It was in Tonga and Samoa that the Polynesian tattoo developed into a highly refined art. Tongan warriors were tattooed from the waist to the knees with a series of geometrical patterns, consisting of repeated triangular motifs, bands, and areas of sold black. Priests who had undergone a long period of training and who followed strictly prescribed rituals and taboos during the process executed the tattooing. For the Tongan, the tattoo carried profound social and cultural significance.
In ancient Samoa, tattooing played an important role in both religious ritual and warfare. The tattoo artist held a hereditary and highly privileged position. He customarily tattooed young men in groups of six to eight, during a ceremony attended by friends and relatives. The Samoan warrior’s tattoo began at the waist and extended to just below the knee.
Samoan women were tattooed as well, but female tattooing was limited to a series of delicate flower-like geometrical patterns on the hands and lower part of the body. About 200 AD, voyageurs from Samoa and Tonga settled in the Marquesas. Over a period of period of more than a thousand years, one of the most complex Polynesian cultures evolved. Marquesan art and architecture were highly developed and Marquesan tattoo designs, which in many cases covered the whole body, were the most elaborate in Polynesian.
By 1,000 AD the Polynesian peoples had colonized most of the habitable islands east of Samoa. Distinctive cultural traits evolved in each of the island groups and so did unique languages, myths, arts and tattoo styles. Polynesian tattooing is briefly mentioned in European ship’s logs dating from the 17th and 18th centuries, but it wasn’t until Captain Cook, in 1769 that is was described in detail by Cook’s naturalist, Joseph Banks.
Polynesian Tattoo Designs
There are a variety of Polynesian tattoo designs, however, they can be divided into two main categories. One is the Enata and the other is the Etua. Enata tattoo designs are called natural designs which represent things like an individual’s place of origin, social status, life history, etc., whereas the etua designs have more spiritual and religious meanings. Etua tattoo designs represent honor and is worn as a talisman too. Other than these tattoo designs, there are also many other tattoo designs that are highly symbolic. Tattoo designs are different in different Polynesian islands. Among the several Polynesian tattoo designs, the most popular are those designs which come from the Maori island and the Hawaiian islands.
Maori Polynesian Tattoo Designs:
Maori is an ethnic minority of New Zealand. Maori tattoos are made of complex patterns including spirals and curved shapes. The Maori tattoo designs are totally different from other Polynesian tattoo designs, because the usual spot on which these tattoos are made is the face. The reason for this can be attributed to the rather cool climate of New Zealand. These tattoos were made using a chisel and were found on the legs, buttocks and face of men. On the other hand, these tattoos were found on the neck, chin, lips and on the back of the Maori women.
Hawaiian Polynesian Tattoo Designs:
Hawaiian tattoos not only denote personal identification and self protection, but were also worn as an ornament. These Polynesian tribal tattoo designs are made in black ink, and are said to be the largest amongst all the Polynesian tattoo designs. The most common Hawaiian tattoo designs that people prefer include sea turtle, arrows, lizards, tropical flowers and dolphins. However, the most popular among them is the flower tattoos, particularly the hibiscus and the orchid. Usually, flower designs are considered to be feminine, however, these Hawaiian flower designs are popular with men too. While hibiscus is the national flower of Polynesia, orchid is a rare flower that denotes rare beauty.
Polynesian Tattoo Meanings
Apart from these Polynesian tattoo designs, there are many other traditional tattoo designs that have gained popularity in the modern world. The main reason for people to opt for these tattoo designs is that they are loaded with meanings. Let us take a look at some of them.
Gecko: The Gecko is a type of lizard which were considered to have supernatural powers by the Polynesian people. The Gecko was feared by the people of Polynesia.
Sharks: The ancient people of Polynesia considered sharks sacred as well as powerful animals. Hence, shark tattoos were considered to be a protective cover from an individual’s enemies. Apart from sharks, even shark’s teeth is a tattoo design that denotes protection.
Shells: In Polynesian culture, shells were used as currency, and so a tattoo made of shells denotes wealth.
Tiki: Tiki tattoo designs come from tiki art which consist of carvings and statues of a human figure called ‘Tiki’. Tiki is believed to be the first human, and also a mythical ancestor of humans. The most prominent feature of Tiki is closed eyes, because he has a powerful sense of smell due to which he is able to sense any kind of problem before actually seeing it.
Turtles: The turtle is also a popular Polynesian tattoo design. This is because it represents long life and fertility, something that every human being looks for.