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400+ Awesome Polynesian Tattoo Design Ideas (Meaning And Symbolize)
Throughout history, people used tattoos to honor their tribes, nations, or just themselves. Tattoos were a tool to mark themselves as members of a tribe or specific culture and their status in it. One of the most mystical and, at the same time, fascinating tattoos is the Polynesian tattoo. Polynesian tattoos have a long history.
Tattoo artists strongly suggest researching the meaning behind this type of ink before you decide which element of the Polynesian tattoo you want. Choose wisely the design and respect the culture from which it came.
If you want to learn the meanings behind Polynesian tattoos keep reading this post.
History of the Polynesian Tattoo
Polynesian cultures include Samoans, Marquanes, Niueans, Tongans, Cook Island Maori, Hawaiian Maoli, Tahitian Ma’ohi, and New Zealand Maori. Genetically speaking, they are linked to indigenous peoples from regions of South Asia.
The skill and art of tattooing are important aspects of Polynesian cultures. In history, Polynesian people used tattoo art to express their personality, identity, tribe, place within tribe, achievements, status, etc. Their tattoo design was and, still is, full of distinctive signs. Almost everyone in Polynesian culture was tattooed. Since many islands in the Pacific belong to Polynesian culture, tattoo styles vary.
When James Cook first returned from his trip to New Zealand and Tahiti in 1771, the word „tattoo“ first appeared in Europe. James Cook followed the behaviors of the Polynesian people and he called it tattaw. A tradition of the Polynesian tattoo existed for over 2000 years. But in the 18th century, the Old Testament strictly banned this action. Since then, many lost arts were revived in the 1980s.
Tattoo art in Polynesia first started in Tonga and Samoa. Tongan warriors were tattooed from the waist to the knees. Tattoo designs included shapes, patterns, triangles, and solid black. The tattooing process was slow and very painful. But those people who wore tattoos prided themselves on the endurance of the pain and bravery.
The tattoo ritual was done in separate sitting, usually lasting a whole day, and they had a healing time between each one. The whole tattoo usually took a month to complete. Islanders went to multiple tattoo rituals throughout their whole life until the whole body was covered in the tattoo. Only priests that took a long time to specialize in the tattooing process were able to perform these rituals. The tattoo was mostly for men but some Samoan women wore this body art. In women, tattoos were more subtle and delicate.
The placement of the Polynesian tattoo has a very important role in their tradition. Some elements are related to a specific meaning based on where you put your tattoo.
40+ Polynesian Tattoo Design Ideas (And Meanings Behind Them)
Scroll down to see some of the best Polynesian tattoo designs you can choose.
1. Head Polynesian Tattoo Designs
In Polynesian tradition, humans are children of Rangi, which represents Heaven, and Papa which represents Earth. Rangi and Papa had 70 children and would lie locked in a tight embrace while their kids were cramped in the darkness underneath. Children would often discuss how great it would be to see the light. One child suggests they should kill them, while others propose it would be best to separate Rangi and Papa.
Polynesian people believe men’s quest in his life is to find that union. So the body is the link between Rangi and Papa. The upper part of the body is linked to the spiritual aspect while the low part of the body is linked to the earth.
With that been said the head is the direct link to Rangi. This placement of Polynesian tattoos means knowledge, spirituality, intuition, and of course wisdom.
2. Arm Polynesian Tattoo Designs
In Polynesian tradition shoulder and upper arm tattoos represent strength and bravery. They are associated with warriors. And lower arm and hand represent creativity or making things.
If you opt for a Polynesian tattoo there is no better way to represent your strength and masculinity than to get one on your arm area. Use your life story, an important milestone, or something that makes you stronger and powerful as a design inspiration for your tattoo. That way, your tattoo will be unique.
3. Leg Polynesian Tattoo Designs
In Polynesian culture legs and feet represent progress or moving forward. Legs and feet may also stand for choice or separation. Feet are the direct link to the Papa and symbolize material things. But the joints represent the union.
Traditionally, Polynesian warriors would wear these kinds of tattoos. This is, actually, the most compelling leg art in the world. With its traditional warrior leg design and meaning behind it, the Polynesian tattoo perfectly alines in the frame of the men’s leg and shapes it perfectly. This kind of tattoo shows your muscle, strength, and endurance linked to your ability to focus on the body and its image.
4. Polynesian Sea Turtle Tattoo Design
The turtle or honu is one of the most important creatures in Polynesian culture, especially for the Samoans and Hawaiians. Polynesian cultures associate turtles with many meanings. First is that the turtle symbolizes health and fertility, peace and rest.
The turtle represents unity among the families. It is usually designed as a basic body, with its limbs sticking out of the shell, using dark lines and tribal shapes. And sometimes tattoo artists use lines and dots to draw the turtle.
For the Polynesian people, the ocean is the source of food and they also believed it’s the place where they are going to rest afterlife. Because the turtle moves from the shore to the ocean, Polynesians believed these lovely animals bring them closer to their final resting place.
Contrary to some beliefs, turtles drawn upwards don’t imply they’re taking the soul of the dead to the opposite world. If you want to represent this idea, the design needs to feature a person’s figure on or near the shell of the turtle.
5. Lizard Polynesian Tattoo Designs
Lizards and geckos are called mo’o or moko. They play an important role in Polynesian tradition. Gods or atua and other spirits in Polynesian myths often appeared in form of the lizard. This is the reason Polynesian lizard tattoos are designed in a similar form as the form of humans.
For Polynesian people, a lizard is a very powerful creature and it represents good luck, communication between God and humans, and it is believed they can access the invisible world. But they can bring bad luck and bad omens to those who are disrespectful.
Lizard tattoos look simple but actually, it’s very difficult and requires great skill to incorporate the image in many tribal designs and create one single piece of art. It is considered lizard tattoos bring power and help wearers in many ways.
6. Polynesian Spearhead Tattoo Designs
In Polynesian tattoo designs, a spearhead or arrow is typically triangle-shaped and shaded to look like a sharpened arrow. This type of tattooing gives the tattoo a new dimension.
Often arrows or spearheads are placed in a manner to overlap each other. In Polynesian tradition, spearhead symbolizes courage and combativeness, fighting energy and spirit. You can find a spearhead in almost every Polynesian tattoo design. This tattoo is not just for warriors in the battle. If you have an inner warrior or you are fighting for something with yourself this tattoo is perfect for you. Sometimes the inner battle is the most important one.
7. Shark Teeth Polynesian Tattoo Designs
For Polynesian people, shark teeth are usually designed as triangles with empty space or filled with ink. Shark teeth often symbolize protection from evil or sometimes indicate evil is coming your way. For the Polynesian warriors, shark teeth also represent strength in battle. Also, this tattoo could depict shelter, power, ferocity, etc.
Shark teet, or niho mano, are among the most famous symbols in Polynesian culture. They also represent God in Polynesian culture. Almost over 50% of the Polynesian tattoo designs have shark teeth in them.
Tattoo artists often incorporate spearheads, shark teeth, lizards in one tattoo which looks incredible in the end. Every symbol has its meaning and every tattoo has its. Tell your story to your tattoo artist and together you can create a tattoo that is meaningful to you and deserves to be on your skin.
8. Ocean Polynesian Tattoo Designs
The ocean is the second home to Polynesian people. It is the place of rest when they leave for their last voyage. Sometimes the ocean is used to represent death and beyond death.
As we said earlier, ocean is a source of food for the Polynesian people, so it is no surprise it has a big place in their traditions, tattoos and myths. And of course, ocean and sea are represented in form of waves.
Polynesian cultures believed that the ocean is the place where ancestors lived.
For the purpose of tattoo design, the ocean is incorporated with other elements to make a bigger picture. Just remember if you decide to get a Polynesian tattoo, every element has its meaning. Keep in mind Polynesian people preserve their heritage, and be respectful of their traditions and beliefs.
9. Tiki Polynesian Tattoo Designs
In Polynesia, the word tiki represents an image, a human figure with big eyes, nose, ears, and of course mouth. Polynesia has a lot of myths about tiki.
According to the Maori myth, tiki is the first human created by the god called Tane. For the Maori, tiki is a half-human half-god, associated with the ancestors. But in other myths, tiki is the demigod who created the first men.
Demigod is opposite to atua, who often appeared to the humans in non-human form, like a lizard. Traditionally, tiki always has closed eyes, and nostrils are always shown. Mouths are always open and ears are big. These attributes indicated that tiki can smell the danger even when its eyes are closed. It has the ability to chase and feel evil.
Tiki’s hands are usually shown with three fingers. This is especially represented in the Maori tradition where every finger has its own meaning. Generally, they are used to represent fertility and protection. Tiki can also symbolize ancestors, priests, and chiefs. Usually, that image is used to stand for the ancestors who become demigods after their passing. They are like guardian angels to the tattoo wearers.
Over the years, the image of tiki has been simplified. This new, simple design is called the „brilliant eye“. In this case, tiki’s eye, nostrils, and ears appear to be prominent elements.
10. Stingray Polynesian Tattoo Designs
Stingray Polynesian tattoo comes in different forms and designs. This tattoo is a symbol of freedom. But it also represents a quiet force or fighter. Stingray is an animal that hides its world power through wisdom and humility.
You see, the stingray has the power and knowledge to hide and cover within the underwater sand. When the danger is near, the stingray remains still. In most cases, the danger comes from sharks.
Stingray tattoo is a symbol of security, adaptation, peacefulness, speed, and stealth. For many people, this is a top choice for tattoos primarily because stingrays are quiet, have a mild temper, and yet so powerful.
For those who are looking for a tattoo design that represents peace and security, stingray is a perfect choice. In Polynesian design, a stingray is most suitable for people who aren’t afraid to show their emotion on the sleeve or chest even the neck.
Stingray tattoo can be quite challenging due to its shape and placement. The most challenging part to tattoo is the barb because an artist needs to leave space for it behind the body.
The easiest solution, in most cases, is to place the stingray on the chest or the back. These areas are relatively large and give tattoo artists a lot of space to work with. But if you are looking for a smaller or medium size stingray Polynesian tattoo, the arm is also a great space.
What are 3D tattoos?
The term ‘ 3-dimensional tattoo’ refers to any design that looks three-dimensional, rather than two-dimensional (flat) on the skin.
The best tattoos of this nature will be realistic enough to look like photographs.
The 3D technique is used for a number of innovative and creative designs – from simply tattooing hyper-realistic looking objects to crossing into the realm of believable optical illusions.
3D tattoos are likely to take longer to complete than two-dimensional designs and require a huge amount of expertise from the tattoo artist.
If you’re considering getting a tattoo like this, it’s best to try to find a tattooist who specializes in this aesthetic, even if it means looking outside your area or paying a bit more than expected.
3-dimensional tattoo work only achieves its purpose – looking realistic – if the artist gets everything 100% right.
Realistic 3D tattoo design ideas
As we’ve already mentioned, creativity is key to creating the very best and most original tattoos.
If you’re looking for some inspiration, consider the following ideas – and don’t forget to check out our massive gallery of awesome three dimensional tattoos!
Animals and objects
This type of tattoos in 3D involves simply – though let’s be honest, it’s not that simple – tattooing a photorealistic image of something on your body.
Real-looking objects and animals make for striking, eye-catching tattoos.
Some popular choices include:
- Flowers – always a popular tattoo element, flowers look even better when tattooed in 3D. Most people opt for roses since they’re one of the more complex flowers to tattoo and ones with the most depth involved – there’s a lot of light and shadow play on and between the petals, unlike with flowers that are naturally more flat. Drops of water are sometimes added for extra realism. Both color and black options are viable, and each will result in a distinctive style – though of course, the use of color will make the image more lifelike.
- Portraits – portrait tattoos are tough to get right and a major commitment (they’re not as easy to cover up as names!), yet this doesn’t affect their popularity all that much. Plenty of people still get them, and there’s no reason not to if you have the right tattoo artist to help you and the certainty that this is the right choice for you. Portrait tattoos are usually done in black ink. If they were done in color, they’d blend in too much with the color of your own skin.
- Animals – both tattoos of pets and of wild animals are often done in 3D to add depth and heighten the aesthetic value of the design. Usually tattooed in color for maximum realism, these tattoos tend to be quite large in order to preserve all the details and make the design more believable. Tigers, wolves, and lions are common choices, as are snakes and lizards.
- Spiders – from black widows to huge tarantulas, realistic spiders make for awesome-looking tattoos in 3D. Though these insects generally cause most people to flinch and many are positively fearful of them (sometimes with good reason, after all), the symbolism of the spider is not altogether negative. They’re associated with power, mystery, and growth. Spiders also represent the concept that our choices construct our lives – likely due to the elaborate webs that spiders gradually build to catch prey.
- Skulls – often combined with other elements, such as flowers or snakes, skulls never seem to lose popularity. In 3-dimensional tattoos they’re typically done in black ink, giving them a dark, gothic look. This fits in with the general cultural meanings of death and mortality that skulls bring to mind. Skulls also have some positive meanings, though – they’re sometimes associated with protection and wisdom.
- Eyes – realistic-looking eyes, either single or in a pair, are another tattoo you’ll see a lot of while browsing our gallery. Eyes are symbolic of intelligence and omniscience, as well as morality and truth. In certain cultures, eyes are considered to be gateways into the soul – sometimes associated with the concept of the ‘third eye’. The third eye is supposed to be the eye of the soul – what could simply be called intuition. In Egyptian and Western occult traditions, the left eye symbolizes the moon and the North, while the right eye represents the sun and the South.
This is one of the most popular choices and one of the safest ones where it comes to achieving the desired effect.
And the effect you’re aiming for here is to make it look as if an insect, such as a butterfly or a dragonfly, has landed on your skin.
The insect is made to look realistic through painstaking work on the tattoo artist’s part – working with several reference images of real examples of your chosen insect to make sure it looks ‘real’ on your skin.
The tattoo is not complete without adding a shadow dropped by the insect – without it, the tattoo could still look somewhat flat.
The placement of a 3D landing insect tattoo is also an important factor to consider. Especially in the case of larger designs, the area can’t be too curved (like the top of your shoulder or your elbow), since this will distort the shape of the tattoo. For lifelike insect tattoos, consider your forearm, the back of your shoulder, or somewhere along your leg – such as your thigh or calf.
The sky’s the limit on what insect you could go with for your tattoo. You could think about what critters visually appeal to you, consider whether you have any personal stories or memories you associate with any particular insect, or take a cultural meaning or value associated with an insect as a starting point.
Butterflies are symbolic of transformation, first and foremost. This is because they start their lives as considerably less attractive caterpillars before transforming themselves into the colorful, beautiful flying insects.
They’re also associated with hope, change, and life itself. As such, they’re particularly meaningful 3D design choices if you want to celebrate an important change in your life or overcoming a difficult struggle. Butterflies are also sometimes thought to be symbolic of the passing of a loved one.
In addition to the above, a blue butterfly 3D tattoo generally symbolizes good luck. Yellow butterflies stand for joy, happiness, and positivity. White ones are associated with purity and, in the context of Christianity, salvation.
Dragonflies have many meanings which differ somewhat between cultures. In general, they symbolize change, adaptability, transformation, and self-realization.
In Japanese culture, dragonflies are symbolic of power, victory, and agility. For Native Americans, dragonflies stood for happiness and purity, as well as for protection from ill health and injury. In Buddhist cosmology, dragonflies represent the joining of Heaven and Earth.
In tattoo art, dragonflies are often thought to represent living in the moment – letting go of the past, not worrying too much about the future, and focusing on what’s important to us here and now.
Cracked or ripped skin
These tattoo designs in 3D are way less grim than they sound. The 3D effect is achieved here by making it appear as if part of the skin is missing, to reveal something unexpected and unusual beneath.
It’s an interesting choice since this type of tattoo blends in perfectly and appears as if it really is a part of the person’s body.
Again, there are plenty of options here, limited only by your creativity and the size you want your tattoo to be.
The biomechanical tattoo style involves designs which represent a seamless blend of human and machine. This means combining bones and tissue with gears, pistons, and other mechanical elements in one design, creating the illusion of a cyborg-like nature.
Though biomechanical designs are sometimes done as traditional, two-dimensional tattoos, the 3D option is far more popular. In order to show the blend of muscle and metal, the muscle must be ‘exposed’ – hence including the illusion of missing skin in the design.
Biomechanical tattoos don’t have any specific meanings in themselves – most of the time they’re purely a form of artistic expression and of decoration.
The biomechanical style in broader art movements originates from the 1970s and is closely associated with Ridley Scott’s 1979 movie Alien. In recent years, the steampunk style has influenced biomechanical tattoos – swapping the steel and cabling of traditional biomech for brass clockwork and gears.
Superheroes and other pop culture elements
A highly popular choice among ‘missing skin’ tattoos, this type is based on the idea of having a costume or a different appearance ‘under’ your skin.
Superheroes are a common theme here – you’re bound to have seen 3D tattoo pictures where it seems as if the person’s skin has been torn off to show a Spiderman or Batman costume underneath.
Characteristic, distinctive clothing/costumes, armors, and appearances of characters from movies, comic books, and games, are all great choices for this kind of tattoo.
An interesting twist is to have several tattoos with the same theme – a ‘rip’ on the chest is a classic, but you could also get matching tattoos, here and there, on other parts of your body – such as your shoulders, arms, and legs.
Using the 3D technique puts a new spin on the traditional quote tattoo. This kind of design usually involves making it appear as if the writing is under your skin, rather than on it.
To achieve this effect, the tattoo artist uses shading to create the illusion of a part of your skin missing, with the letters showing underneath.
There a couple of things to decide on when considering this kind of three-dimensional tattoo. First of all, you need to think about what the writing itself should be – you could opt for a name of a loved one, a quotation that’s important to you, or even a full page of text from a source that has personal meaning to you (e.g. your favorite book or a religious text).
Next up, the shape of the ‘cutout’ – it could look as if the skin is missing in a particular shape, such as a star, heart, or circle, or you could go for a less ordered ‘ripped’ look – as if it’s been scratched or torn off.
The fact that the writing will be ‘under’ your skin suggests that the text is not just important to you, but is a part of you. A 3D under-the-skin writing tattoo is therefore the perfect choice for writing that truly represents who you are, or who you want to be.
An optical illusion uses perspective, shapes, color, and light/shade to create images that are deceptive, confusing, or misleading to our perception. Put simply, optical illusions cause us to see something that either doesn’t exist in reality or actually looks different than what we think it does.
There are many types of optical illusions out there, but the type we’re most interested in is based mostly on an illusion of depth. Think of graffiti art that makes it seem as if an image is ‘floating’ in the air, or of murals that make it look as if there’s a tunnel – when really, it’s just a plain, solid wall.
All 3D tattoos involve some level of illusion – the illusion of realism – but some designs are specifically designed to create extra depth and ‘trick’ the eye. These are specialist tattoos and you may need to put some work into finding the right tattoo artist, but the end result will be totally worth the effort.
Though they’re a relatively recent trend in tattoo art, these types of tattoos have caught on remarkably fast and remain highly popular. With some creativity and the help of an experienced tattoo artist, you can create some truly unique, original designs for your tattoo.
Polynesian Tattoo Designs: More FAQ
Can Someone Who is Not Polynesian get a Polynesian Tattoo?
Polynesia tattoo designs use two kinds of symbols. Some of these designs are scared and referred to as tapu, while others are considered noa, or not scared. Tapu elements should be reserved for someone of Polynesian heritage after the do propper ceremonies. So, if you are not Polynesian, you may want to get noa elements.
Of course, these tattoos are most suitable for persons who respect Polynesian cultures. These meaningful tattoos are not for fun or trends.
Is Still Possible to Get a Polynesian Tattoo With Traditional Tools?
Yes, it is. Traditional Polynesian tattoo is hand-poked. In most cases, persons with Polynesian heritage opt for this kind of tattooing in order to preserve their tradition and be closer to their ancestors.
Is it Offensive to Polynesian People When Non-Polynesians Get Their Tattoos?
It all depends on how you approach the culture in the tattoo design. That means, your tattoo should include elements that depict your life story. It is always disrespectful to simply copy someone else’s tattoos without considering the meaning behind them.
Also Read: Offensive Tattoos: Designs You Didn’t Know The Meaning Of
Can I Incorporate Non-Polynesian Elements in Polynesian Tattoos?
If it relates to your story, you can. Polynesian tattoos and other images can blend with a great visual appeal. So you can decide to include some elements that are meaningful to you. People always tend to go for multiculturalism, so why not include that into tattoo design.
Is It OK to Add Letters For the Polynesian Tattoo Design?
Yes. But you need to keep in mind this is not a traditional approach. Polynesian people did not use an alphabet in their tattoos. Today, there is a method to incorporate letters in Polynesian tattoo designs and styles.
This method is called Maorigrams and it’s based on two Maori symbols that are shaped in all the letters. But, be wise. If you want to get a tattoo of someone’s name in Polynesian design, you should make sure this person is special. You don’t want to regret it later.
Why There are Different Polynesian Tattoo Designs?
To simplify, the Polynesian tattoo is just a general term used for tattooing traditions throughout the Pacific islands. All traditions share the same technique. The five main Polynesian traditions in tattooing that are still present are Samoan, Marquesan, Tahitian, Maori, and Hawaiian.
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