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Historically there was no writing in Polynesian tribes, so they used tattoo designs full of distinctive symbolism to express their status in their society, their personality and their identity. Nearly everyone was tattooed!
In Samoa, the tattoo artist role was hereditary and a highly privileged position. Tongan warriors were tattooed from the waist to the knees in geometrical patterns, mostly consisting of triangle motifs, bands and also areas of solid black. The tattoos were of deep social and cultural significance. Women would also get tattoos, mostly delicate flower-like patterns on hands and lower parts of the body.
There are some images and motifs that are repeated a lot in Polynesian tattoos, most of them related to the Ocean and to the creatures that live in it. The importance of the sea in their lives was evident in their designs. Location is also very important for Polynesian Tribal Tattoos. The head is said to be the point of contact with heaven, so it is mostly related to spirituality, knowledge and wisdom. The chest and the heart area would be related to generosity, sincerity and honor, whereas the lower torso was all about courage, independence, strength and marriage. Interested? Keep reading to learn more about the different meanings of each symbol and location!
Check out our 30+ images long list for some great inspirational designs, their meanings and what their positioning indicates. Don’t miss this chance to get some pretty amazing ideas for your own tattoo!
Best Polynesian Tattoo Designs
Traditional Sleeve Polynesian Tattoo
This amazing arm sleeve has several traditional symbols, the most notorious are the shark teeth, represented by the triangles and signifying adaptability or protection, the enata patterns, signifying mankind, and the spearhead rows. The positioning of the tattoo also has an important link towards creativity and creation.
Super Detailed Forearm Design
Tiny rows of spearheads, triangles and overlapping geometric patterns form a knitting mesh that envelops the forearm in a half sleeve. The sinuous design looks like a snakeskin as it forms this tribal Polynesian tattoo.
Rope Lookalike Sleeve Tattoo
Triangles are one of the most popular shapes in Polynesian tattoos since they symbolize shark teeth. Sharks are very important culturally since they are considered to be the chosen vessels of the gods to make contact with men.
Post Apocalyptic Neck Design
Polynesian tattoos are very much in style nowadays, they are so popular that you can spot typical designs in the most diverse people. In this case, the orange hair reminiscent of the Fifth Element movie and the overall look definitely scream post apocalyptic to us!
Back Tattoo in Progress
Placing is very important for Polynesian tattoo meanings. The shoulders and upper torso are related to strength, so warriors and chiefs would use this location for their tattoos to emphasize their might. In this picture we can see the work in progress of an all encompassing design with tons of symbols intertwined in an intricate form.
Geometric Forearm Bracelet
The triangle is the basis on which Polynesian designs are built. This simplified triangle bracelet symbolizes shark teeth, often associated with guidance and strength.
Detailed Polynesian Sleeve with Lizard
This half sleeve is made up of several symbols like ocean waves, tiki’s eyes, shark teeth, enata and many more. While tiki refers to human-like figures that represent demi-gods, enata are human-like figures of men. On the bottom of the tattoo we can see a gecko. This lizard is a very powerful creature in Polynesian culture and it is considered to bring good luck!
Samoan Chest Tattoo
The chest location is related to generosity, sincerity and honor. Since this area is placed directly over the heart, it can also mean reconciliation. The symbols used to create this particular Polynesian tattoo design are all ocean related. There are fish, shark teeth, waves and varied fin representations.
Both Arms Full Tonga Sleeve
One arm is filled with organic circular shapes that reminisce of the ocean and waves, while the other is geometric and made of straight lines that join together like ropes, with shark teeth and spearheads. Can’t decide which style is more you? Go for both!
Stylized Flowing Leg Tattoo
Flowing lines emulate the movement of waves and combine with shark teeth, fins and a wind rose on this feminine and delicate leg tattoo. The placement is also key, symbolizing progress, moving forward and transformation. It draws a parallel between the water, the many moods of the ocean, and the changing nature of men.
Enata Chest and Sleeve Design
Polynesian tribal tattoos are often very symbolic in nature, so placing the design over the heart and the upper torso is very meaningful, specially when adding the names of loved ones.
Tiki Eyes Forearm Full Coverage Tattoo
For Polynesian armband tattoos, the use of completely black bands signifies strength and power. Due to the traditional tattoo technique used by the tribe’s artisans, it required a lot of endurance and a high tolerance for pain so a tattoo such as this one, would show everyone what that person was made of!
Shark Teeth and Enata Sleeve
Shark teeth, spearheads and enata figures form braids and a woven basket pattern on this shoulder tattoo that ends just below the elbow. Positioning suggests a strength related motive.
Spearhead Shoulder Tattoo
An unorthodox design creates curling shapes with inside drawings and a strange looking tiki with its tongue out when looked at from afar. Detailing under the face shows spearheads and a small triangle formation that could be shark teeth.
Complex Shark Teeth Chest Design
This chest and shoulder tattoo has a lot of dark black areas. Darker designs were considered a mark of great courage and stamina since they took days to complete and the person had to endure a lot of pain. Nowadays, even though the process doesn’t hurt as much, they are still a great show of commitment.
Feminine Flower Tattoo
Flowers are traditionally preferred by women in Polynesian tattoos. Historically, they would decorate their upper arms and lower legs with delicate and artistic designs. This particular design shows a typical flower in bright yellow and orange colors, with an encouraging message saying “still I rise”. Truly empowering!
Symbolic Full Arm Sleeve
Full sleeves are some of the most popular Polynesian tattoo designs. This braided shape, filled with turtle carapace texture, fins, shark teeth and waves shows how much the ocean and all the animals that live in it mean to Polynesian culture. Similar to Filipino tattoos, this art is filled to the brim of symbolic meaning, a truly masterful line work!
Geometric Delicate Arm Design
Not your typical design, this half sleeve is done in thin lines that are quite unusual for male designs. The triangles that represent shark teeth look elongated and almost delicate, while the spearheads combine a curling braid. An outstanding and original option!
Detailed Meaningful Chest and Sleeve Tattoo
This Polynesian tattoo stencil looks quite unfinished without proper shading. We can see how some areas are thought out to be filled in black, specially in the back, and catch a glimpse of how it will look afterwards. The spearheads surrounding the chest area are curling outside what appear to be a wind rose. A very symbolic design for travelers, sailors and fishermen.
Ocean Inspired Half Sleeve
A half sleeve that is pure ocean! This design is filled with waves and curling water depictions, even the lines of spearheads swirl like they are alive. A truly dynamic and organic looking piece.
Compass Rose Ocean Tattoo
A compass rose, also known as a wind rose, sits at the top of this Polynesian chest tattoo, surrounded by shark teeth, spearheads and the waves of the sea. It is a very representative piece for sailors, surfers and anyone who lives by the ocean!
Tiki and Enata Sleeve Design
This tattoo is a very complex design, marked by two huge tiki on each shoulders and a bunch of enata human-like figures representing men going down the arms. Surrounding them: tiki eyes that watch from above as they mingle with shark teeth, spearheads and ocean waves.
Shark Teeth Half Arm Sleeve
A more controlled design, this forearm sleeve creates waves by controlling the negative space of un-tattooed skin around the black ink designs.
Shark Teeth Chest Detail Tattoo
Not all tattoos need to be big sprawling mammoths, sometimes a thin stripe of drawing can convey as much meaning. Case in point, this thin chest tattoo that represents waves, spearheads and tiki eyes.
Turtle Polynesian Design
A Polynesian turtle tattoo or honu can symbolize health, fertility, longevity in life, foundation, peace and rest. Add to that the fact that the turtle itself is made of waves and spearheads and you have one meaningful design!
Tiki Chest and Arm Sleeve
Striking thick lines with lots of black inked areas make up this Polynesian sleeve tattoo while concentric rows of spearheads, shark teeth and enata create a circular visual effect.
Detailed Belly Tattoo
An unconventional belly design looks like it is made with shark teeth and a turtle carapace texture in curling shapes. This shell pattern can represent the idea of family unity.
Geometric Arm Design
A geometric design that looks like a more modern take on Polynesian tattoos. It is shaped around a sort of flower as if it was an expanding mandala. Mind boggling!
Ocean Creatures Leg Tattoo
Little enata men and symbolical shark teeth mix it up with spearheads and ocean waves in this all encompassing Polynesian leg tattoo. The waves can sometimes represent life, change and continuity through change.
Delicate Shark and Flower Design
Sharks never looked so dainty as in this Polynesian tattoo female design. The flower on top of it is a nice touch combined with the symbolic coloring of the shark with enata, waves and little triangles.
Hammerhead Shark Shoulder Tattoo
A more masculine representation of a hammerhead shark sits on the shoulder looking fierce with a body made of turtle shell, spearheads and ocean waves. An impressive specimen of Polynesian shark tattoos!
Turtle Wrist Design
A darker shaded take on Polynesian turtle tattoos can be seen in this picture in a wrist positioning. The inside of the shell is lightly decorated with spearheads and a basket weave texture that surround the center flower.
Polynesian Turtle and Tiki Eyes Tattoo
Tiki eyes surround a turtle that holds a frog inside its shell and at the center, a drop of water reigns over the design, almost like a depiction of the ocean-centric world of Polynesian beliefs.
Hibiscus and Turtle Forearm Design
Hibiscuses are a very typical flower and turtle shapes are super popular in Polynesian forearm tattoos, so why not combine both in an enchanting design?
Geometric Polynesian Forearm Sleeve
Hard looking black triangles combine with thick lines in this masculine forearm sleeve. Triangles usually symbolize shark teeth and represent protection, guidance and strength.
Spearhead and Shark Teeth Inspire Shoulder Tattoo
Another take on a shoulder tattoo design, combining curling negative space un-inked shapes with masterful shading and spearheads, shark teeth and waves designs.
Remember that regardless of what a position typically means, the most important part of getting a tattoo is what it means to you. Pick a design that you love, a place that makes you feel comfortable, or that is pleasing to the eye, and most importantly a tattoo artist that you trust.
Enjoy the process of designing it and choosing its location as much as the result! And don’t forget to come back for more great tattoo inspiration lists from us!