Hawaiian Symbols and Tattoos

I am researching the origins and symbolism of Hawiian tattoos as part of pattern design development for men’s swim and sportswear.

As always the history of any pattern is fascinating – just follow the creative trail of human endeavour!

Polynesians from the Marquesas Islands first came to Hawaii about  1,500 years ago and 500 years later Tahitians arrived bringing there taboos and customs that included the art of tattooing.

Tattooing was unknown in the western world before to Captain Cook’s first voyage through Polynesia in 1778

The word tattoo is one of only a few words used internationally that have a Polynesian origin coming from the word ‘tatau’ used in Tahiti, Tonga, and Samoa. In Hawai‘i the word became ‘kakau’



As the name suggests, the origin of tattoos goes back to indigenous tribes in the Bronze Age, which was about 5000 years ago. In fact the word “tattoo” derives from the word “tatau” in Polynesian. All of the people living on Marquesan island in Polynesia were tattooed. They regarded the tattooed symbols as a form of language. In this particular culture the images were usually inspired by animals. For example, shark teeth represented protection, and shells meant wealth. Other common symbols included turtles, fish hooks, and lizards. Due to the early origins of this style of tattooing, no one is really sure exactly how it was first developed. Some theorize that it was likely an accident that led to the first tribal tattoo.

Tribal tattooing was not just a physical adornment. It was also part of a tribes spirituality. There were three major factors that took the practice of tribal tattooing from being purely art to being a spiritual symbol as well: Pain, Permanence and Loss of the Life Source (blood). This mystical trio elevated the tattoo from mere art and transformed it into an opportunity to draw people into a relationship with God.

Because body and soul were generally thought to be identical to one another, your tattoos then existed on both the physical and spiritual planes.

While meanings vary from culture to culture and time period to time period, there are many similarities across these cultures and times.

Polynesian Culture

  • Protection
  • Wealth
  • Courage

Maori Culture

  • Social Status
  • Rank
  • Job
  • Achievements
  • Inner Strength

European Culture

  • Membership

Modern Cultures

  • Membership of Fraternal Order, Military, or gang
  • Marriage
  • Rights of Passage
  • Totem Animal Guardianship
  • Magical Reasons


Mood board for design development

I used a great little iPad app “Moodboard lite’ to create this board.

This is a great site for information about Polynesian tattooing and its history and symbolism and cultural significance:

Initial pattern sketches



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