four elements of nature. Each element is represented by different symbols. Warrior symbols were different from those worn by fishermen. Similarly, there were symbols specific to certain families and also symbols for particular roles that people played in tribes.

Polynesian tattoos are known to have deep spiritual meanings. The people of Polynesia considered tattoos to be sacred. They refrained from doing certain activities during the process of tattooing, which they thought might offend their gods.

Polynesian tattoos are massive in symbolism, and each symbol represents an individual’s social, genealogical, cultural, or spiritual journey. A few of the commonly incorporated symbols are:

  • Turtle: Fertility, long life, union, family, harmony, and wellness.
  • Tiki: Protection
  • Dolphin: Wisdom
  • Shark Teeth: Coverage, guidance, power, and ferocity.
  • Sun: Riches, brilliance, leadership, and eternity.
  • Turtle shells: Protection and intimacy.
  • Lizard: Guarding against evils and illness.
  • Spearheads: Courage and fight.
  • Enata: Human symbol.
  • Ocean waves: Symbol of death or the world beyond.

History Of Polynesian Tattoos

Polynesian tattoos have a ton of history behind them, and their legacy goes back 2000 years. Polynesia, as some people think, is not a single island. It is made up of thousands of islands in the Pacific. Every island has its history of tattoos and how they evolved. All these islands had different tattoo masters who passed on their knowledge of tattooing to their apprentices.

The English word ‘tattoo’ comes from the Tahitian word ‘tautau.’ This word ‘tattoo’ did not show up in English writing until the late 16th century when Captain Cook visited a part of Polynesia and recorded the word in his journal.

This long history of tattooing in Polynesia got suspended in the 19th century with the advent of a foreign faith. The bans imposed during the colonization period completely wiped out the tattooing tradition of some of the Polynesian islands like Tonga and Tahiti.

During the colonization era, Christian missionaries from the west attempted to eliminate tattooing in the Polynesian islands on the grounds of it being barbaric and inhumane. Many young Polynesians became hostile towards mission schools since they forbade them to wear tattoos. Gradually, the attitude towards the tattoo culture of Polynesia relaxed and slowly the long-suppressed body art tradition reemerged.

Finally, after 150 years of religious suppression, tattoos have returned to their rightful place as cultural symbols of Polynesia.

The Process Of Getting Inked

Unlike today, where you walk into a tattoo studio and tell the artist what motifs you want to adorn your body with, in Polynesian times, the “master” (tattoo artist) decided the design of your tattoo based on your social status. Getting tattooed was an excruciatingly painful procedure.

The traditional method of tattooing in Polynesia involves the use of chisel-like tools. Men in Polynesian culture were expected to undergo up to 3 to 4 months of tattooing. The sessions lasted until dusk or until the pain was unbearable.

The tattoo master tapped designs into the skin with mallets and tattoo combs dipped in ink. The risk of infections also ran high. But neither the pain nor the risk of infection was as big an ordeal as to live with the title of a coward.

Getting a Polynesian tattoo, especially one which incorporates a lot of details, is painful. Of course, you can get it done with a tattoo gun, unlike the traditional Polynesian procedure in which a tattoo comb is used.

I’m sure you are intrigued to learn about the rich tattooing culture of Polynesians. If you are planning to get yourself tattooed with one of these symbols, make sure you know its significance and meaning. To wear these body motifs just because they are exotic and not to understand their purpose is blasphemy.

For your convenience, we have compiled a list of 19 Polynesian tattoo designs with their meanings. Indulge in this visual art and explore the rich culture and significance behind them.

Tribal tattoos are the best expressions of artistic designs. If you have been longing to decorate your body with tribal motifs, what better choice than a Polynesian tattoo? Though they are common because of their popularity, Polynesian tattoos will always intrigue those around you with their deep spiritual meaning and intricate designs.

Which of these Polynesian tattoos would you like to get? Comment below to let us know!

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