For at least 2,000 years, Polynesians have decorated their bodies with tattoos. Known variously as tatau, moku, patutiki , and uki, tattooing served as a form of communication among peoples across Oceania. The body artwork identified which island group one came from, as well as their genealogy, social status, and individual accomplishments. It was also used to gain protection and strength from the gods.
Tattooing was performed by a highly skilled and respected master or tufuga, who would determine which designs would be tattooed and when. The process—which, given the rudimentary tools, was both painstaking and painful—often involved certain spiritual practices, including fasting.
In the 18th century, Christian missionaries banned Polynesian tattoos as barbaric (and too erotic). Two hundred years later, the art form was revived, although many of the patterns and their meanings have been lost. The more popular designs to survive include:
This humanlike semi-God serves as a guardian or protector. His facial elements can be drawn separately, e.g. the outline of his nose signifies the ability to sniff out danger.
These stick figures, usually shown holding hands in a row or semi-circle, are used to indicate family, marriage, and friendships, as well as protection from the ancestors.
Turtle shells symbolize longevity, fertility, well-being, and harmony. Turtles are excellent navigators and easily move from land to sea, the final resting place in Polynesian religions, and have a sacred role in bringing lasting tranquility and guiding one safely home.
A sun tattoo denotes leadership, prosperity, and one’s position in society. The sun is the eternal source, constantly rising and setting, and thus is emblematic of life’s constant cycle of death and rebirth.
A common element in Polynesian tattoos, spear heads are a symbol of courage and strength, calling forth the bold warrior within.
Another popular design that signifies strength, fierceness, and adaptability.