The Rich History of Polynesian Tattoos

The Rich History of Polynesian Tattoos

Glancing at the past history and modern design of Polynesian Tattoos

The bold, intricate patterns of Polynesian tattoos catch the eye in ways few other tattoos can. They have one of the richest histories of any kind of tattoo -- this traditional styling can trace its roots back over 2000 years, and its influence on the history of Western tattoos is immeasurable.

So prominent is its history in the world of tattooing that the word “tattoo” did not show up in English writing until Captain Cook visited a part of Polynesia in the late 16th century and recorded the word in his journals. When Cook returned to Europe, he brought along a tattooed Tahitian named Ma’i — whom many historians directly credit with helping initially spread the popularity of tattoos among European sailors — all of whom were influenced by a culture from a far corner of the world.


Polynesia refers to a large area of islands in the Pacific. The area is a triangle with New Zealand, Hawaii, and Rapa Nui at its corners. The word Polynesian itself can refer to many different peoples. Indigenous Tongans, Samoans, Tahitians, Maori, and Hawaiians are all considered Polynesian. They likely all share a common genetic history linked to the natives of Southeast Asia, but given their geographic range and isolation they all developed their own unique cultures over the centuries.


Tattoos became a very large part of some of these cultures, chiefly in Tonga and Samoa, with tattoos carrying a heavy social significance for the members of these tribes. Some sects of these tribes later left their island homelands and settled in Marquesas, planting the roots of a new culture that soon produced the most elaborate tattoos in all of Polynesia.


The process of traditional Polynesian tattooing takes a different approach than modern tattooing. The traditional method involves the use of almost chisel-like tools, which sounds like a world of pain. We’ve heard of a tattoo artist hammering on you, but this is much more literal.


Even though some of the traditional ways of Polynesian tattoo culture have waned over time, the style has remained highly popular. We’ve gotten together a nice image gallery of modern Polynesian tattoos for you to lay your eyes upon. Enjoy not only the stunning visual designs, but their place in the storied history of tattooing.

Tattoo by Shane Gallagher Coley. #gallaghercoley #polynesian #polynesiantattoo
Polynesian tattoos #polynesian #polynesiantattoo
Tattoo done by Jean Michel Manutea, from Imago studio, Montréal. #JeanMichelManutea #polynesian #polynesiantattoo
Another amazing piece, this time a full leg, still from Jean Michel Manutea. #jeanmichelmanutea #polynesian #polynesiantattoo

Now that you’ve checked out these awesome Polynesian tattoos, perhaps you might want one of your own. And we don’t blame you, it’s a much faster way of making yourself look like The Rock than going to the gym.

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