Polynesian tattoos: meaning and history of this fashion

We have already discussed tattoos previously , analyzing their history and new trends, both for men and women . Today we want to talk to you about a type of tattoo that has been very popular in recent years: Polynesian tattoos ! In this post we will talk specifically about the history of the Polynesian tattoo , the meaning of the main symbols and the most common ones, as well as some useful tips on what and how to tattoo a Polynesian symbol.

So let’s start immediately by discovering the history of Polynesian tattoos!

The history of Polynesian tattoos

What is the history of Polynesian tattoos?

In Polynesian culture the meaning of the term tattoo is ” to strike twice “. In fact, the tribes who underwent this ritual underwent a very painful procedure which consisted of cuts on which black ink was then applied in depth. It was a technique to which the one who underwent was the one who was endowed with strength and courage. In fact, the more tattoos you had, the more you were respected and honored. Usually these tattoos were applied to Polynesian warriors  who were in charge of defending their village.

An ancient legend tells that the God of creation Ta’aroa taught his children the art of tattooing to make it known to new generations. In fact , the art of tattooing at these latitudes (we are in Oceania) is considered a sacred art and followed the use of certain rituals. The very technique of making a Polynesian tattoo was also extremely painful. The tools used consisted of:  turtle shells, bird bones or bamboo. Certainly not today’s techniques, which are less painful and invasive.

A tattoo session usually lasted the whole day, until the men could no longer bear the pain or the skin was so inflamed that it required a stop.

The whole process could take up to four months. Once the operation was over, the man’s family celebrated the event by throwing a party and the tufuga  (the tattoo artist) crushed a container of water at his feet, marking the end of the painful ordeal.

Ultimately, therefore, the tattoo is considered  sacred by the Polynesian culture , and it is not a coincidence, usually, when a member of the society decided to get a tattoo, it was also subjected to a  religious ritual .

Meaning Polynesian tattoos

In this paragraph instead we are dealing with defining the meaning of some of the famous Polynesian tattoos .

First of all, Polynesian tattoos can be divided into two categories: Enata and Etua.

  • Enata : these are drawings that represent a person’s place of birth, his social status and his relationships.
  • Etua : are symbols linked to the spirituality of the individual. They are usually religious tattoos that represent honor and respect and were tattooed as a good luck charm.

Here are some of the most used symbols for Polynesian tattoos with their meaning.

Enata Tattoos

The single Enata represents the person; if the individual joins others, this becomes a group called  ani ata , which translates to ” cloudy sky “. A row of enata represents the sky and ancestors guarding their descendants.

Tattoo Kena

Kena is a mythological warrior and hero of the Marquesas Islands, available in two models: full and only torso and arms.

Shark teeth

Shark teeth or niho mano  instead represent protection, guidance, strength and ferocity.


Tattooed mainly by warriors, they also represent strength, ability in the art of war and a sense of belonging to warrior art.


Axes served many purposes and one of them was warfare. They generally symbolize craftsmanship, industriousness, authority and overcoming the obstacles of life.

The ocean

The ocean has mystical significance for the local indigenous tribes. In fact, in the Polynesian culture the ocean represents the second home for the people and the last journey, as the dead were left to eternal rest in the sea and rocked by the waves. So this symbol represents death and afterlife.

Furthermore, the ocean is considered a source of life and food, as we know how the Polynesian people are addicted to fishing.


The centipede is a poisonous insect and is associated with the warrior, as well as symbolizing determination and rebellion!


Tiki is the name given to human figures representing semi-deities or atua (gods) who appear in the form of animals. The Tiki can be an ancestor returned to life in the form of animals, priests, deified leaders and become demigods.

This Polynesian tattoo represents protection, fertility and guarding someone / something.


Mere are clubs used in warfare, especially by village leaders. They are inherited from their children and exchanged on solemn occasions. They mean for the wearer of a tattoo with a mere: nobility, honor, respect, being the boss and greatness of a leader respected by the community.


The tortoise , or honu  in the jargon , is a very important creature with numerous meanings associated with it.

In fact, turtles symbolize health, fertility, longevity in life, peace and rest. Furthermore, the word honu also means union or united.

Finally, according to Polynesian mythology , the turtle is considered an animal sent by God to guide the loved one into the afterlife. This is why the deceased is accompanied on his last journey by a tortoise shell.

Lizard & Geko

Lizard and Geko  are often called mo’o or moko and are important in Polynesian mythology. In fact these represent atua or lesser spirits, who appeared to men to communicate with them. They can also be lucky animals, powerful doors to an invisible world, and bearers of bad omens to people who don’t respect them.

Polynesian tattoo rules

What are the main rules to follow to get a Polynesian tattoo?

First of all, you need to know the meaning of the symbol you want to tattoo. Furthermore, even the area where the tattoo is done is not left to chance. In fact, these symbols are tattooed following a very specific logic, depending on the area of ​​the body tattooed.

For example, this particular pattern is followed:

  • On the face, neck and head – is tattooed to express spirituality;
  • Upper trunk (above the navel) – tends to mean generosity and sensitivity;
  • Lower trunk, up to the thighs – is tattooed to express resourcefulness, sexual power or (for women) the ability to procreate healthy and strong children;
  • Arms and shoulders – to express courage;
  • Mani – expresses creativity instead;
  • Legs and feet – propensity towards the future, optimism and growth;


Tattoos are not just a fad or trend, but for many cultures they have a spiritual significance. In this article we have learned the meaning of the tattoo for the Polynesian people, with the main symbols and a hint of the history of this sacred art.