Skip to main content

Hawaiian Tattoos

  • Author:
  • Updated date:

Raye has many body mods, SFSI training, former CFR-D creds, and a decade-long stint as BellaOnline's body art editor under her belt.

Hawaiian petroglyph symbols tattoed on my wrist

Hawaiian petroglyph symbols tattoed on my wrist

Hawaiian Tribal Tattoo Meanings

Like many other Polynesian-descended cultures, the native Hawaiians practiced tattooing. The most heavily tattooed members of the tribe would be the royal family, followed by other court officials and persons who were in the royal family by marriage.

The designs were monochromatic, tattooed in black against brown skin. The patterns and layout were strongly geometric and there were many shapes and symbols which represented the natural island world: stones, waves, fish, sharks, turtles, rain, sun, and birds.

Tattoos were traditionally created by using a tool much like a sharpened rake to prick the designs. The tattoo tool would be hit by another stick to make the punctures. Assistants helped by stretching the skin for the tattoo artist and by wiping away the blood.

About Hawaiian Tattooing

  • PBS Skin Stories
    Keone Nunes was not interested in tattooing at first, but he knew a lot about his Hawaiian culture. When he did get involved in tattooing, he therefore knew more than most about traditional designs.
  • Body Art - Hawaiian and Polynesian Tattooing
    Queen Kamamalu had a tattoo applied to her tongue as an expression of her deep grief when her mother-in-law died in the 1820s. Missionary William Ellis watched the procedure, commenting to the queen that she must be undergoing great pain.

Rae's Rune Tattoos

My tattoo designs came from a set of Hawaiian rune stones made by my friend who lives on Oahu. She got the designs from a guy who created an entire Hawaiian oracle, making modern rune graphics based on ancient Hawaiian petroglyphs from across the entire series of islands. They explored ancient roles (sacred elder, master), and incorporated animal totems (shark, turtle, owl), and other concepts (the elements, play, prayer). But with all her notes, she can't remember the name of the guy who came up with all these designs.

I was doing a reading with the set of stones and cards she made when I "saw" my tattoo idea very clearly and knew this was just the thing for my next piece of ink. I talked to a friend who was a local on the island and who could recommend a shop (she knew of several to be totally avoided!) and wanted to come along for her next piece of ink as well.

A woman artist named Alex at Odyssey Tattoo in Wahiawa did my tattoo. She traced the designs I brought in to make temporary stencils and applied them to my skin. Once we agreed on the placement, she tattooed them. The outline of all the symbols was done first, then she went back and filled them all in to be solid. All in all, the entire process took about forty-five minutes from start to finish.

Before You Get a Hawaiian Tattoo...

  • Think about your time in the water: New tattoos need to be kept out of water. You will need to avoid swimming in the ocean and soaking in pools or hot tubs for one to two weeks, or until the skin fully heals and all the scabbing is done.
  • Think about your time in the sun: The number one enemy of tattoos new and old is the sun: It makes them fade in color and will even blur them softly over time. And when the tattoo surface is still open, you won't want to put sunscreen on it, as it can contain a lot of chemicals that will irritate the healing skin wound. Most often, the best thing you can do on a beach vacation is NOT get tattooed.
  • If a shop or artist will only do designs off their walls and not draw something up for you, go find a new tattoo studio: If you truly want a piece of art that you can be happy with for a lifetime, get something original from an artist, not a scratcher who only knows how to copy what someone else drew.


Raye (author) from Seattle, WA on June 28, 2012:

Cake girl, just pick a design you like and then put it on your cake...

Cake girl on June 28, 2012:

Hi there I'm a baker and I want to make a cake for surfing but I want to use a nice tattoo design for the boarder around the cake any suggestions?

kellz all day on October 20, 2011:

They try to rip you off out here on the prices get out of tourist areas and ur good man they'll try to get your money one way or another everything a charge

TattooKitty from Hawaii on September 25, 2011:

As a resident of Hawaii, it's nice to see the culture's historical background to the art of tattoo brought to life through hubpages! Great links! Thanks for the great info and resources!

I'd suggest checking out Skin Deep Tattoo if you're on the Big Island!

Sue826 from Albuquerque on August 31, 2011:

Good hub - interesting.

helistonaisia88 on August 06, 2011:

yeah very nice hub tatoos..i like it so much

lisbontraveler from Lisbon on December 16, 2010:

like tattoos.. nice hub again :)

Descartes from grand prairie on December 05, 2010:

Great Hub, I like the list of Tattoo Shops in Hawaii.

Joe from Pennsylvania, USA on August 24, 2010:

I love the simplicity of the Hawaiian/nature designs. I also think they look nicer on darker skin.

Zac828 from England on May 11, 2010:

Great hub Relache, I'm thinking of getting another and was looking for some kind of inspiration, I may have found it.

billyaustindillon on April 17, 2010:

Check out MMA Legend Kimo's Hawaiian Tattoos - the real deal. Nice Hub

cr8ve1 on January 08, 2010:

relache.....You made me really HOMESICK with this article, but I loved it!! Thank you for sharing this!!

Locke Reborn from Arlington, Texas on December 29, 2009:

Great information!

keniasearch on October 27, 2009:

This is a cool hub. The topic of body art comes a long way and nowadays we have many different types of tattoos of all shapes and sizes. Good resource for Hawaiian tattoos.

Joanie Ruppel from Texas on August 05, 2009:

I saw a short Discovery channel piece on native tatoos and found the whole process to be fascinating. Still looked like the old fashioned way would hurt a bit.

Sexy jonty from India on August 04, 2009:

Wow .... relache .... very nice hub on the tatoos .....