20 Traditional Polynesian Tattoo Designs With Meanings

Let these unique tattoo designs express your unique personality and relay your story.

Written by Nisha Baghadia, MA (Mass Communication)
Edited by Madhumati Chowdhury, MA (English Literature)
Fact-checked by Joyce Joyson, MA (Mass Communication & Journalism)  • 

Polynesian islands are indeed well-known for their beautiful and meaningful tattoo designs. So, if you want to make self-expression through body art or emphasize your unique identity through motifs on your body, Polynesian tattoo designs are what you should go for. These intricate tattoos are an essential part of the Polynesian culture as they signify the spirits and culture of the Polynesian islands. You might want to proclaim your beliefs through tattoos or show some creative freedom through. Tattoos also let you symbolize a soul combating entrapment. Whatever may be your reason behind getting yourself inked, let your body be a journal and allow your tattoos to tell your stories. Below are some unique tattoo designs from Polynesia that are worth trying. So, scroll through the page and read our article. Get your inspiration from the list we have provided below.

20 Polynesian Tattoo Designs With Meanings

1. Polynesian Turtle Tattoo

Image: Instagram @cc3101sp

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.

A blogger shared the importance and significance behind their Polynesian tattoo of four turtles swimming toward their wrist. They wrote, “When I leave Hawai’i, I get really “homesick” and sad, and my tattoo is there to remind me that Hawai’i will always be with me, even if I’m not physically there. And the turtles will always be there to help me find my way back home (i).”

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

Image: Instagram @babakhintatau

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

Image: Instagram @guteixeiratattoo

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

Image: Instagram @babakhintatau

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

Image: Instagram @keahitattoo

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

Image: Instagram @babakhintatau

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

Image: Instagram @dennismataafa

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

Image: Instagram @babakhintatau

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

Image: Instagram @kahilitatau

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

Image: Instagram @babakhintatau

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

Image: Instagram @blacklinetattoo_limoges

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

Image: Instagram @babakhintatau

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

Image: Instagram @barrysan

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

Image: Instagram @ashjasmer

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.

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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

Image: Instagram @babakhintatau

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.

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Dwayne Johnson is a Polynesian celebrity with a huge Polynesian tattoo on his left shoulder. It took around 60 hours to complete.

17. Multiple Polynesian Symbols Tattoo

Image: Instagram @babakhintatau

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

Image: Instagram @all.poly

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

Image: Instagram

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.

20. Stingray Polynesian Tattoo

Stingray Polynesian tattoo
Image: Shutterstock

The stingray is one of the most popular designs in Polynesian culture. With its intricate patterns and bold lines, the stingray symbolizes adaptability, strength, and protection. Getting it tattooed is believed to ward off negative energy and protect one against evil or potential harm. The stingray is also symbolic of one’s connection to the ocean and nature.

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Rihanna has a Polynesian tattoo on her right hand which she got during her trip to New Zealand for her Diamonds World Tour.

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.

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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 Pacific islands. 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.

Placement On The Body

Tattoo placement on the body carries important significance in Polynesian culture. However, it may vary across different Polynesian ethnic groups and tribes. Tattoos placed on the chest, shoulders, arms, and hands symbolize strength, bravery, and protection. On the other hand, tattoos placed on the legs, waist, and hips symbolize procreation, sexuality, and a person’s progress in life, while the tattoos on the back are symbolic of guidance and support. Hence, think about the tattoo and placement carefully before getting one.

Infographic: Symbolic Elements In Polynesian Tattoos

Polynesian tattoos are growing increasingly popular in the world of body art. While the overall aesthetic and style of these tattoos is incredibly appealing, one must remember that it is deeply sacred for Polynesians themselves. There is no harm in getting a tattoo inspired by their cultures, but the least we can do is learn about and embrace them with the utmost respect. Check out the infographic below that lists some of the symbolic elements used in Polynesian tattoos.

symbolic elements in polynesian tattoos (infographic)

Illustration: StyleCraze Design Team

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Polynesian tattoos designs are common and popular because of their deep spiritual meaning and intricate patterns. These tattoos help make self-expressions and unique identities through body art.

There are several intricate designs mentioned above to help you choose the one that represents your personality and emotions. There are turtle designs, Enata tattoos, demi-gods, sun tattoos, ocean tattoos, tribal tattoos, etc., to choose from the list. Each tattoo represents fertility, experience, birth, Polynesian heritage, protection, guardianship, courage, and power.

Going through this list will help you get an idea of the different meanings associated with these designs.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it disrespectful to get a Polynesian tattoo?

It depends on the intent behind getting the tattoo. Simply getting a Polynesian tattoo without understanding its meaning and significance to the culture is disrespectful. On the other hand, taking time to learn about their symbols and significance and telling your own story with a Polynesian tattoo is respectful.

Is a Maori and Polynesian tattoo the same?

Maori tattoos are a type of Polynesian tattoo, the others being Samoan, Hawaiian, Marquesan, and Tahitian. A Maori tattoo typically has swirling patterns.

What is the Polynesian symbol for “family”?

Polynesian symbols for “family” are based on three aspects: family groups, ancestry, and traditions. Symbols like the ipu and ani ata (Marquesan), tapa’au (Tahitian), kapau’i (Hawaiian), ritorito, fa’avaetuli (Samoan), and the turtle represent a family.

What do triangles mean in Polynesian tattoos?

Triangles don’t have one meaning in Polynesian tattoo art. While they are commonly used to symbolize shark teeth, they may also mean shells, roots, or mountains. One of the most common triangular symbols is lō kahi, a significant symbol in the Polynesian culture. It signifies the bond between life and death (light and darkness) in our life journey.

At what age do Polynesians get tattoos?

Polynesian boys get tattoos when they are 14-18 years old as a coming-of-age rite of passage. The girls get their tattoos when they get their menstrual cycle.

Do Polynesian tattoos have color?

Though most Polynesian tattoos are black, you can add color to them too.

Key Takeaways

  • Tattooing was an important tradition in Polynesia until it was suppressed during colonization in the 19th century. It reemerged after nearly 150 years.
  • Polynesian tattoos have deep cultural and spiritual meanings related to the wearer’s genealogy, journey, and status often depicting symbols such as turtles, sharks, suns, waves, and shells, each holding a specific meaning.
  • Tattoos are considered to be sacred in Polynesian culture. Other activities are generally ceased during the tattooing process to prevent offending the Polynesian gods.
  • Intricate sleeve and back tattoos are common, incorporating multiple meaningful symbols.

Discover the beauty of Polynesian tattoo designs in the following video that explores the unique collections of traditional and modern tattoo ideas, perfect for any style.

Personal Experience: Source

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