The Polynesian tattoo is sacred. For more years than anyone alive can remember, the Polynesian tattoo has been a special part of the culture. As a Hawaiian, I know that the ink we put on our bodies is more than just some cool design…it’s our history. It’s our way of connecting to our land and to the mana (spiritual force and energy) that transcends throughout our family bloodline. And some even tell stories about our lives through the artwork of tattooing. It’s hard to explain in full detail the importance of tattooing and the meaning behind them, but I’m going to try my best to share with you the things I was taught about tattoos in Hawaiian culture.

Polynesian Tattoo Origins

Polynesian tattoo being applied to person's body using teeth-laden comb
Polynesian tattoo being applied to person’s body using teeth-laden comb

So, we must start at the beginning. As far as I know, when tattooing first started, it was a way Polynesians communicated. It gave people a chance to express their individuality in an artistic way as well as let people know who they are. A tattoo could tell you anything you needed to know about a person from ranking in society to genealogy and your family history. And the coolest thing? Nearly everyone was tattooed in the Polynesian society.

Polynesian Tattoo Tools

The tools they would use to give you a tattoo weren’t like any other tattoo machine you see nowadays. They would have a hammer-looking tool that had a comb, a shell plate, and a wooden handle combined. Artists would poke you repeatedly with the sharp end of the tool using black ink until their design was complete.

Historical Polynesian tattoo tools
Historical Polynesian tattoo tools

Polynesian tattooing was a skill that only a few people had, and that skill was handed down through generations. Traditionally, you wouldn’t get to pick the design you were given. The artist would choose for you. From shark teeth to spearheads to just solid black lines, every mark meant something and told a story. Every design represented the culture and the importance that laid behind the art.

‘Aumakua Tattoo Designs

In some cases, you would get an animal tattooed on you and each animal symbolized something unique. Normally, the animal you would get a tattoo of would be your ‘aumakua. In Hawaiian beliefs, each person has an ‘aumakua. This ‘aumakua is a personal or family god that lives in your bloodline. The ‘aumakua manifests as an animal, watching over you throughout your life—coming to you in visions or dreams, or even physically making contact with you in some way, shape, or form. The traditional and most common animals are the honu (sea turtle), pueo (owl), mo’o (gecko), and mano (shark). When you get your ‘aumakua tattooed on you, it is personal. It is a way of telling the land and the animal that you are protected; you are recognized as one with the land.

Historical Polynesian tattoo designs
Historical Polynesian tattoo designs

The idea of tattooing in Polynesian culture is important. It is our way of life and it is one of the only things we, as a society, have been able to cling onto from our past generations. Having something this meaningful and historic being passed down throughout our lifetimes shows that a culture cannot ever die. It doesn’t matter how long ago these traditions were made, carrying out the tattooing tradition is important to me and to millions of Polynesians. Even though some stories may be lost overtime, we must all cling to our history and live it every day.

Do you have Polynesian tattoos you would love to share? Let us know down in the comments.

This article originally published on GREY Journal.