Hawaiian tattoos are very symbolic in nature and heirloom of native-born Hawaiians’ that cannot be taken away or diminished whether one is poverty stricken, jailed or otherwise persecuted. They are no longer correctly translated in their primary capacities by the majority of the population, yet they still retain a great deal of meaning to people of Hawaii and impart to the identity and self-image of island people.
Ancient Hawaii was part of Polynesia, and when the Hawaiians migrated to Hawaii islands, carried on many of the practices of the Polynesian including tattooing. Hawaiian tattoo were very spiritual in nature and the tattooing process was deeply entrenched in ritualistic and spiritual beliefs. Traditional Hawaiian Tattoos are applied with a sharpened bone chisel and stick that is tapped into your skin until it bleeds. Once the incision is made with the chisel, ink is rubbed into the wound to form the lines of the tattoo. There used to be only one color to the tattoos and that was black. Since the Hawaiians were brown in skin tone due to sun exposure, the effect of a black tattoo looked striking.
Only the royal family were allowed to have the maximum number of tattoos, as the number of tattoos adorning the body represented the social standing of that person. Following the royals were court officials and then people who entered the royal family through marriage. Not everyone could perform the tattoo piercings, only the elders of the tribe with great spiritual powers and expert in this field could perform it. Hawaiian tattoos were considered quite sacred and believed to protect the person from evil forces. Some tattoos were considered so powerful that they were thought to have their own specific power.
Hawaiian tattoo designs that were done in ancient Hawaii represented life on the Hawaiian Islands – birds, fish, turtles, waves, rocks, sun, etc. Hawaiian tattoos could be called tribal in nature with geometric designs. They also represented their gods in the form of animals. Beloved family members who had passed away or legends could also be commemorated in the form of tattoos. Both genders could be tattooed but it depended on their influence. Mostly men were tattooed on their chest, face, arms and legs. Women were tattooed on their wrist, hands and tongues. Slaves would have special facial tattoos to signify their place in society.
Even today, many Hawaiians wear their tattoos as part of their cultural heritage and not only because they are the latest rage in fashion terms. Many Hawaiian tattoo artists chose their profession as a salute to their heritage and also so that the rest of the modern world becomes aware of their rich heritage. Today, Hawaiian tattoos are inspired from the petroglyphs that are still present in the caves of Hawaiian Islands.