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Tatau: The Marks of Polynesia


Art comes in many shapes, and one of the oldest forms is tattoos. Despite being a hot topic among many groups and the stigma surrounding them, tattoos, by definition, are considered art. Many modern artists and museum curators also shared that whether a tattoo artist or the wearer designs the tattoo, the intention behind the design is what determines its definition. Therefore, if the wearer claims that their tattoo is an art, it automatically takes the label.

But apart from being an art, tattoos also play a significant role in many cultures, such as Hawaii’s, and each tattoo design holds various meanings.

Importance of tattoos in the Hawaiian culture

Kakau, or the traditional tattoo art in Hawaii culture, holds an important symbol in their culture. These artistic marks show the stories, hierarchical rank in the society, identity, and personality of each Polynesian. Their tattoos often mimicked natural forms and served not only for ornamental purposes but also to guard their health and spiritual well-being. These marks represent honoring the Gods and your family ancestors, along with their traditions and values.

The origins of tattoo art in Polynesia

a person sitting on a table


In 1595, a Spanish navigator, Mendana de Neira, and other European explorers visited the Marquesas Islands in Polynesia. However, the European navigators showed little interest due to the lack of valuable resources.

But in 1769, Captain James Cook arrived in Tahiti and became the first navigator who tried to explore the Polynesian triangle. In 1771, when Cook first returned to Tahiti and New Zealand from his first voyage, the word “tattoo” appeared in Europe. He narrated the behaviors of the Polynesians in his expedition and called them tattaw. Apart from this, he also brought a Tahitian named Ma’i to Europe. Since then, tattoos have become popular, predominantly due to Ma’i’s tattoos.

While no specific record can tell when the art of tattooing came into the Polynesian culture, it is believed that this tradition is at least 2,000 years old. However, in the 18th century, the Old Testament strictly banned its operations. When the renaissance period came in the 1980s, many lost arts were revived – that includes tattooing. But because of the difficulty in sterilizing the wooden and bone tools used for the tattooing process, it was again banned by the Ministry of Health.

But in recent years, there has been a revival of the art and practice of tattooing. This revival is mainly referred to as a result of the work of scholars, researchers, visual artists, and tattoo artists.

The Samoan tattoo



Samoa’s tatau is one of the world’s most distinct tattoo traditions and has played a pivotal role in preserving and propagating the Samoan culture. In Samoa, tufuga ta tatau (master tattoo artists) are granted high ranking in society. Acquiring the tatau position is considered a powerful affirmation of national identity.

The “Marks of Polynesia” is currently being celebrated through an exhibition. The Bishop Museum, located in Honolulu, held an exhibition that aims to show what tatau signifies in Samoan culture. This exhibit also intends to help Samoans and other Polynesians living abroad stay connected to their identity and heritage.

The showcase started on November 13, 2021, and will run until July 4, 2022. So if you have any plans on going on Hawaii excursions, make sure to stop by the Bishop Museum and check out this one-of-a-kind exhibition.

Explore more of Hawaii

Besides this monumental showcase that depicts the culture of Hawaii, you can experience the Aloha state in more ways than one. Once you are done checking out the exhibition, you can then have a tour around Oahu. Here, numerous tourist destinations, such as the Waimea botanical garden and Byodo-In Temple are waiting for you.

If you are more interested in physical activities such as hiking and snorkeling, you can try visiting the Diamond Head or have fun with the waters on Oahu North Shore.

Want to know more about these Hawaiian tours? You may check Go Tours Hawaii’s website at for more information.

Have fun in Hawaii with Go Tours Hawaii

Going on a Hawaiian vacation should be fun and exciting, not filled with anxieties and hassles. So if you are looking for a way to achieve a relaxing getaway, why don’t you try checking out Go Tours Hawaii?

We are a local Hawaii tour operator specializing in Oahu Tours. Let us take you on an unforgettable Oahu vacation you will remember for a lifetime. For more information about us, what we do, and the list of our tours, you can visit our website at



Bishop Museum presents Tatau: Marks of Polynesia

Tatau: Marks of Polynesia

Tatau: Marks of Polynesia

Tatau: Marks of Polynesia

Polynesian Tattoos: History, Facts, & Designs

Polynesian Tattoo: History, Meanings and Traditional Designs