If you have seen the Disney movie Moana, you’ve probably noticed the tattoos of Maui, the demigod in the story who helped Moana become a master way-finder. If you thought they were cool, then you’re definitely right! The Polynesian tattoos are not only pleasant to look at, but their meanings are also just as fascinating.

Still from the film, Moana. ©Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

In the army, tattoos could be visual records of accomplishments, travels, professional talents, and even superstitions, like the rope tattoo that sailors get to denote that the wearer was a deckhand. It’s pretty much the same concept with the Polynesian tattoos, just a bit more badass.

Tattooing in Polynesia stems back from the Maori and Samoan cultures in the South Pacific. The term for them was “tatau,” which literally translates to “to mark.” They represent the class, nobility, and traits of the wearer and tell stories. It’s like introducing yourself and letting people know of your identity without saying a word.

The traditional way of tattooing is pretty badass, too. The first step is mapping the design on the skin using charcoal. Their tattoo artist, called Tufuga, uses a tattooing comb (called au) that’s often made from boar teeth fastened together with a turtle shell.

Traditional Polynesian tattooing tool. Photo from Zealand Tattoo

Does it hurt? Yes. According to Zealand Tattoo, “A tattooing session typically lasts until dusk or until the men could no longer stand the pain and would resume the following day unless the inflamed skin needed a few days to heal. The entire process could last up to three or even four months. Afterward, the man’s family would help him to celebrate, despite the pain, by throwing a party, and the Tufuga smashed a water vessel at his feet, marking the end of the painful ordeal.” It could take a whole year for the tattoo to completely heal. Not only that, but it is also very common that they get tattoos on their faces. Imagine how painful that could be.


Common Tattoo Patterns

Niho Mano or Shark Teeth

Simplified shark teeth pattern. Photo from Zealand Tattoo

This is one of the most common patterns that you’ll see. Shark teeth represent protection, ferocity, guidance, and strength.


Simplified ocean pattern. Photo from Zealand Tattoo

The ocean serves as a second home to Polynesians. It also serves as their last place to rest when leaving for their final voyage. They have a belief that turtles join the departed and guide them towards their destination, so the ocean tattoo can be used to represent death and what’s beyond it.


Polynesian tattoo turtle pattern. Photo from Zealand Tattoo

Also called honu, turtles are significant creatures in the Polynesian culture. Turtles symbolize health, fertility, longevity in life, foundation, peace, and rest.


Enata pattern. Photo from Zealand Tattoo

Enata represents human figures. They portray women, men, and even gods. If they are drawn upside down, they can be used to depict defeated enemies.


Tiki pattern. Photo from Zealand Tattoo

Tiki translates to “figure.” It’s a name given to human-like figures that represent the demigods. It symbolizes protection, fertility and they serve as guardians, too.

There are tons of other patterns they use, and you can check them out here.

These Polynesian patterns can now be commonly seen even on people, not of Polynesian descent. While it is not forbidden to have these patterns inked on your body, it is important to understand their value and meaning. After all, Polynesian tattoos are more than just for aesthetics, they represent the culture and religion of their people as well.

And to really do them right in the traditional sense, you pretty much have to cover your entire body with them, which is a considerable investment in pain as well as money.