Hawaiian tattoos and body art have a history of thousands of years and experienced a renewed popularity since the 90s, together with other tribal tattoo styles. They often include a unique blend of tribal designs and culturally significant images like pictures of spirit animals, tropical flowers, or Hawaiian Tiki gods.
There's more to Hawaii than flowers and leis, after all, the Hawaiian islands are part of a larger chain (the Polynesian Islands) which include other island cultures such as the Maori and the Samoan, tribal communities with a rich tattoo tradition.
All of these cultures were famous for their tattoo art. Modern tribal tattoos are based on the traditional tattoo art of the Polynesian islands, and Hawaiian tattoos represent both the popular culture of Hawaii and the older tribal traditions.
Hawaiian designs and styles – like Hawaiian shirts – have had their day and currently have a strong retro appeal. Hawaiian tattoos are also a manifestation of the resurgence of ‘Tiki’ culture, so popular in the 1950s and 60s.
Hawaiian Tribal Tattoos
Tattooing has been an important aspect of the Hawaiian culture for thousands of years. In Ancient Hawaiian, the art of tattooing is called ‘kakua’. Ancient Hawaiians used ash and soot to make the inks that decorated their entire bodies with the permanent artwork.
These traditional tattoos were used to mark individuals for a variety of purposes:
- Personal identification: unlike other Polynesian tattoo styles, Hawaiian tattoos are used for personal identification (instead of ceremonial purposes).
- Protection: tattoos were believed to act as a talisman.
- As a symbol of mourning for a loved one.
- Family heritage
- Significant life events: these tatoos often told stories about the life and deeds of the wearer
- Status as warrior
Hawaiian tribal tattoos feature geometric patterns and a variety of interlocking lines and shapes. The designs are general symmetric to represent balance and duality. Traditional tattoos were done only in black ink, but with the incorporation of modern techniques and styles, Hawaiian tattoos nowadays are found in vivid colors and can be personalized to include symbols important to the person getting the tattoo. Popular images include flower blossoms, nature landscapes, animal designs, and religious icons.
Kukui Nuts, Used in Hawaiian Tattoo Ink
The Hawaiian tribal tattoos were mostly black. The tattoo ink was made of a mixture of kukui nuts and sugarcane juice.
Getting a tattoo in a tribal community was not a very pleasant occasion, modern tattoo equipment was not part of tribal life. Instead they used sharp and pointy parts of animals, like bird beaks and claws, that were connected to a branch and hit with a mallet.
The Hawaiian tattoo designs are larger compared to other Polynesian designs, and bolder as well. Typical Hawaiian tattoo designs include:
- Lizards: the Hawaiians had a great respect and fear for lizards.
- Sea turtles
- Tropical flowers
Typical spots for tribal Hawaiian tattoos:
- Male: the legs, arms, face and torso
- Female: the hands, wrist and tongue
In the beginning of the 19th century, when European settlers arrived in Hawaii, the art of the Hawaiian tattoo slowly vanished until its renaissance in the 20th century.
Hawaiian Flower Tattoos
Tattoos incorporating flower designs – as a lot of Hawaiian tattoos do – don’t appeal to everyone, though it should be noted that Hawaiian tattoos are not particularly feminine despite their floral components.
The most popular Hawaiian flower tattoo design is without any doubt the Hibiscus (the yellow variant of the Hibiscus flower is the state flower of Hawaii). Common Hibiscus colors are yellow, red, pink, white and purple.
Another popular Hawaiian tattoo design is the orchid tattoo, especially ghost orchid designs. Ghost orchids are very beautiful flowers and rather peculiar. Orchids are an endangered species, what makes the symbolic meaning of orchid tattoos something like "rare beauty".
Hawaiian Band Tattoos
Hawaiian arm tattoo
Hawaiian band tattoos are commonly found on the arm and the legs. Hawaiian arm tattoos are often a nod to the traditional Hawaiian tattoo style, though with a decidedly modern appearance.
Michael Malone, tattoo artist and one of the students of Sailor Jerry (see further), created the Hawaiian armband tattoo in the 70s. Although he based his designs on the traditional Hawaiian tattoo motifs, the armband itself is not traditional. The armband tattoo became popular amongst Hawaiian youth that wanted to express its heritage.
Famous Hawaiian Tattoo Artists
2 Names come to mind when thinking about Hawaiian tattoo artists:
- Keone Nunes: being a traditional tattoo artist, he uses traditional tattoo equipment like tattoo ink made from kukui nuts and a fine-tooth comb made from the tusk of a hippo.
- Aisea Toetuôu: originally from Tonga, moved to Hawaii.
Norman "Sailor Jerry" Collins is one of the most distinguished American tattoo artists. He lived in Honolulu, Hawaii, that's why I mention him here.
His tattoo designs are what we now call "old school", a style that is in vogue again nowadays. Mike Malone, the creator of the Hawaiian armband tattoo, took over Sailor Jerry's tattoo shop and tattoo flash in the 70s, after Sailor Jerry's dead.
More about Sailor Jerry...