The Art of Traditional Tattooing

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Traditional tattooing, or Polynesian tattooing as most people know it, is the way that the Polynesians expressed themselves through art back in ancient times. This type of tattooing is still done today, though you will more often than not have to go to a Polynesian island to get it done. While you can easily get Polynesian tattoo designs done on your body, getting them “tapped in” by a person who knows how to do it will be harder to come across.

Traditional Tattooing Tools

This will sound painful, and it definitely is, but more often than not traditional tattooing tools consisted of some sort of man-made comb that had needles that were carved from bone and/or tortoise shell. The bone needles were then attached to a wooden handle so that the artist would have something to hold onto during the process.

The ink that was used was based on pigment that was created from the soot of burnt candlenut and mixed with water or oil. The needles were dipped into this mixture, placed on the area of the skin that was being tattooed, and tapped into the skin with another hammer like tool. It was a very painful and tedious process, as many tattoos could go on for days and days.

Traditional Tattoo Designs

Most of the traditional tattoo designs represented something sacred to the owner of the tattoo. Things such as work history, life history, social status, island of origin and other activities were all related through the art of traditional tattooing. Also very popular were mystic symbols, which told stories of past ancestors.


As mentioned a bit above, tattooing also played a big part in indicating status. Usually a teenager would get their first tattoo around the age of 12. This first tattoo was used to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood. Different tattoos were added as the years continued to go by. Usually, the more a man was tattooed, the more respect and honor he had. Tattooing was also a sign of strength and power, as more tattoos usually meant more power.

The same went for females. While female tattooing was a bit more limited, the practice of it still represented status and class. A female was not allowed to prepare meals or participate in other activities until they were 12 and had their hands tattooed. Females that lived in a higher class usually had their legs fully tattooed.

As you can see, there is a big difference in the art of traditional tattooing versus the art of common tattooing. While both need to be learned and mastered, the art of traditional tattooing is a much more complex process that means a lot more to those who participate in it. These days it seems like just about everyone gets some sort of tattoo. Back in the ancient Polynesian days tattooing stood for so much more than just “pretty body art.” You could basically learn everything you needed to know about someone back then just by looking at the tattooing they had on their bodies.

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