& Tiki Culture
War God Temples
Tribal Hawaiian Tattoos
To the ancient
Hawaiians tattoos were more than simple decorations. They used to identify
individuals and to link them with a specific tribe and family. Tattoo’s
also offered protection to their owner, something Hawaiian warriors needed.
reason a Hawaiian might get a tattoo is to mourn the loss of a love one.
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. The queen replied, "He eha nui no, he nui
roa ra ku‘u aroha." (Great pain indeed, greater is my affection.)
Warriors used tattoos to increase their prestige, often there was a story
associated with a tattoo. Warriors also used the designs to make themselves
look savagely fierce, frightening opponents in battle.
Tattoos were an indication of social status on the islands of Hawaii;
nobles had the best artists work on them while the commoners had to make
do with apprentices. The designs often had hidden, personal meaning and
that aren't readily apparent to those looking at them. Slaves, the lowest
level in the Hawaiian chaste system, were marked with a single line across
the bridge of their noses.
Traditional tribal tattoos, or Kakau, used an ink created from the suit
of ground kukui nuts and sugarcane juice. Getting a tattoo in ancient
Hawaii was a painful event, for their needles they used bird claws, beaks,
or fish bones tied to sticks, they then struck the stick with a mallet
to puncture the skin. Often, many needles would be tied together to create
more punctures for each whack of the mallet. Men tattooed their legs,
arms, face and torso while women did their hands, wrists and tongue.
Typical traditional, tribal tattoos are highly stylized lizards, sea turtles,
Dolphins, sharks, tropical flowers and arrows. Geometric shapes and curling
designs are very common
as well. The tribal Hawaiian tattoo designs are larger
and bolder compared to other Polynesian designs. For more on traditional
tribal tattoos we recommed the book, Tribal Tattoo Designs, found on the