Tattoos have always been an important part of the culture of Western Polynesia. Hawaiian culture is no different to any of the other pacific Islands when it comes down to the importance of tattoos in Hawaiian culture. Tattoos have been practiced in Hawaiian culture for thousands and are done as a form of celebration, a means of self expression and membership of a tribe.
As with many other Polynesian cultures, in Hawaiian tattooing, the most elaborate designs and the heaviest application of imagery is on the royal family and highest ranking social classes, tapering off as you move down the social chain. Certain patterns and designs were reserved for royalty, and in fact, the tattoos worn helped identify just what part of the social strata to which the wearer belonged. Men were tattooed more heavily than women, with designs on their bodies and limbs. Hawaiian women were primarily tattooed on their lower arms and hands, and sometimes as a sign of mourning, on their tongues.
The tools used for tattooing in Hawaii have traditionally been borrowed from nature unlike the technologically tattoo machines used today. Tools used for tattooing were - bird beaks, claws and large fish bones. Hawaiian tattoos composed mainly geometric and symmetrical designs but slowly evolved into more pictorial forms such as images of animals with the influence of Europeans in Hawaiian culture.
Inks were made from plant materials or the soot from burned kukui nuts. Various British sailors noted fish oil or coconut oil added to the ink mix from time to time. The tattoos were hand-struck, using bone and stick implements. The tattoo needle was on a stick, and was then hit with a second stick to make the skin puncture. The needle itself might have been carved from bird beak or a fish bone.
Meaning of Hawaiian Tattoos
To understand the importance tattoos played in traditional Hawaiian culture it is useful to look at the etymological roots of the word tattoo. The literal translation of the word for tattoo in Hawaiian is uhi, meaning a covering. This hints at the importance it carries in their society especially in terms of defining hierarchy. The symbolism of tattoos was as a benchmark of privilege whereby the quantity and intricacy of tattoo designs defined one’s status.
Tattoos have many meanings, and have been displayed on various places of the body. In some of the lithographs, hawaiian women wore designs concentrating mainly on their hands, feet, fingers and calves. Facial tattooing was also common in Hawaii; typically found on the brow ridge, cheek, cheek bone and chin.
Hawaiians view tattoos on a man’s body as a sign of status and importance. Intricate tattoos were done by the highly skilled artists; an exclusive preserve for the chiefs and their families while the rest of the population and women got it done by the apprentices. The tattoos of women were less extensive being limited to the hand, arms, feet, ears and lips.
A lot of Hawaiian tattoo designs seem to have an almost hidden meaning, which is generally much deeper and personal. This is what sets them apart from their Pacific Island neighbors. Hawaiian tattoo designs are bolder and larger than Maori or Samoan forms. This may be due to the fact that Hawaiian tattoos have more to do with individual identification than for ceremonial purposes, according to anthropolgical studies.
The style and practices of tattooing that were part of the native Hawaiian culture are part of the family of Polynesian cultures that all practiced tattooing. The tattooing wasn't just ornamental, but an integral part of their social and spiritual expression as well.
Hawaiian Tattoo Designs
Designs were monochromatic, a darkish blue-black against the natural skin tone. The images were taken from the natural Hawaiian landscape, with many of the geometric patterns reflecting plants, birds and sea life. Tattooing tied closely with Hawaiian spiritual life, with tattoos relating to blessings, protection, healing and death.
Modern day Hawaiian tattooing shows vibrant interpretations of traditional Hawaiian tattoo designs as well as designs that have evolved as part of American tattoo culture but connected to Hawaii. Every sailor who got tattooed in Hawaii in W.W.II got a hula girl on his arm so he could make her dance. Floral tattoos are popular souvenirs with modern visitors as is the ever-present tribal tattoo armband.
For most people, the idea of Hawaiian tattoo designs inspires images of hula dancers, leis, and hibiscus flowers. These three symbols are associated with Hawaii and Hawaiian cultures. They are popular tattoo motifs. Women in particular are drawn to the exotic beauty of the hibiscus. For many, they associate the flower with summer and fun. Hibiscus tattoos look tropical, feminine, and delicate. They can be any number of colors, but are often tattooed in pinks, oranges, yellows, and reds. These colors harken to the warmth and heat of summer. They also contrast the green leaves of the plant which are sometimes included in the flower tattoo design. The hibiscus plant and flower is important in Hawaiian culture.
The hibiscus is a delicate flower, easily damaged and destroyed. It has a short, fragile life. A tattoo is a way to appreciate the hibiscus flower in a more permanent way. Hawaiian natives use the fibers of the plant to make their traditional grass skirts and the plants, including the flowers, are very valuable. Hula dancers are a fascinating part of traditional Hawaiian culture. The dances tell the important stories of the people. Hula dancers were favorite tattoos of sailors because they represented exoticism and beauty. The sailors were often drawn to the mysterious and intriguing natives of the places they visited and got tattoos to represent their travels. Leis are garlands of flowers that are offered to guests. Although full lei tattoos are not common, bright, vibrant, and native flowers used to create these garlands are often incorporated into tattoo designs. Hula dancers are usually depicted with leis on, often just barely covering their naked breasts.
But tattooing has a much longer history in Polynesian societies than these symbols. The Hawaiian style of traditional tattoos is similar to other nations, in that the designs are usually geometric patterns done black lines. The original native Hawaiian tattoos were done with found objects, like bones or animal claws. These tattoos were usually symmetric, and later evolved to represent animals and mask-like faces. Birds, fish, lizards, turtles, and flowers were all represented pictorially. Some scholars belief this development is a direct influence of contact with outsiders, but these designs are still valued as traditional and cultural, being important to the ancestors and historic society.
The traditional tattoo art of Hawaii is known as kakau and, like the hula dances, had stories and meaning woven among the pattern and designs. The modern incarnation of Hawaiian kakua can be small designs or quite extensive art work. Those interested in tribal tattooing or those looking to embrace their Hawaiian heritage are usually interested in these designs. Hawaiian culture, like the traditions and customs of many indigenous peoples, was repressed by the Westerners who shared their land. Many natives still feel that 'mainlanders' are ruining their island, their way of life, and the traditions of their ancestors. Currently, there is an extensive cultural movement within Hawaii to reclaim these lost traditions and embrace native culture. Tattooing is a large part of this movement and traditional designs are once again becoming popular.
In Hawaiian culture, tattoos were used to denote status and importance, just like other Polynesian islands. Those with power among tribes were the most tattooed, along with their family members. While male tattoos might cover their body, female tattoos were reserved for harms, feet, ears, and lips. Today, though, women often get tattoos that would once have been reserved for men. Likewise, commoners and those not of royal descent get extensive and elaborate designs that would not have been acceptable in traditional times. These two occurrences show that, while Hawaiians are rediscovering their native culture and taking pride in their history, they are also adapting it to better suit their modern philosophies. This is how all cultures develop – either they adapt and evolve or they become stagnant and obsolete. Variations of traditional rituals and practices should not be viewed as a bastardization of society, but as an evolution. These reinvented, but traditionally inspired tattoo designs still demonstrate a love and pride of heritage, embracing Hawaiian culture and the past.