The word tattoo is derived from “tātau” in Tahtian and “kākau” in Hawaiian which means to mark the skin in color. In ancient Hawai‘i, tattoos were used to as a form of identification often to represent certain families, groups, social status or occupations. Tattoo designs were not about being aesthetically pleasing, but about telling a life story of an individual or used to guard their health or spiritual well-being. Hawaiians would also use kākau to make them look more intimidating during battle. Some Hawaiians were covered from head to toe in tattoos, and each tattoo could help to unveal the history of a personʻs life.
Historically, tattoos were hand-tapped and are known as “uhi”. Polynesians would use a “moli” or tattoo tool and dip it in “paʻu” or ink and begin to tap onto the skin. In ancient Polynesia, the paʻu was made from the soot of ground kukui nuts and sugarcane juice and the moli was sometimes made using bird claws, beaks, or fish bones tied to sticks. Traditional Polynesian tattoo designs hold great significance to those who receive them. Some popular designs that are commonly used, include “moʻo” - geckos, “honu” - sea turtles, “manō” – sharks, or geometric shapes and symmetrical patterns.
To this day, traditional Hawaiian tattooing celebrates a connection of people to a place and to each other. Getting a traditional tattoo holds incredible symbolic representation of Hawaiian history/arts and the individual’s own story. It represents pride in understanding the sacred traditions that were once practiced by Native Hawaiians.