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Hawaiian Tattoo Designs, Meanings, and History

Richard Hale is a tattoo enthusiast who studies and researches tattoo symbolism, meanings, and history.

Hawaiian-inspired designs are a mainstay in tattoo culture. As you will learn, there are a variety of different symbols and elements associated with the beautiful culture of Hawaii. Many people find these elements and symbols to be ideal for tattooing. Traditional Hawaiian tattoos come from the culture and heritage of tribes who have lived on the islands for generations, but there are also Hawaiian-inspired sailor tattoos that artists including Sailor Jerry introduced in the early 20th century.

In this article, we will review the history of Hawaiian tattoos. Also, we will discuss their meanings and view examples. In the end, we hope that you are able to find inspiration for your own tattoo.

Ancient Hawaiian Tattoos

When it comes to beautiful and symbolic tattoos from the Pacific, the Hawaiian tattoo style is a popular choice. Traditional styles used geometric patterns and symmetric designs in black ink to mark religious devotion, rites of passage, bravery in war, status, ranks, and heritage.

Western culture and the passage of time have since influenced these designs, introducing color and representational images of native elements such as tropical flowers, lizards, dolphins, shells, sharks, arrows, and turtles. In current tattoo designs, you will find a variety of these symbols associated with Hawaiian tattoos.

Henna hibiscus tattoo

Henna hibiscus tattoo

One of the most popular designs in Hawaii is the hibiscus flower tattoo. The flower is symbolic to the women of Hawaii, and is actually the state flower.

Ancient Hawaiians referred to the art of tattooing as "kakau." They would actually cut the skin open and pour tattoo ink, made mainly of ash and soot, inside the cut. Once the cut healed, the ash and soot would appear as a black pigment. During those times, black was the only color that was available, so all tattoos were done in traditional black ink. As you can imagine, this tattoo process was extremely painful.

Ancient Hawaiians practiced the same tattooing style that the Maori culture used. Men and women both would get tattoos. However, men would typically get more, covering their entire bodies with ink patterns, from head to toe. Every one of their tattoos would be symbolic and hold deep meaning. Together, they told the person's life story, including their rank and where they had been. Although women didn't get full-body tattoos, they had their fair share of them. These tattoos were just as symbolic as men's, and they were used for the same purposes.

Today, people still get ancient and modern-style Hawaiian tattoos for symbolic purposes. Some get the tattoos to represent the Hawaiian tradition and heritage. The designs can contain representations of elements from the past or present, as well as of a specific island or the state of Hawaii. Others get these tattoos simply for their beauty.

Designs, Symbols, and Meanings

A Maori man retouches the tattoo on a tiki sculpture.

A Maori man retouches the tattoo on a tiki sculpture.

The reason anyone chooses a specific tattoo is very personal, but the following is what common elements of Hawaiian tattoos typically represent.

  • Gecko: The gecko is a favorite design because the animal was believed to have supernatural powers. It's believed that it was feared by many, and the green gecko was thought to bring illness and bad fortune to whoever comes in contact with it.
  • Sharks: The shark is a powerful creature considered sacred by the ancients. As a tattoo, it is also a symbol of protection for the wearer.
  • Tiki: Tiki is believed to be the first human being, the mythical ancestor of humans. Tiki is able to smell danger because of its great sense of smell.
  • Shells: The shell is a symbol of prosperity and wealth. In ancient times, shells were often used as a form of currency.
  • Sea Turtle: The sea turtle is a symbol of long life. Sea turtles can live to be over a hundred years old. They also represent fertility.

Tropical flowers are also associated with Hawaiian tattoo designs and have symbolic meanings. Here are a few:

  • Orchid: The orchid is a beautiful native flower that represents love, beauty, luxury, and magnificence. Those who choose the orchid tattoo are thought to be unique, free-spirited, and mysterious.
  • Anthurium: The anthurium is a red flower symbolizing hospitality, kindness, and friendship.
  • Hibiscus: As previously mentioned, the hibiscus is one of the most popular flower designs. It is associated with the summer and fun. The hibiscus flower is fragile and has a short life. It comes in a variety of different colors such as red, blue, pink, orange, and yellow. It can represent delicate beauty.

Other common choices include:

  • Hula dancers: Hula is a dance that's part of Hawaii's cultural heritage.
  • Leis: These garlands of bright tropical flowers are often given to visitors.
  • Volcanoes: Volcanoes and other tropical landscape designs symbolize Hawaiian elements.

© 2012 Richard Ricky Hale

Comments

Keoki momoa on August 16, 2019:

Sup my braddah,

Just wanted to ask if you had any original sketches that I could check out or blast.

hoʻokahi mea hawaiʻi on February 16, 2018:

These tattoos arenʻt the traditional kind of tattoos. A lot of these designs if not all of them are more modern and only the black and white drawing was in fact the Ancient Hawaiian kākau uhi. This is watered down from western point of view. And the picture of the man isnʻt even Hawaiian or his tattoo traditional. None of it was actually. smh. Tattoos have a deeper meaning and none of it was touched at all....

Anna on November 30, 2017:

I live in Hawaii and sorry to bum all you out, but we dont really wear leis, Hawaiian shirts and hula skirts...

Connie on April 18, 2017:

I studied ancient art of tattooing and was under the impression that tattooing in the Pacific Islands started with women, especially in Maori culture. It was the women who got the tattoos, generally the lower half of the body elaborately tattooed, and when sailors from around the world saw them they copied the women. Your article said that women didn't have as many as men but I think that may be wrong. Ancient tattooing was on women first.

Gert on April 10, 2017:

These tattoos are very innapropiate, as they include sexual parts of bodies.

shawna schneider on November 30, 2016:

i thought my project would be boring but looking at it every one loves the tatoos

tikilee on December 05, 2013:

What does the Hawaiian Spears mean

Richard Ricky Hale (author) from West Virginia on May 22, 2012:

Lynette, you lucky dog you! I am waiting on a settlement and then I am going to go there. I have seen pictures and it is so beautiful there. That is a great idea, go there and get inked. I hate that you couldn't get in. Thanks for taking the time to check out this article and comment Lynette.

lynette on May 18, 2012:

Just returned from 5 glorious days in Maui, HI. Had my new ink picked out and couldn't get an appointment before i left. Was totally bummed. Gorgeous place and these tattoos in here are amazing. !

Richard Ricky Hale (author) from West Virginia on January 30, 2012:

Gypsy, thanks for another visit. Well it is a special shirt. I say frame it. It would make a great piece on the wall!

Richard Ricky Hale (author) from West Virginia on January 30, 2012:

Frank, what going on bro? Appreciate the visit as always. Your correct, art is art. Hawaiian art is beautiful.

Richard Ricky Hale (author) from West Virginia on January 30, 2012:

AE, thanks for dropping by:) Me as well. I would love to go there if only for a day. I hope I can go one day.

Richard Ricky Hale (author) from West Virginia on January 30, 2012:

Swanheartrunning, thank you for taking the time to come by and check it out. I thank you for that. Yes, it is the state flower of Hawaii. Such a beautiful flower.

Richard Ricky Hale (author) from West Virginia on January 30, 2012:

Alosin, thanks for dropping by my friend. Hawaiian tattoos are beautiful. Everything about Hawaii is beautiful! Rich tradition.

Gypsy Rose Lee from Daytona Beach, Florida on January 28, 2012:

Voted up. Love those colorful tattoos. Love Hawaiian shirts as well. You'll never believe this but I still have a Hawaiian shirt of my dad's who died in 1967 and I can't bear to part with it.

Frank Atanacio from Shelton on January 28, 2012:

thelyricwriter this is art even if it is on flesh up and awesome!!!!

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on January 27, 2012:

The art work in these tattoos is amazing. I would love to visit Hawaii..Voted up and beautiful.

swanhartrunning from Illinois on January 27, 2012:

Didn't know the hibiscus was the state flower of Hawaii. What gorgeous tatoos!

Aurelio Locsin from Orange County, CA on January 26, 2012:

Wow I've never seen these exotic designs before, but then I've never been to Hawaii. Thanks for showing them. Voting this Up and Beautiful.