What Are Hawaiian Tattoos? Styles, Tradition, & Culture • The Grom Life (2023)

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Tattoos are common in Hawaii, but they are different from traditional western tattoos. It’s not just the style, either. The things that they represent, the purpose they serve, and even the way they are chosen and inked are vastly different from what you might be used to.

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What is a Hawaiian Tattoo Called?

A Hawaiian tattoo is called a “Kakau”. It comes from the Hawaiian words “ka” and “kau”, meaning “to strike” and “to place” respectively.

Interestingly, the word “tattoo” is actually said to come to us from the Polynesian word “tatau”, which means the same thing as the Hawaiian word.

The word “tattoo” can also be used in reference to a drumbeat or performance. You could be forgiven for thinking that the etymology was the same and that the “drumbeat” usage was a reference to the constant tapping of the needle. In actual fact, it has an entirely unique origin and comes to us from the Dutch word “taptoe”, which means “to close the tap”, in reference to a cask.

Tattoos weren’t invented in Hawaii though. In fact, they have been around for thousands of years. Otzi the Iceman, a natural mummy discovered in the Alps and dated to as late as 3370 BC, was found with basic tattoos, and there have been dozens of other tattooed mummies everywhere from Alaska to Egypt and Siberia.

It’s believed that Polynesia wasn’t settled until between 3,000-1,000 BC, at which point tattooing was already relatively common.

The Tradition of Hawaiian Tattoos

Hawaiian tattoos are steeped in Polynesian culture and are considered sacred and honorable. Traditionally, Hawaiians got tattoos to honor their ancestors and if their actions were deemed dishonorable, they weren’t ready for a tattoo.

Ancient Hawaiian tattoos were made by tapping a needle into the skin, transferring the pigment (consisting of ash and soot) inside. It was painful and laborious, and this also played a role in turning the tattoo into something honorable and powerful. After all, the more tattoos you had, the more of this pain you had endured, thus showing your bravery and strength to the community.

Both men and women got tattoos but men tended to cover more of their bodies and use them as a way of inducing fear in their enemies, while also showing their strength and honor.

What Does a Hawaiian Tattoo Look Like?

Hawaiian tattoos are tribal tattoos that use overlapping symbols to create a complex design. They use black ink and typically choose patterns or symbols that depict or honor the person’s ancestors or reflect the movement and balance of nature.

Modern Hawaiian tattoo designs are based on tribal tattoos that have been around for centuries. Some tattooists even use the same ancient techniques, and traditionally, the designs are chosen by the tattooist and not the customer.

However, most modern tattoos pay only passing reference to the styles and techniques of old. They use modern equipment and choose styles based on aesthetics and not culture or lineage.

How Do They Tattoo in Hawaii?

Traditional Hawaiian tribal tattoos are created using hand-tapping techniques, often with a steady cadence akin to a beating heart. It takes a great deal of skill to create these tattoos and also requires a lot of patience and high pain tolerance. At the same time, it produces an incredible effect.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you’ll find ancient pigments and tools made of wood and bone in every tattoo parlor. Many of the tattooists on the Hawaiian islands use modern techniques and simply follow traditional tribal tattoo designs.

Surprisingly, traditional Hawaiian tattoos had all but vanished in the latter half of the 20th century and were replaced entirely by tools. A few traditionalists brought them back, though, and a renewed interested in Hawaiian tribal tattoos and Hawaiian culture in general means there are now a few skilled practitioners.

How Expensive are Tattoos in Hawaii?

A Hawaiian tattoo can cost you anywhere from $300 to $600 on average, depending on whether you opt for a traditional one or a modern one.

Traditional Hawaiian tattoos cost more than their contemporary counterparts. Not only does it require a very specific skillset, but traditional tattoos take longer to complete.

As with all tattoo parlors, the price can vary greatly from one location to the next and there are several options in Hawaii. Do your research, shop around, and check with several different options to find the best value for money.

Are Tattoos Accepted in Hawaii?

Although tattoos play an important role in Hawaiian culture and are ubiquitous throughout its history, they are a growing problem in the workplace.

Some employers may not look fondly on applicants with tattoos, especially if those tattoos are in visible places (such as the face and hands) or there are a lot of them (as with sleeve tattoos).

Thankfully, most employers don’t discriminate, at least not openly, but if you don’t have a stable career or want to embark on a profession in the customer service industry, this is something you need to keep in mind.

Is it Disrespectful to Get a Hawaiian Tattoo?

There is never a clear answer to questions like this, as not everyone will react the same way and not everyone will get the same tattoo or have the same intent.

If you’re a non-Hawaiian and you get a tattoo that tells your story and that of your ancestors, one that is well-considered and executed, it generally won’t be considered disrespectful to most Hawaiians.

If you half-ass a tattoo using Hawaiian symbols and modern techniques, and you mix it with themes from western culture before bragging to everyone how “authentic” it is, you’ll probably offend everyone.

However, there will always be a diehard traditionalist who is offended when any non-Hawaiian gets a Hawaiian tattoo, just as there will always be Hawaiians who couldn’t care less about anyone else and just see tattoos as a form of personal expression.

Go with your gut, but if you actually want a traditional Hawaiian tattoo and not just a basic tribal design that uses Hawaiian symbols and styles, do your research and get it from a local tattooist.

What is a Pe’a Tattoo?

The Pe’a is a type of Samoan tattoo that goes from the middle of the torso to the knees, like a pair of long shorts that have been pulled a little too high.

These traditional tattoos use geometric patterns composed of lines, dots, and arrows, creating a complex and intricate image.

What Do Hawaiian Triangle Tattoos Mean?

Triangles often symbolize shark teeth. However, they can also indicate spears, in which case they are used to represent both life and death.

Did the Ancient Hawaiians Get Tattoos?

Yes! Both Hawaiian men and women got tattoos and they played an important role in ancient Hawaii. They signified respect, honor, strength, and bravery. They told a person’s story and connected them to their ancestors. They were also used by Hawaiian warriors to show their strength and to intimidate their enemies.

What are the Most Popular Hawaiian Tattoo Designs?

In addition to the usual geometric designs, popular Hawaiian tattoo designs include:

  • Hibiscus flower
  • Hula dancer
  • Pineapple
  • Palm tree
  • Sea turtle
  • Sunset
  • The Hawaiian Islands

What Are the Best Places to Get Hawaiian Tribal Tattoos?

It should go without saying that the best place to get a Hawaiian tattoo is in Hawaii, but there are many tattoo shops and tattooists to choose from, so which ones are best?

808 Tattoo (Honolulu)

A tattoo studio that has been in operation for more than 15 years and has an unrivaled reputation. It does piercings, tattoos, and tattoo removals.

Visit 808 Tattoo.

Beach Park Tattoo (Kailua)

A small family-owned tattoo studio that offers traditional Hawaiian tattoos, as well as many modern alternatives.

Visit Beach Park Tattoo on Facebook.

Mid Pacific Tattoo (Maui)

Mid Pacific Tattoo has several locations on the island of Maui and specializes in a variety of tattoo art styles, including Polynesian tattoos, American tattoos, dot work, and realism.

Visit Mid Pacific Tattoo.

Bespoke (Honolulu)

A leading studio that creates beautiful bespoke creations. Check out the link below to see some of their work.

Visit Bespoke.

Tattoolicious (Honolulu)

A studio that has been open for over 20 years and offers high-quality custom tattoos from several highly-skilled artists.

You can see a list of the studio’s tattoo art on its website. It’s sorted by artist to help you find the one that’s best suited to your needs.

Visit Tattoolicious.

Little Tsunami Tattoo (Kauai)

The longest-running tattoo studio in Kauai and a great place for some expert inking, including Hawaiian symbols, Western art, and animal art.

Visit Little Tsunami Tattoo.

Sacred Art (Honolulu)

Located in Waikiki, Sacred Art is a team of skilled and award-winning artists. They offer original designs, tribal designs, and both old and new-school art.

Visit Sacred Art.

Zen Tattoo (Maui)

Zen Tattoo has been around for a few years now and produces a range of beautiful tattoos, with three experienced artists on staff.

Visit Zen Tattoo Maui.

Have you gotten a tattoo recently or plan to and you surf? Here is what you need to know about surfing and getting new tattoo.


What is the Hawaiian culture of tattoos? ›

Hawaiian tattoo often mimics natural forms. Like other Polynesians, the Hawaiian people imported their traditional tattoo art, known as kakau, to the islands. It served them not only for ornamentation and distinction, but to guard their health and spiritual well-being.

What are the 5 Polynesian tattoo styles? ›

Among the 5 main Polynesian tattoo styles, Maori, Samoan, Marquesan and Hawaiian are the most traditional ones, while the Tahitian tattoo style has evolved from them to shape a new, more figurative style that often includes realistic elements to achieve the 'wow' factor that contributed to their present popularity.

What do the Hawaiian triangles mean? ›

A: In Hawaiian tattoos, triangles often symbolize the three main elements of nature: land, sea, and sky. They can also represent the male, female, and spiritual aspects of life, or the past, present, and future.

What is Hawaiian tattoo a conjunction of genealogy and aesthetics? ›

Oceanic art authority Adrienne Kaeppler contributed a chapter titled "Hawaiian Tattoo: A Conjunction of Genealogy and Aesthetics" (p. 157-170). She argues that male tattoos functioned as a form of protection for battle and later tattoos served as decoration commemorating an individual's genealogy.

What is the Hawaiian tattoo style called? ›

A: Traditional Hawaiian tattoos are called "kākau" or "kākau uhi." Kākau refers to the act of tattooing, while kākau uhi specifically refers to the traditional method of using combs made from natural materials to tap the ink into the skin.

What is the tattoo law in Hawaii? ›

The Legal Age for Tattoos in Hawaii Is 18

According to Hawaii Revised Statutes section 563-1.5, it is illegal for anyone to tattoo a minor under the age of 18 in Hawaii. This law applies to all tattoo studios and artists operating in the state.

What does the Tiki tattoo mean? ›

The tiki can also represent deified ancestors, priests and chiefs who became semi-gods after their passing. They symbolise protection, fertility and they serve as guardians.

What does the turtle tattoo mean in Hawaii? ›

😏What does the turtle mean in Hawaii? Sea turtles are sacred creatures to the Hawaiian people. They represent good luck, protection, endurance, and long life.

What are the most symbolic tattoos? ›

The most popular tattoo symbols include the lotus, mandala, and tree of life. Each symbol has its own unique meaning and can be used to represent a variety of different things, from religious beliefs, personal philosophies, or even just your favorite animal or plant.

What is the Hawaiian symbol for life? ›

The spear is significant in ancient Hawaii because it represents both life and death. A spear represents life in that it is used to hunt, both on land and in the sea. Food from hunting provides sustenance.

What is the Hawaiian symbol for healing? ›

The piko is also known as the healers symbol. It symbolizes the center of all energy or the navel of mother earth. The piko has a point which represents the exit of your energy. If the point is facing your heart you are healing yourself, when it points away from your heart your healing others.

What is the Hawaiian symbol for protection? ›

guardian spirit and is a symbol of protection, good. luck, and wisdom.

What is the Hawaiian symbol for family? ›

The lei that brings joy and makes one feel special can also be a symbol of family. Each flower, or shell, or kukui nut in that lei is a unique individual, bound together with the others. Whether the bond is by blood or aloha matters not. This is 'ohana.

What is the tree of life tattoo? ›

One of the most popular sacred geometry tattoos is the tree of life tattoo. This tattoo consists of a tree with its branches and roots entwined. The tree of life is a symbol of growth, strength, and stability. It is also a reminder that everything is connected.

What is the Hawaiian symbol for harmony? ›

Lōkahi: (Hawaiian), unity, accord, harmony. It's a Hawaiian symbol made of three small triangles arranged to shape a bigger one. Kahi is the short version for the word 'ekahi, the number one.

What Hawaiian tattoo means family? ›

The Ohana Tattoo

Ohana means 'family' in the Hawaiian language. Numerous people get this word inked to show their love towards their family and pay tribute to them in the form of body art. You can add flowers and infinity symbols and use a cursive font to make your ohana tattoo unique.

What is the Hawaiian friendship symbol? ›

The shaka sign represents the embodiment of “island style.” It conveys friendship, understanding, compassion, and solidarity among the various ethnic cultures that reside within Hawaii. The shaka sign was adopted from local Hawaiian culture by visiting surfers in the 1960s, and its use has spread around the world.

What does the wave symbol mean in Hawaii? ›

“Hang loose,” “Right on,” “Thank you,” “Things are great,” “Take it easy” – in Hawaii, the shaka sign expresses all those friendly messages and more.

Do you have to be Hawaiian to get a Hawaiian tattoo? ›

Even if you aren't an islander, you can still get a Polynesian tattoo. However, it's often frowned upon if you simply replicate somebody else's tattoo down to its minor details.

Is it illegal to have a tattoo behind your ear in Hawaii? ›

In Hawaii, it's illegal to have a tattoo behind your ear, unless it is done under the supervision of a registered physician. North Korea regulates tattoos by content.

How much is a tattoo hourly in Hawaii? ›

Prices for these tattoos can vary widely depending on the size and complexity of the design, but you can typically expect to pay between $150 and $500 per hour for a skilled artist. If you're looking for something a bit outside the box, there are plenty of other popular tattoo styles in Hawaii as well.

What are the 4 Tiki gods? ›

The four major Hawaiian Tiki Gods are Ku the God of War, Lono the God of Fertility and Peace, Kane the God of Light and Life, and Kanaloa the God of the Sea.

What does Hawaiian Tiki symbolize? ›

Among Polynesians, Tiki is revered by all. It represents, their distant ancestors and their ancient gods. As such, it has a ritual value, like an amulet or a talisman, and is transmitted from generation to generation. The Tiki can be represented in different forms.

What does Maui's tattoo mean? ›

The connotative meaning of a Maui character tattoo is to convey the true character of Maui using tattoo symbols in Polynesian culture. Maui character tattoos create a myth in the form of a message that the creator wants to convey to the public about the positive value of the demi-god Maui mythology.

What does the Hawaiian dolphin tattoo mean? ›

The dolphin tattoo, like the stingray tattoo, represents freedom. In Polynesian mythology the dolphin guided the Māori to the promised land while protecting them from sharks. It's an important animal for Polynesians because it represents protection and guidance.

What does Hawaiʻi flower tattoo mean? ›

The Hawaiian flower tattoos are also known to be the symbolism of beauty and feminine.

What does a Hawaiian shark tattoo mean? ›

Sharks are regarded as fearless hunters, powerful creatures that dominate the oceans. Based on their characteristics and on myths and legends, sharks (and therefore the shark teeth motifs used to represent them) are symbolic of strength, guile, protection and guidance.

What does the tattoo 444 mean? ›

The 444 tattoo refers to a spirit of self-improvement, passion and effort. This set of numbers is one of the most popular angel numbers, which are repeating numbers in a sequence that offers guidance and support during a time of need.

What is the oldest tattoo symbol? ›

The world's oldest figurative tattogos have been discovered on two 5,000-year-old mummies from Egypt. Tattoos depicting a wild bull and a Barbary sheep were found on the upper arm of a male mummy, while the shoulder and upper arm of a female mummy bore “S” shaped motifs.

What tattoo is for mental health? ›

Mental health tattoos are an increasingly popular form of self-expression and healing for individuals who struggle with mental health conditions. Tattoos allow individuals to take control of their mental health journey and commemorate their experiences, struggles, and victories.

What is the Hawaiian symbol for new beginnings? ›

The fern is symbolic of everlasting youth.

Many indigenous people believe that the fern represents new life and new beginnings.

What is Hawaiian spiritual beliefs? ›

The traditional Hawaiian religion is a polytheistic animistic religion. Its beliefs encompass the presence of spirits in objects such as the waves and the sky. The Hawaiian religion believes in four gods; Kāne, Kanaloa, Kū, and Lono.

What is the circle of life in Hawaiian? ›

The Hawaiians believed a closed circle represented a seamless life, one that has no beginning or end. Therefore, it contains sacred knowledge that is interconnected to the stars and planets in the circle of life.

What is a good luck charm in Hawaii? ›

The Hawaiian Honu – Symbol of Wisdom and Good Luck

Thought to live between 60 and 80 years, the Honu is a symbol of longevity, safety, and mana (spiritual energy) in Hawaiian culture and their presence brings good luck and peace.

What is Hawaiian spirituality called? ›

Hawaiian religion refers to the indigenous religious beliefs and practices of native Hawaiians, also known as the kapu system. Hawaiian religion is based largely on the tapu religion common in Polynesia and likely originated among the Tahitians and other Pacific islanders who landed in Hawaiʻi between 500 and 1300 AD.

What is spiritual power in Hawaiian? ›

In the native Hawaiian culture, the sacred term mana is known as spiritual energy of power and strength. It's possible for mana to be present in objects and people. For people, it's possible to gain or lose mana through the different decisions they make.

What is the Hawaiian flower for peace? ›

The pu alo alo is a showy yellow hibiscus that is also the state flower. As the state flower, it represents that delicate nature, beauty and also unity and peace as a floral symbol for the state.

What is the Hawaiian word for love? ›

“Aloha” is our most important Hawaiian cultural value. Without Aloha all the other cultural values are not complete. It is defined as a noun and means love, affection, compassion, charity, grace, empathy, and much more.

What does Auntie mean in Hawaii? ›

In Hawaii, “Aunty” and “Unko” (Uncle in Standard English) are used as a sign of respect towards elders. While it is common practice, there are times when these terms of endearment can be used in woefully wrong ways.

What is the Hawaiian word for friend? ›

Meaning. friend or beloved companion, our hoalohas truly make. life worth living.

What does the flower of life tattoo mean? ›

The Flower Of Life - A Sacred Symbol

Some believe that it represents the unity of all life and the interconnectedness of all beings. Others see it as a symbol of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth and that it's symbolic of the union of the sacred masculine and the divine feminine.

What tattoo means eternal life? ›

1. The Ankh (tattoo on top) - is also known as the "Key of Life", the Key of the Nile or Crux Ansata (meaning "cross with a handle"). It symbolizes Eternal Life, The Universe, Immortality & Power and is an Egyptian hieroglyph of the words "Eternal Life".

What does the moon tattoo mean? ›

The moon symbolizes power, knowledge, wisdom, femininity, and fertility. Many people like getting inked with a moon tattoo.

What does the three triangle tattoo mean? ›

Originating around the Middle Ages, this symbol featuring three interlocking triangles has been known to serve as an illustration for the afterlife, rebirth, and the concepts of continuity, order and undying will.

What do turtles mean in Hawaiian culture? ›

To the Hawaiian people, sea turtles or “Honu,” are sacred creatures. They embody good luck, protection, endurance and long life.

Did tattoos originate in Hawaii? ›

However, it is true. The art form of Tattooing was utterly unknown in the western world before Captain Cook's first voyages through Polynesia and Hawai'i. Even the word, Tattoo, is one of a few words that originated in Polynesia and Hawai'i and is now used worldwide.

Why are tattoos important to Polynesians? ›

Polynesian people show that they were able to endure pain by getting their skin marked and were through rites of passage to become accepted members of their society. Therefore, tattoos were part of a person's identity as visible signs of rank and ancestral blood. Tattoos would also offer spiritual protection.

What do Polynesians think about tattoos? ›

Across the Pacific, tattoos are etched into the culture. Finding meaning in your own 'story on skin' helps honor the tradition.

What was the purpose of tattoos in Polynesian cultures? ›

Historically there was no writing in Polynesian culture so the Polynesian's used tattoo art that was full of distinctive signs to express their identity and personality. Tattoos would indicate status in a hierarchical society as well as sexual maturity, genealogy and ones rank within the society.

What is the oldest culture with tattoos? ›

The earliest evidence of tattoo art comes in the form of clay figurines that had their faces painted or engraved to represent tattoo marks. The oldest figures of this kind have been recovered from tombs in Japan dating to 5000 BCE or older.

Is Moana Polynesian or Hawaiian? ›

Although Moana is from the fictional island Motunui some 3,000 years ago, the story and culture of Moana is based on the very real heritage and history of Polynesian islands such as Hawaii, Samoa, Tonga, and Tahiti. In fact, once you start looking for ties to Polynesian culture in Moana, it's hard to stop!

What does the tattoo on the left arm mean? ›

The left arm, instead, tells us about protection

it's the arm you use to protect yourself, and it's also the closest one to what you protect.

Is it ok for a white person to get a Polynesian tattoo? ›

Of the old kekau Jake Galves, originally of Oahu and living his last nine years in Hilo, said, “It's okay for non-locals to have the traditional Polynesian tattoo, so long as they have an understanding of what they have on their body.

Do Polynesian tattoos tell a story? ›

Tattoos, and all visual arts from Polynesia, always served the important purpose of being visual aids to a narrative, be it a personal story tattooed on skin, or a historical deed passed on orally from one generation to the next through the centuries.

What is the Polynesian symbol for family? ›

The ritorito symbol represents the central shoot of the flax plant (rito), which is a representation of family in Maori traditions.

How were Polynesian tattoos historically done? ›

Except for Maori facial tattoo, which appears to have been done more like chiseled woodcarving, Polynesian tattoo was done by dipping into a black dye a prepared tattooing implement – made of bone, turtleshell, or seashell hafted to a stick somewhat like an adze.

What is a traditional Polynesian tattoo called? ›

Tā moko is the permanent marking or "tattoo" as traditionally practised by Māori, the first Settlers of New Zealand. It is one of the five main Polynesian tattoo styles (the other four are Marquesan, Samoan, Tahitian and Hawaiian).

What Polynesian tattoos are sacred? ›

In Maori culture, the facial tattoo (moko) was most significant, as the head is considered the most sacred part of the body. Only Maori with noted social status were allowed to don such tattoos, which were given to them by men called tohunga tā moko (“tattoo specialists”).


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