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The history and meaning of Polynesian tattoos

Are you interested in the history of Polynesian tattoos? What do they mean? Here’s everything you need to know.

The origins and history of Polynesian tattoos

Historians have revealed that Polynesian tattoos have a long history and tradition that started back in the days of the Samoan, Maori and Polynesian tribes and cultures. The word tattoo came from the words ‘tatatau’, ‘tā moko’, ‘tatau’ and ‘pe’a’, which roots came from the languages of the tribal cultures of Marquesan, Tahitian and Hawaiian.

The culture of tattooing in the South Pacific can be traced as far back as 1500 BC. In this region, particularly in ancient society, almost everyone was tattooed, women included. But much more than being an ornament, tattoos in the Polynesian and Tahitian culture used to indicate one’s rank in the society or his genealogy.

Tattoos were also a sign of someone’s ability to endure pain, show strength or wealth. When the Europeans arrived, tattooing and overall culture started to change. For example, Captain Cook along with others returned to their origins with tales of savage cultures and rituals, such as tattooing, from Polynesia.

However, the art was nearly banished when the missionaries came because they considered tattoos as sinful skin gratifications. For this reason, they banned them. But then, the art went through a renaissance since 1981, when it was well documented that it gained recognition as an art form.

The tools and techniques behind Polynesian tattoos

What are the tools and techniques of the trade? Luckily, they have changed a little over the past years. Tattooing by hand is the traditional technique of applying a tattoo. It has remained so for more than 2,000 years. The same goes for the techniques and tools used to tattoo. An apprentice or a young artist spent hours tapping a design into a bark cloth or sand using a special comb called ‘au’.

Samoan tattoo artists created their tattoo tool from the sharpened teeth of boars. They’re fastened using a part of a turtle shell before being attached to a wooden handle. Traditionally, the art skill was passed down from one generation to the next. Tattoo artists in Hawaii have also learned what they know working as an apprentice.

Symbols and meanings

Polynesian tattoos are heavy in symbols and meanings according to scholars. But generally, they’re adapted from the four elementsEarth, Water, Fire and Wind. There is also a specific ceremony for each symbol, which is related to an element.

Some symbols are specific to a role or a certain family. For one, warrior tattoos would often include symbols that were not related to those tattooed on fishermen. But in the modern world, Tahitian tattoos indicate specific interests and ancestors, or they can take on a more personal meaning. Some examples of symbols are also those that would represent travel, land and stability. A few of them include Tiki for protection or a turtle for fertility.

Design and styling

In terms of style and designs, Polynesian tattoos are also well thought of and planned. For example, each body part is associated with a certain theme. Tattoos on the head are often associated with intuition, wisdom, knowledge, spirituality and other related themes, because this part of the body is, as they believe, Rangi’s contact point. On the other hand, a tattoo placed on the higher trunk, which sits above the navel to the chest, is often related to a theme. Some of them are reconciliation, honour, sincerity and generosity.

Tattoos in the lower trunk area are going from the thigh to the navel. This body part, according to Polynesian beliefs, relates to themes such as independence, procreation, courage, and energy. In addition, the thighs are related to marriage and strength. Designs and styles placed on the shoulders or upper arms are related to bravery and strength. More often than not, they are tattooed on chiefs or warriors.

The art of tattooing in the South Pacific tribal groups has many years of history and traditions, but little has changed in terms of the tools and techniques of the trade and the related meanings for many of the symbols used. In other words, if you’re looking to get a Polynesian tattoo any time soon, make sure you know what meaning it will bear.

What is a stick and poke tattoo? Here’s everything you need to know

Punk is all about being anti-establishment, anti-conformist and, basically, doing your own thing in your own way. It’s hard to imagine the punk movement without tattoos. Tattoos are the bedrock of punk culture and, arguably, there’s nothing more punk than the do-it-yourself tattooing technique, stick and poke. 

This doesn’t mean to say that tattoos are limited to punk culture. In fact, take a look back in history: tattoo culture has been entrenched within the traditions of countless cultures across the globe—transcending the confines of ethic and societal boundaries. From underground Russian prison tattoos to traditional Japanese Tebtori, all the way up to the present day Western backpackers getting their elephant tattoo on their ‘life-changing’ gap year in Thailand.

And despite my parents’ disgust at the culture—tattoos have always been around, and aren’t going anywhere soon. For this article, however, we’ll focus on stick-and-pokes, a style of hand-poked tattooing that transcends the need for a gun or studio. Here’s everything you need to know about the DIY tattooing technique that’s rapidly growing in popularity.

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What is a stick and poke tattoo?

The history of handmade tattoos is extensive and dates back over 5,000 years. Contrary to typical tattoos, stick and pokes don’t require any electrical tools and little experience of traditional tattooing. Theoretically, this makes them an affordable, accessible activity to do from the comfort of your own home. This is likely the reason why stick and poke tattooing saw a boom during the COVID-19 pandemic—when tattoo parlours are shut, people look for alternative ways to make art on their skin.

Sounds great, right? It’s making me tempted to pick up a needle right now and dot something on my skin, but where do I start? Well, the most common method of stick and poke tattooing involves attaching a tattoo-grad needle to a holding contraption, which allows ink to be easily applied to the skin. The style lends itself particularly to intricate dot work or trippy geometric patterns. However, the technique is by no means limited to these styles, as its DIY nature means you can let your creative juices flow.

How to do a stick and poke tattoo

Now, as tempting as it might be to rush into stick and poke tattooing, it’s important to make sure you have taken the necessary steps to assure you can make your art safely—it is forever, after all. The most crucial step is to ensure you have the correct toolkit. It goes without saying, make sure you have the correct tattoo needles and ink before undertaking your stick and poke journey. 

More importantly, ensure you have the correct medical supplies to counteract the inevitable minor injuries that come with tattooing. It’s crucial that you invest in the right aftercare supplies, which will help your tattoo heal nicely. Yeah, it might not be as punk as getting it done on a random night using just a needle and ink but trust me, when your tattoo recovers properly and doesn’t devolve into an infected messy ink-blob—you’ll thank me later.

The process: step-by-step

Although stick and poke is a relatively simple process, it’s important to make sure you’re prepared both mentally and physically for the task. It’s easy to forget but your skin is in fact an organ (and the largest in the body), so be prepared for your immune system to freak out a bit when injecting your body with ink. To make sure the process goes as smoothly as possible, ensure you’re hydrated and abstain from any alcohol and drug use—in other words, I’d avoid getting your tat the morning after your Friday night bender. If you can’t say no to the sesh and end up drinking the night before, just keep in mind that alcohol thins your blood, meaning your tattoo will probably bleed more than normal. The same applies to getting a piercing.

First, start out by laying down a clean, disinfected workspace. If necessary, shave the area you plan to ink with a razor and put on some latex gloves. Then, using an alcoholic pad, clean the area you wish to tattoo. To avoid ending up on an ‘ink-shaming’ Facebook group, I strongly advise planning out your design using a stencil. Once the stencil gel has dried onto your skin, you’re almost ready to get started.

Place your desired ink into a sterile container, I personally prefer the classic black ink style but don’t be scared to experiment with different colours. It is your body after all—don’t let a stranger on the internet tell you how you want your body to look. Start by dipping the desired sized needle into the ink so to coat it above the cluster of needle tips, this will create an ink reserve, allowing you to ink your skin with less frequent dips in the ink.

Exercise this part with extreme caution: start by slowly and gently pressing the needle tip into the skin, allowing the ink to be deposited within the skin’s layers. Make sure not to press the needle too deeply, you want the needle to make the layers of skin but not go completely through the skin itself. It’s best to go steady with this, start out lightly and assess from there whether the ink stays in your skin once you wipe the excess away from the surface. Don’t be alarmed if there’s a noticeable tug as you take the needle out, that’s normal. A little bit of blood is normal too, but only minimal, your skin will also ooze a translucent plasma, similar to when you have a minor cut or scrape.

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Repeat these steps at your own pace by following the stencilled line—it’s better to do a good job slowly than permanently mess up by rushing. It’s a strange process at first, especially if you’ve never had a tattoo before, but don’t worry it gets easier with practice. It’s also important to listen to your body and take a break if need be—the ink will always be there to work with once you’re ready to start again.

Once you’ve worked your way around the stencil, you should start to see your desired artwork take shape—exciting, right? Once you’ve finished, wipe the tattooed area with warm soapy water and then an alcoholic pad, this part might sting a little but it beats a nasty infection. Finally, apply either a soaker pad or a waterproof tattoo aftercare bandage to the area. After five hours or so, you can take off the soaker pad and thoroughly wash the area again with warm soapy water. If you’ve gone for a waterproof bandage, it will come off by itself after your second or third shower. Make sure to apply aftercare balm to ensure your tattoo recovers successfully. Avoid scented creams which contain alcohol and might irritate your skin and try to go for a dry skin-oriented product. My personal recommendation would be Palmer’s Cocoa Butter Formula.

And voilà—just like that, you’re all done! Now you’ve joined the thousands, if not millions, of people who have taken body art, quite literally, into their own hands. Whether it’s a meaningful design or just an inside joke you wanted to immortalise, the important thing is that you’ve rightfully exercised your right to do whatever the hell you want with your body. I hope this article has helped you mark your skin in a safe and responsible way. Happy inking!