Protected by a hard shell, equipped to navigate both land and water, capable of crossing oceans and exceptionally long-lived, it is no wonder that the turtle has been revered for thousands of years by cultures all over the world as a symbol of strength, stability and stamina. Turtle tattoos have most likely been around just as long.
Although tattoo art has been embraced by numerous cultures throughout history, nowhere has the sea turtle been associated with tattoos more than in the Pacific Islands. Covering one third of the planet, the Pacific Ocean is the realm of the sea turtle, and upon every land mass that the turtle has visited, legends and myths have arisen about the singular creature.
The turtle has played a role in a wide variety of mythologies:
- As a trickster god in African folklore.
- As a protective spirit for Japanese seafarers.
- As a golden god that appears at times of trouble to aid the Vietnamese.
The turtle is often associated with myths of creation, in which it is seen as a support for the world:
- In India, the earth rests on the backs of elephants, supported by the shell of a turtle.
- In numerous North American creation myths, the turtle carries the world on its back. Mohawk mythology ascribes earthquakes to the great World Turtle, stretching in reaction to bearing the weight of the world.
Polynesian Turtle Tattoos
The art of tattooing has been prevalent on almost every shore of the Pacific, but achieved particular significance in Polynesia, the area defined by Hawaii in the north, New Zealand to the west, and Easter Island to the east. As a culture with no writing, the Polynesians not only used tattoos as talismans of protection and spirituality, but as a way to exhibit their status.
Where a person stood in the hierarchical society of Polynesia was determined by their current role in the tribe, as well as by their genealogy and maturity. All of these aspects are indicated by specialized tattoos, placed on specific locations.
Shark, lizard and turtle tattoo designs were primary symbols, used throughout Polynesian society. As a tribal culture, meanings associated with tattoos varied from tribe to tribe. A tribal turtle tattoo might have had a more significant meaning to one tribe than another, gaining particular importance through an association to family genealogy.
In the tribal culture of Polynesia, the war god Tu was represented by the turtle. Warriors wore the most tattoos, viewing them as armor that would protect them in battle. A 19th century missionary to Polynesia recorded that Pa te Pou Ariki, Chief of the Takitumu tribe in Rarotonga (one of the Cook Islands) had turtle tattoos on both knees. The missionary noted that the turtle symbol was "reserved for the chief alone," indicating that the turtle was deeply associated with the chief's genealogy.
Turtle Tattoos in Hawaii
One Hawaiian myth says that it was "Honu" (Hawaiian for turtle) who guided the first inhabitants of Hawaii to their new home. An ancient petroglyph that depicts a turtle with a vertical line drawn down its shell supports this mythology.
Although there are alternate myths, a reverence for the turtle's prowess in navigation is part of the Hawaiian culture. Ancient Hawaiians believed that their "Aumakua" (guardian spirits) could take the shape of a variety of animals, including the turtle. It is said the great turtle Kailua would turn into a human female and appear to protect children playing on the beach from danger. Hawaiian turtle tattoos remain a popular design today.
The characteristics of the turtle are deeply intertwined with its symbolism:
- Long lived, they are seen as symbols of immortality.
- Capable of laying a hundred eggs at one time, they are viewed as symbols of fertility and creation.
- Their protective shell is associated with strength, security and stability.
- Their ability to travel thousands of miles is associated with endurance and perseverance.
- The sea turtle's ability to return home connects them with guidance, good luck and faithfulness.
- Their slow movement has some negative connotations, such as the decreased mobility of old age, but primarily the slow, dogged movement of turtles denotes steadfastness, as in Aesop's fable of the tortoise winning the race against the hare.
A tribal turtle tattoo remains a popular choice. The curved, intact nature of the turtle shape makes it a good artistic choice for shoulder designs. Tribal turtles are sometimes combined with flowers like Hibiscus and Plumeria.
The more "cartoonish" turtle designs are also popular. These turtles are generally depicted cheerfully, viewed as a symbol that a positive attitude and determined effort spell success in life. Sammy, the cute turtle from the movie "A Turtle's Tale", is often used as a tattoo design.
Realistic turtle tattoos have their share of popularity as well. Usually the design depicts a sea turtle in its natural environment.
Here's our turtle tattoo gallery with designs, photos and ideas for your inspiration:
Make sure you check out these related designs as well: Dolphin Tattoo Designs