Hawaiian tattoos are one of the most recognizable styles of tattoo art. These tattoos have a rich history and hold significant cultural meaning to the indigenous people of Hawaii. Traditional Hawaiian tattoos, also known as kakau, are intricate and bold designs that are usually black and made up of many different shapes and symbols.

Every element of a Hawaiian tattoo has a specific meaning, from the placement and size of the design to the symbols used within it. These tattoos were originally used to identify a person’s rank, status, and achievements, and were often created using a chisel and ink made from kukui nut or ash.

Today, Hawaiian tattoos are still popular and continue to carry important cultural significance. They are often used to honor ancestors, celebrate heritage, and represent personal values and beliefs. If you are considering getting a Hawaiian tribal tattoo, it’s important to research the symbolism and meanings behind the designs to ensure that you choose one that has personal significance to you.

History and Origins

Origins of Hawaiian Tattoos

Hawaiian tattoos, also known as kakau, have a rich history and hold great significance for the people of Hawaii. The tattoos are believed to have originated from the ancient Polynesians who travelled to Hawaii around 400 A.D. The Polynesians were skilled navigators who used stars and ocean currents to navigate the vast Pacific Ocean. They brought with them their art, language, and cultural practices, including the art of tattooing.

Traditional Hawaiian Tattooing Practices

Traditional Hawaiian tattooing practices were deeply spiritual and tied to the natural world. Tattoos were considered a rite of passage and were often earned through acts of bravery or accomplishment. Tattoos were also used to honor the gods and to protect the wearer from harm. The designs were typically based on natural elements such as plants, animals, and waves, and were created using a tapping method that involved needles and ink made from natural materials.

Contemporary Hawaiian Tattoos

Today, Hawaiian tattoos are still popular and have evolved to include a wide range of contemporary designs and styles. While traditional Hawaiian tattoos continue to be a source of inspiration, modern Hawaiian tattoos often incorporate elements of other cultures and artistic styles. Many people choose to get Hawaiian tattoos as a way to connect with their heritage and to express their identity and individuality. Overall, Hawaiian tattoos remain an important part of Hawaiian culture and continue to hold deep meaning for those who choose to wear them.

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Symbols and Their Meanings


One of the most commonly seen Hawaiian tribal tattoo symbols is the shark. Sharks are highly respected in Hawaiian culture and are seen as powerful creatures with a connection to the spirit realm. A tattoo of a shark can represent strength, courage, and protection.


Turtles are another important tribal tattoo symbol in Hawaiian culture. They are seen as a symbol of longevity and wisdom, and have a strong connection to the spiritual world. A tattoo of a turtle can represent a long and fulfilling life, as well as wisdom and guidance from the ancestors.

Maile Leaves

Maile leaves are a popular Hawaiian tribal tattoo symbol, and are often seen in traditional Hawaiian ceremonies. They are a symbol of honor, and are often used in lei-making and gift-giving. A tattoo of maile leaves can represent respect, honor, and gratitude.


Spearheads are a symbol of strength and courage, and are often seen in Hawaiian tribal tattoos. They represent the warrior spirit of the Hawaiian people, and can be used to bring protection and strength to the wearer.

Sun and Moon

The sun and moon are important symbols in many cultures, and are often used in Hawaiian tribal tattoos. The sun represents life and energy, while the moon represents the feminine and the spiritual. Together, they can represent the balance of masculine and feminine energies, as well as the balance of the physical and spiritual worlds.

  • Other common symbols seen in Hawaiian tribal tattoos include:
  • Sea turtles
  • Hibiscus flowers
  • Geckos
  • Birds
  • Angels

Each of these symbols has its own unique meaning and significance in Hawaiian culture, and can be used to convey a wide range of beliefs and values. Whether you choose a shark, a turtle, a spearhead, or any other symbol in your Hawaiian tribal tattoo, it is sure to be a powerful and meaningful expression of your identity and beliefs.

Placement and Style


The placement of a Hawaiian tribal tattoo is crucial as it determines the size and intricacy of the design. In the Hawaiian culture, tattoos were worn as a symbol of a person’s identity, social rank, and spiritual power. The placement was also determined by gender and age. For example, men usually had tattoos on their arms, chest, legs, and back, while women had them on their hands, feet, and lips. Today, the placement of the tattoo is a personal choice based on the meaning and significance behind the design.

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Hawaiian tribal tattoos are renowned for their intricate and bold designs. The style of the tattoo is influenced by the Polynesian culture, which has a rich history of tattooing. The designs are symmetrical, and the patterns are usually geometrical shapes, such as triangles, spirals, and lines. The ink used for the tattoo is usually black, which contrasts with the skin, making the design stand out. Other colors, such as red, green, and blue, are also used to enhance the design and add depth to it. The style of the tattoo is a personal preference, and the design and placement should be researched before making a final decision.

Traditional vs Modern Approach

The Traditional Hawaiian Tattoo Approach

The traditional Hawaiian tattoo approach was steeped in ritual and tradition. The tattooing process was seen as a rite of passage, and the tattoos themselves were seen as a way to connect with the spiritual world and honor ancestors. The designs were created using natural materials like bone, teeth, and shells, and were often symmetrical and geometric in shape.

Each design had a specific meaning and significance, and the placement of the tattoos on the body was also meaningful. The tattoos were typically applied using a tool made of sharpened bone or wood. The process was painful, but it was endured as a way to prove one’s courage and commitment to their tribe.

The Modern Hawaiian Tattoo Approach

In modern times, Hawaiian tattoos have become more mainstream, and the approach to tattooing has become more contemporary. The designs may still incorporate traditional elements, but they are often more artistic and stylized. The tattoos are created using modern tools and techniques, and they may be applied in a more comfortable and efficient manner.

Although the meaning and symbolism behind the tattoos may still be important, the emphasis is often on creating a visually stunning piece of art. In many cases, people choose to get Hawaiian tribal tattoos without any knowledge of the traditional designs and meanings behind them, simply because they like the way they look.

  • The traditional Hawaiian tattoo approach:
    • Ritualistic and steeped in tradition
    • Natural materials used
    • Specific meaning and significance in each design
    • Painful process endured as a rite of passage
  • The modern Hawaiian tattoo approach:
    • Mix of traditional and contemporary elements
    • More artistic and stylized designs
    • Created using modern tools and techniques
    • Emphasis on visually stunning pieces of art

Overall, both the traditional and modern approaches to Hawaiian tribal tattooing have their own unique merits. Whether you are interested in the spiritual and cultural aspects of the designs, or simply appreciate them for their beauty, there is something to be said for the rich history and tradition behind these tattoos.

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Misconceptions and Stereotypes

Myth: All Hawaiian tribal tattoos have the same meaning

Myth: All Hawaiian tribal tattoos have the same meaning

One common misconception about Hawaiian tribal tattoos is that they all have the same meaning. While some symbols may be commonly used in Hawaiian tattoos, the meaning behind each tattoo design is unique and personal to the individual receiving the tattoo. It is important not to assume that all Hawaiian tribal tattoos have the same meaning.

Stereotype: Hawaiian tribal tattoos are only for men

Another stereotype about Hawaiian tribal tattoos is that they are only for men. This is not true. Women have been getting traditional Hawaiian tattoos for centuries and the practice is still popular today. Hawaiian tribal tattoos can be a way for women to connect with their heritage, express themselves artistically, or signify important life events.

Myth: All Hawaiian tribal tattoos are ancient

While Hawaiian tribal tattoos do have roots in ancient Hawaiian culture, not all designs are ancient. In fact, many designs have been created more recently and may not have the same cultural significance as traditional designs. It is important to do your research and understand the history and cultural significance behind any Hawaiian tribal tattoo design before getting inked.

Stereotype: Only Hawaiians can get Hawaiian tribal tattoos

Another stereotype about Hawaiian tribal tattoos is that only people of Hawaiian descent can get them. This is not true. Anyone can get a Hawaiian tribal tattoo if they have a connection to Hawaiian culture or simply appreciate the art form. However, it is important to respect the culture and history behind these tattoos and to work with an artist who has experience with traditional Hawaiian tattooing techniques.

Myth: Hawaiian tribal tattoos are only for show

Hawaiian tribal tattoos are not just for show or decoration. They often have deep personal and cultural significance for individuals who choose to get them. Many people get Hawaiian tribal tattoos as a way to connect with their roots, express their identity, or commemorate a significant event in their lives. It is important not to trivialize the cultural and personal significance of these tattoos.

  • In conclusion, Hawaiian tribal tattoos can be a beautiful and meaningful way to connect with Hawaiian culture and express oneself artistically. However, it is important to understand the history and cultural significance behind these tattoos, and to work with an artist who respects the traditions and techniques of traditional Hawaiian tattooing.

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