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If you are a fan of the film Moana, you have had the chance to see interesting (and magical) traditional Polynesian tattoos. While your Hawaiian-inspired tattoo isn’t going to just appear because of your great deeds, the significance of tattoos in Hawaiian culture isn’t too far off from the way it is portrayed in the film.
Known as kakau, Hawaiian tattoos have a rich history to go with their distinctive designs. Like many cultural tattoo traditions, Hawaiian tattoos did not only serve as body ornamentation, but had greater spiritual significance. The symbolism of the tattoo images connected to protect their well-being, physically and spiritually. Tattoos also displayed the status of the different members of society, from the leaders to older adolescents. The colors were applied by specially trained artists called kahuna, the only ones permitted to apply the designs, by a bone needle attached to a stick and then struck with a mallet.
In addition to the traditions of creating the tattoos, the symbols and their placements had distinct meanings. Men tended to get their tattoos on the right side of the body while women got them on the left, and putting tattoos within certain areas of the body could convey different significance. Warriors and chiefs tended to have tattoos on their upper arms and shoulders, while the women typically had theirs on their hands and lower parts of the body.
Today, there is a movement among Hawaiian tattoos artists to bring back the designs, and even the practice, of traditional kakau tattooing. Throughout these Hawaiian tattoo looks, you will see examples of the ancient artwork combined with modern tattoo styles. This mash-up makes for beautiful tattoos that pay homage to the kakau artists of old.
Best Hawaiian Tattoos
Ride the Waves
This is a classic example of a Hawaiian tattoo, rich in symbolism and intricate geometric designs. The use of the negative space within the tattoo to add accents to the design is beautiful, smooth, and effective. Shading throughout the shapes gives depth and draws the eye to all the details of the design. Adding in the plumeria gives a nice contrast, both in tattoo technique and design.
Other common themes in Hawaiian tattoos designs are repetitive shapes and the use of movement. Perhaps since Polynesian societies were in touch with nature, the islands and the sea, the flow of the designs hearken back to that concept. Stark black fits the traditional look of kakau tattoo art, finishing with a cool cuff at the wrist.
While animals are often symbolic in tattoo designs, in kakau the placement of the tattoo was also significant. To get a tattoo on the shoulder was the mark of a warrior or even a chief. This two-toned design incorporates a flying bird, which could be a bird of prey or a seabird. While these birds were not common in traditional Hawaiian tattoos, birds in flight tend to represent freedom. A beautiful design, this tattoo can show strength, freedom, or a combination.
Full Leg Spearheads
A simple, sequential design, this triangular pattern is a representation of spearheads covering the entire leg. This is a common Hawaiian tattoo design, fitting with the traditional look and meaning of the tattoos. Spears can represent the warrior spirit or the sting of an animal, it all depends on what you want it to mean.
A common theme in Hawaiian tattoos, waves are connected to life, specifically the contrast of the constancy and changes of life. Applying patterns to the waves add layers to the tattoo’s meaning, in this instance the shapes and plant life making connections to home. The beauty of this design is undeniable, with the curves of the waves and the shading within the artwork.
Hawaiian tattoos use the negative space within the artwork as key parts of the design. The curls within the patterns form waves and flow, going with the depth of the shading. Also within the design, the shapes create a tiki face at the upper part of the tattoo. Tikis are typically demigods, meant to show protection and guardianship.
Several traditional Hawaiian patterns make up this design. Curls of waves and water start at the back, moving into a turtle shell pattern, shark teeth, and elements of nature. Finishing the swirl is a line of spearheads. Combining these symbols together, the tattoo has the meaning of strength, fertility, and life. It is interesting to note that the tattoo is placed on the left shoulder, as traditionally kakau tattoos are placed on the left side for women and the right for men.
Shark Teeth and Spears
This leg piece combines patterns of spears and shark teeth, which together mean ferocity and strength. Bold lines contrast nicely with the patterns, while the open spaces of the design tie the parts of the tattoo together. Traditionally, tattoos on the leg means transformation and moving forward, so such a bold design gives the idea that this person wants to move forward in a strong manner. The same design would work well as a sleeve piece, changing the meaning to one of creativity.
Sea turtles were considered to be guides for the departed to the next life. This serene scene is both a beautiful addition to this sleeve, and also would be a wonderful tribute piece to a loved one. The artistry of the piece is breathtaking, and while this would be lovely in color the simple nature of the black and white makes the design.
While the shaka, a common Hawaiian gesture, has several origin stories, it has long been associated with Hawaiian surfing culture. Incorporating traditional Hawaiian tattoo patterns into the shaka brings old and new culture together, a fabulous hybrid of the history of the islands. Ocean symbols, like the fish, as well as the warrior symbols like the spearheads, are perfect for surfers.
A beautiful wrist tattoo, the blending of the blue and yellow within the lily provide a great color complement. Similar to red and yellow Hawaiian lilies, the blue fades into the yellow like a watercolor painting. The colors are reminiscent of both the sun and ocean, two symbols that are important to Hawaiian culture. This would also make a great shoulder or ankle tattoo.
Swirling Leg Piece
Classic Hawaiian patterns make this cool tattoo a spectacular piece. The turtle shell patterns stand out in particular, fitting with the ocean theme of the swirls. Each curve fits with the others, creating a cohesive look. Pulling the design down onto the foot gives the feeling that the tattoo has no bounds, fitting with the freedom of the ocean waves.
Scales, shark teeth, and spearheads are the main focus of this tattoo design. The details and shading are a nice complement to the stark lines of the rest of the tattoo. Going for a classic black and white look fits with the traditional nature of the sleeve.
Sharks, Stingrays, and Sea Turtles
While the stingray is prey for a shark, both symbolize protection and adaptability in traditional kakau designs. Sea turtles are also protectors of souls at sea, making all three ideal representations of guardianship. From a design standpoint, using the other animals to create the shape of the stingray is a cool visual trick.
Ancient China has connections to traditional Polynesia, and the people’s that descended from the area, and so it is not surprising that kakau designs could have Chinese influences. Chinese warrior emblems, as well as the yin and yang, are paired with Hawaiian flowers and patterns. Placing the tattoo on the shoulder, as would a warrior, fits well with this particular design.
A cool tribute tattoo, the majority of the Hawaiian tattoo patterns feature spearheads and shark teeth. The sharp details and bold lines fit with traditional Hawaiian tattoo designs. Using the negative space within the tattoo as part of the design works well, as it is the perfect placement for the names. The beautiful script of the names is the perfect contrast to the straight lines of the rest of the design.
Taking a different approach, the layered spearheads are an alternate look to the traditional spearhead design. Adding the shading gives another layer to the style. The swirls here fit with the ocean themes, but also have a tentacle-like style that implies other sea creatures. A cool twist on the traditional elements to make an awesome tattoo sleeve.
Full Leg Swirls
In addition to the typical elements of a Hawaiian tattoo, the swirls are the main focus of this leg piece. The movement of the wave-like curls draw the eye through the entirety of the tattoo, insuring that you will admire all its aspects. Within the overall design, there are smaller vignettes of ocean scenes and animals that fit with the general theme of Oceania.
While plumeria are considered to be the Hawaiian rose, the deep blue of this design fits the oceanic spirit of the islands. The gorgeous shading of the artwork adds depth to the tattoo, making it seem almost like a real rose. For a tattoo this size, the wrist is a perfect placement, although it would also work well on the ankle.
Sketched Leg Piece
The art style of this Hawaiian tattoo is sketched, giving it almost an animated quality. This quality gives the tattoo life in a way that is reflected by the movement of the design. Some common imagery includes fish scales, spearheads, and shark teeth, all typical warrior symbols.
A cool half-sleeve idea, the lines of the tattoo follow the natural lines and curves of the arm. The tribal designs flow down the forearm, while the more spherical aspects circle the elbow. Using bold lines is a stark contrast to the rest of the sleeve, breaking up the whole piece.
Happy Hula Hottie
There is nothing quite so stereotypical as the buxom hula girl tattoo. Complete with the bright red lei and heavy makeup, her enticing hula dance makes you want to rush off to the islands. Finishing the scene with the gorgeous sunset in the background brings the whole design together.
Hawaiian Chest Plate
This design is reminiscent of chest armor worn by tribal warriors, fitting given the elements of the shark teeth and spearheads. Placing a kakau on the chest fits with generosity and honor, appropriate characteristics for a noble fighter. The symmetry of the design is pleasing to the eye, and fits the traditional style of Hawaiian tattoos.
A cool optical illusion, the spearhead pattern gets smaller as it travels down the arm. While the spears look a bit like a triforce, you can also see the way the inner triangles reflect the pattern of the black spearheads. The thin lines fit with shark teeth designs, a natural complement to the spearhead pattern.
The cuffs, as straight lines, give an interesting contrasting element within this tattoo design. The swirling of the shell pattern evokes a feeling of the sea, while the weaving and the spears of the cuffs fit with the land. Both elements were important in Polynesian culture, and they are fitting halves of one whole in this sleeve.
Since tikis were considered to be demigods or semi gods, putting the tiki at the center conveys the being’s importance. Spiraling the rest of the tattoo out from the center emphasizes the point. Included among the shark teeth and spearheads is an enata, or the Polynesian symbol for a person. Sometimes, the enata represented deity as well, which fits with the tiki. Keeping the colors dark and bold conveys the strength and power, as well as the intimidation, of the figure.
In addition to tattoo artwork, Polynesian cultures were known for their intricate tapestry work as a way to pass on the stories of their people. This tattoo design weaves in and out of itself, similar to a tapestry, and it is fitting for kakau. Tattoos were meant to tell a story of the person, and the delicate lines, details, and shading paint a personal picture for this individual.
Waves Full Leg Piece
A Hawaiian tattoo like this has great personal significance, particularly given its size. Placing the tattoo on the leg in traditional kakau meant transformation and moving forward, and waves also represent change. It is possible that this person wanted to show next steps of her life, a journey represented by this tattoo.
An interesting mash-up of designs, turtles were the guardians of the spirits as they traveled across the sea, while the tikis bring a sense of deity. Who better to guard your passage than a demigod? Using the green as a complementing color is a great choice, since it fits with the turtle and oceanic elements.
A Sleeve Complete
Especially if you are getting traditional kakau, which can be quite painful, it makes sense to do the sleeve in pieces. This section of the sleeve seems to be telling a story of a people settling down, growing crops and establishing their society. A continuation of the lower part of the sleeve, which has more warrior elements, the top part shows a shift in the priorities of the people. Additionally, the artistry fits with traditional Hawaiian tattoo elements.
Shark Cuff and Spears
Much like the ancient Samoans, it is common to have multiple tattoos that complement one another. The shark teeth cuff, a new addition, goes with the decorative spearheads. While it is not a direct match, that is not necessarily the point. Kakau tattoos tell a story, and additions show the journey of the tattoo owner. To get a tattoo on a joint, like the wrist, shows commitment.
The cool movement of these tattoo comes from the curve of the patterns and the curls of the waves. Waves are a feature of this design, as the negative space arcs like the ocean to mimic the shape at the top of the tattoo. Bringing in the traditional patterns and elements add depth and details that make the tattoo.
Tattoos on the chest and upper arms were meant to show honor and bravery. The spearhead pattern within the sun fits with these themes, while the sun fits the traditions of honoring elements of nature. The waves on the arm are the natural complement to the sun, as the sun and the sea were considered the sources of life in ancient Polynesian societies.
Classic Sea Turtle
Sea turtles were an important symbol in kakau tattoo culture, as guardians of spirits. However, turtles could also represent long life, health, and peace. Any one of those meanings are a perfect fit for this beautiful design, with its perfect symmetry and traditional elements. Keeping the tattoo stark black allows the curves and swirls to stand out clearly rather than muddle the design with unnecessary color.
Full Body Waves
The curve of the waves reaches from the top of the body down the leg, tying together the design cohesively. Within the tattoo, elements of turtle shell, fish scales, shark teeth, and tiki eyes form a repetitive pattern. The sea animals are the perfect complement to the ocean shape of the tattoo. The same design would look cool wrapped around a leg or arm as well.
Spearheads and Shark Teeth
A perfect example of traditional warrior tattoo, the multiple versions of spearheads and shark teeth artwork come together in a woven tapestry. Laying the patterns on top of one another gives depth to the design while keeping the lines clean. Going for complexity of detail rather than shading gives this tattoo a more traditional feel.
Similar to the previous design, the weave of the patterns paint the story of a traditional warrior tattoo. Going for the full sleeve also fits with the traditions, making the tattoo owner feel closer to the Polynesians of old. Small fish decals bring in the oceanic elements that also honor the cultural heritage of the original tattoos.
Hail to the Chief
Tattoos on or around the knees were symbolic of kneeling, typically to the chief. The shape of the design alludes to waves, but also to a bird of prey like a hawk or falcon. Other elements, like the spears and flower shapes, fit with the other aspects of Polynesian society. As this design is made to curve around an area of the body, another good placement would be around the elbow or across the chest.
Garment of Honor
Putting tattoos on the chest was a sign of honor and sincerity, which makes sense given the patterns included in this design. The shape and angle of the tattoo also fits with the traditional garments of ancient Polynesian societies, particularly for the men. It is essentially a way to say that this is the permanent garb of the tattoo owner, displayed for all to see.
Woman of the Tribe
This is an excellent example of a more traditional female tattoo. Women typically have had geometric patterns and floral images, such as the ones pictured. Additionally, women would put their tattoos on the left side of the body, like this one. While the flowers and patterns are a bit more modern, it is a great way to honor the tradition and bring contemporary flair.
Brave and Bold
Rather than using delicate details or shading, this Hawaiian tattoo look brings emphasis on the symbols with bold lines and shapes. This is much more like the ancient kakau, as they would not have had the technology to do the more intricate artistry of contemporary tattoo artists. It is particularly interesting to note the gradation of complexity from the simple spearheads to the more comprehensive pattern to the outside of the arm.
Taking inspiration from henna tattoo designs, this Hawaiian tattoo brings something new to the table. Incorporating many of the shapes and symmetrical nature of henna with the repeated patterns of Hawaiian tattoos creates a unique style. Pulling the tattoo all the way to the tip of the finger helps to give the tattoo extra length and carry the style through.
This tattoo design couldn’t be more traditional if it tried. The repeated patterns of the spears, shark teeth, and fish fit the island culture perfectly. Going for a full right sleeve hearkens back to the male warrior, as does the compact nature of the look. Again, we see the negative space used as an important part of the design rather than an afterthought.
Polynesian Full Sleeve
The best tattoos look natural, like they belong on the body. This tattoo design captures that idea perfectly. Classic Hawaiian patterns follow the curve of the muscles in this full sleeve, making it seem as though the tattoo was always part of its owner. The waves and water move naturally over the skin, and a space is even open for the elbow. While that is certainly intention for reasons other than design, it is clear that the space is part of the look.
What everyone pictures when they think of a tiki, this representation of the stereotypical statue is a fun and colorful take on a Hawaiian tattoo design. The artist did an excellent job in using colors to create dimension within the figure, as well as bringing a touch of realism with the wood grain. The bright highlights and flames also add mysticism, appropriate considering the mythical nature of the tiki gods.
Sunset Back Piece
Along with common Hawaiian tattoo symbols, the addition of the geometric sunset fits with the island and ocean themes. While this would also make a gorgeous chest piece, putting this design along the curves of the back brings the artwork to life. The additions of the Hawaiian flower and the word uncontrollable add the personal touch of the owner.
Historically and culturally significant, Hawaiian tattoo art is rising in popularity in more than just paradise. These designs speak of a time of community, both with ones neighbors and with the earth itself, in a way that has been all but lost. These societies valued tattoos as a sacred art, to the point that only specially trained priests could perform the kakau process. As tattoos become socially acceptable in mainstream culture, these tattoos once again come to the surface.
While the artistic themes in Hawaiian tattoo designs tend to be the same, the meaning of each tattoo is deeply personal. The placement of the tattoo itself and emblems used within the artwork make the tattoo unique to its owner, even if some of patterns are the same as another’s. In this way, the owner feels connected to others with similar patterns but still maintains their own style.
If you are a lover of the ocean, the islands, or all things Hawaiian, hopefully you have found inspiration among these designs.
 Zealand Tattoo, “Polynesian Tattoo: History, Meanings and Traditional Designs.” 2017. https://www.zealandtattoo.co.nz/tattoo-styles/polynesian-tattoo-history-meanings-traditional-designs/