Polynesian Tattoo Designs & Their Meaning

Polynesian tattoos have become popular in recent years, and it’s not hard to understand why. They make their wearer look like a warrior, but they also carry deep symbolism of nature. The connection between humans and their environment is an important element in Polynesian tattoos.

What leads many people to get a Polynesian tattoo is that they’re simple but profound. Their meanings focus on the natural surroundings and tradition, which makes them adaptable to people from different cultures.


Body art was widely in use on Polynesian islands, from New Zealand to Hawaii. In fact, the word “tattoo” comes to the English language from Tahiti. While tattoos were a part of many cultures’ artistic expression, they were popularized in Europe and the United States thanks to Polynesian influence. 

In recent years, Dwayne Johnson and other Hollywood stars with Polynesian origins have popularized tattoos in the traditional style of their cultures. 

Traditional Polynesian tattoos were made with rake-like objects instead of needles for centuries. Tattooing was accompanied by a ritual, and the process took days or even weeks to complete. In some cases, this method is still in use, but it’s very time-intensive and can lead to severe complications.

The different cultures in the region, from Samoan, Marquesan, Tahitian, and Hawaiian to Maori, often have slightly differing designs. What unites them is their strong connection to nature. Most of the peoples of these islands had animistic religions, which means that they believed in the supernatural powers of everything surrounding them.

All in all, Polynesian tattoos speak of this symbiosis of man with nature, and the superhuman elements in all living beings. You can add elements that speak of this connection to make sure you’re respectful of the original Polynesian cultures.

Popular Designs

Polynesian tattoos are marked by repetitive patterns, geometric shapes and lots of black ink. They usually cover a large chunk of the body or body part, in sleeves or covering the whole back. You can also design a smaller tattoo in the shape you prefer, and add the patterns inside it.


Patterns are the most traditional form of tattoo in many Polynesian cultures. But while they may look simple, they’re not just pretty forms. These patterns, in general, are stylized representations of different forces of nature or other important items.


The spearhead represents a warrior and is commonly included in Polynesian tattoos. This is an especially important pattern in tattoos for men, as the spearhead is a sign of bravery.


You might have seen small triangles in tattoos of this style. These triangles represent the shark, one of the more prominent predators known to Polynesians.

Polynesian islands are all surrounded by the ocean, and the people have a close and respectful relationship with the animals inhabiting it. The shark, while dangerous, also represents power, and gives the carrier of this pattern strength and courage.

Turtle Shell

The turtle shell is another commonly used pattern in Polynesian tattoos. Turtles represent wisdom, longevity in life, fertility, good luck and peace. 


The ocean has always been vital for Polynesian cultures. It is the source of their food and a symbol of life and continuity.

The ocean is usually represented as a wave pattern. It can be either soft and round or a type of spiral with hard corners.


Enata is a Marquesan symbol that represents a human being. It can either be represented on its own, as a couple or a pattern. There are many different, slightly modified versions of enata you can commonly find in Polynesian tattoos.

When two enata are mirroring each other, it usually represents a couple. You can also use the enata to symbolize your children, or even defeated enemies if used upside down.

When many enata are represented in a row pattern it represents the sky, where the ancestors are believed to live.

Other Elements 

You can use these ideas at the center of your tattoo and surround it with your favorite patterns. They can also be designed in a bigger size. 

Accurate depictions of animals weren’t typically used in traditional Polynesian tattooing, but they’ve become more prevalent in recent years. What you can do is use the outline of the animal and fill it with different patterns, as an updated version of a traditional style.


The sun is another important life-force and respected as a symbol of leadership for Polynesian cultures. It is often included in tattoos, in many styles, and includes different patterns.


Tiki are stylized human characterizations, usually represented in wood or stone carvings. The name “tiki” in Maori culture refers to the first human on Earth, a god-like figure. 

You can include a tiki-style face carving in your tattoo, surrounded by traditional patterns. You can also use it on its own, even with colorful backgrounds.


Along with the shark, Polynesian tattoos often include stingrays. They are believed to bring their bearer peace, wisdom and protection, due to their ability to hide in the sand. 


In traditional Polynesian tattoos, there usually are no flowers. However, if you’re looking to add some color, you can mix different styles. You can brighten up the black color of the traditional style with hibiscus or another tropical flower of your choice.


Lizards are common on many islands of the Pacific, and they’ve become a popular tattoo topic as well. They are generally thought to bring good luck, which might be a reason for their popularity.

Color Possibilities

Traditional Polynesian styles are marked by the use of only black ink. Today, this still applies to most cases, but you can also use tones of grey or even color.

While patterns often look better in black, adding less traditional elements will help you lighten up the tattoo. Many women look to add flowery details in tones of light pink and purple or even yellow. Men often bring some life to their Polynesian tattoos with small red details. 

You can also experiment with different backgrounds, even adding a splash of blue to represent the ocean.

Where to Get Your Tattoo

Polynesian tattoos are a bold choice, even if current tattooing methods are far more efficient and less painful than traditional Polynesian ones. These kinds of tattoos tend to be quite large in size and take a long time to get through. 

In many Polynesian cultures, tattoos were worn especially by warriors. They often covered a large part of the torso and thighs.

The different parts of the body also have different meanings. The lower part of the body is believed to have a connection to the Earth and strength. The values of spirituality and wisdom, on the other hand, are associated with the upper body. 

On the left, a tattoo carries a feminine symbolism, while the right is more masculine.

Common Options for Men

Men often choose to cover the entire shoulder and arm, torso or legs. You can get a full sleeve, or just cover your forearm from the elbow to the wrist. Alternatively, you can cover your shoulders, arms, and your pecs—on one side or both. 

Keep in mind that big tattoos take time. Prepare for a long while sitting in your tattoo artist’s chair and scheduling numerous appointments—especially if you’re planning on using lots of filled-in black details.

Common Options for Women

Women tend to use the arms, the lower back and sides of the torso. You can add more white space between the patterns if the tattoo is big and in a prominent place. This makes the tattoo visually less heavy, an option often preferred by women.

Best Polynesian Tattoos