Tattoos have always played an important role in the Western Polynesian culture. Since Hawaiian culture is no different from that of any other Pacific Island, tattoos have an important part to play in this culture as well. In Hawaiian culture, tattooing has been practiced for thousands of years, where they were known as kakau in the native language. They have been done as a form of celebration, means of self-expression, and also to denote membership to the tribe that the person belongs to. The tools used to draw these tattoos were not the technological machines used today, but were tools borrowed from nature. The most common tools used were bird beaks, claws, and fish bones. Initially, the designs were geometric and symmetrical patterns. However, with the passage of time, pictorial forms such as images of animals and birds also became popular.
The meanings attached to the native Hawaiian tattoos have always been very significant. The tribal people attached a lot of significance to them, and hence they were very particular about the designs. They got the tattoos made for various reasons such as mourning, protection from evil spirits, decoration, or as a part of celebration or social status. Some people chose to get them made for personal identification. The importance of the tattoos in Hawaiian culture can be gauged from the fact that the literal translation of the word for tattoo in Hawaiian means covering and indicates hierarchy in the society.
When tattoos were made on a man's body, they were seen as a sign of status and importance. Native Hawaiian designs for men are made on the legs, arms, face, and torso, whereas women choose to get them made on the hands, wrists, feet, fingers, and calves. Facial tattooing was also common in the Hawaiian islands and designs can be found on the brow ridge, cheek, cheek bone, as well as the chin.
The designs of these tattoos often have hidden meanings which are generally deep and personal. This is what sets them apart from their Pacific Island neighbors. Given below are some designs that are native to Hawaii.
Flower designs are often incorporated among these tattoos. However, these may not appeal to everyone as the designs may not particularly be feminine despite the floral components. The most popular and commonly used floral design is the hibiscus tattoo, with the yellow hibiscus being the state flower of Hawaii. These flowers can be made in yellow, red, pink, white, and purple. The other flower design which is also very common is the orchid, especially the ghost orchid. Ghost orchids are very beautiful flowers and have rather peculiar features. Since orchids are an endangered species, the symbolic meaning of these tattoos is "rare beauty". Although these flowers are seen as tattoos for girls, they are more commonly made on men.
Sea creatures also have their own place in native Hawaiian tattoo traditions. Dolphins are the most popular amongst all the creatures. They are said to be an expression of joy. Sea turtles also find a special place in this tradition. The symbolism of fertility is attached to sea turtles, but they all have specific meanings to the person they are inked on.
The lizard is another powerful design which represents both fear and respect for the people of Hawaii. The other prominent design is that of arrows and bows. Both arrows and bows have a special place in Hawaiian culture as the equipment used by the people to hunt.