A Brief History of Polynesian Tattoos

Did you know that Polynesian tattoo art was almost wiped out by the mid-19th century?

Most of the Polynesian islands have a long history of tattooing, and the tattoo techniques and tools were much the same throughout most of the islands.  But the tattoo designs and meanings were often quite different (more about that later).

The Christian missionaries who arrived in the 19th century considered tattooing evil and forbid it.   The art and knowledge of Polynesian tattooing was almost lost on all islands except for Samoa and some of the smaller remote islands, which managed to keep tattoo traditions alive.

Since then, many of the ancient meanings are lost to the mists of time.

Much of what is known today is based on records from the early European expeditions to Polynesia (and who is to say that these explorers truly understood what their translators told them?)

Sketch of a Tongan tattoo from Captain Dumont d’Urville’s expedition in the early 1800s

Sketch of a Tongan tattoo from Captain Dumont d’Urville’s expedition in the early 1800s

Of the knowledge that tattoo masters had passed directly from generation to generation, only a little survived.

The fact that a given tattoo motif can have very different meanings from island to island, from village to village, and even family to family makes it even harder to identify any original meanings.

In the 1990s Polynesian tattooing made a stunning comeback.  Today, many Polynesian tattooists have gotten back to their roots and created the forcefully beautiful look that is often called Polynesian Tribal Tattoo.

The contemporary Polynesian “tribal tattoos” seen today usually blend motifs from across the islands and combine traditional elements with modern interpretations.

NĀ KOA gear features this contemporary pan- Polynesian tattoo art.  Our artists come from all corners of Polynesia, and each artist has a unique style, as well as knowledge of the motif meanings that may be unique to that artist, but not shared by others.

Check our product pages to see the main meanings that some of the most prominent motifs in the design can have.

Learn More About Polynesian Tattoos

The history of Polynesian tattoos is fascinating and worth checking out. To learn more, we recommend these two books as the best on the subject from expert researcher, lecturer, curator and tattooist Tricia Allen: The Polynesian Tattoo Today and Tattoo Traditions of Hawaii. Both are available on Amazon and on Tricia Allen’s website: http://thepolynesiantattoo.com/