The History of Hawaiian Tattoos

Hawaiian tattoos have become extremely popular in modern Western culture among tattoo artists and enthusiasts. However, while Hawaiian tattoo designs--from bold tribal arm and leg bands to illustrations of exotic flowers--have been the most prevalent in the last few decades, the art has a long and rich history. In fact, Hawaii and Polynesia are known internationally as two of the art form's most influential birthplaces.

  1. Origins

    • Much like the Hawaiian people themselves, Hawaiian tattoos originated in Polynesia. The word "tattoo" originates from the Tahitian, Tongan and Samoan word "tatau." When the Hawaiians migrated to the Hawaiian Islands, they adapted the name for their body art to "kakau." Hawaiian tattoo practices were linked closely with ancient tradition and laws, so when European influence in the early 1800s began to weaken traditional values among native Hawaiians, tattoos also became less important to them.


    • Hawaiian tattoo needles were traditionally made from birds' beaks and claws, carved bone or tortoiseshell, or sharp spines from certain kinds of fish. The tool was completed by attaching one or more of these needles to a wooden handle. The needles were dipped in ink, positioned over the skin and hit with a mallet to puncture it, depositing the pigment beneath the surface. The word "tatau" originates from the repeated tapping sound made in the tattooing process. According to Betty Fullard-Leo's article on Hawaiian tattoos, one of the most commonly used inks was made by mixing the ashes of burnt candlenut with juices from coconuts or sugar cane.


    • Tattoos held great spiritual and social significance for ancient Hawaiians. The act of tattooing was highly ritualized and sacred, and only kahuna, the expert and spiritually powerful elders, could apply them. Tattoos had the power to distinguish a person's place in the social hierarchy and to protect him from negative forces, and some tattoos were believed to possess powers of their own.


    • Many ancient Hawaiian tattoo designs were ones that might today be called "tribal," featuring patterns of geometric or natural shapes like squares, triangles, crescents or waves. According to Fullard-Leo, tattoos also commonly illustrated personal gods in the forms of animals, such as a shark or lizard, or forms that symbolized legends and held hidden meaning. Tattoos could also commemorate dead family members or beloved public figures.


    • Most people were allowed to have tattoos, but they were more prominent among those who could afford them. Men were most commonly tattooed on the face, arms, legs and torso, while women tattooed their hands, wrists and tongue. Male and female hula dancers often had a greater number of tattoos. While many tattoos were indicative of affluence or status, members of the slave class could be marked as such with special facial tattoos.

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