What tattoo should I get?

Brief guide to Polynesian tattoo styles

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Polynesian tattoo styles examples

Paraphrasing a famous quote, not all tattoos are made equal--
Since the Maori rugby team, the All Blacks, took the world of rugby by storm, aspects of their culture like the haka and tattoos have come into the spotlight. This was good on one side, but also caused most people to call any tattoo coming from the Pacific Ocean as "Maori".

You surely have noticed though that Polynesian tattoos can be quite different from one another, and this does not depend on the personal style of each artist alone.

Dwayne The Rock Johnson tattoo

The actor Dwayne Johnson is a perfect example of this trend: there are countless articles that call his Polynesian piece "Maori", and you should stay clear of them, as well as of anyone who does the same.

That's because tattoos are a serious thing in Polynesia and if you want to get one such tattoo without locals finding it offensive, the bare minimum is that you know which culture it comes from, and what it symbolizes.

There's an ongoing revival of traditional tattoos, and artists all over the Pacific are working to bring back to life traditional practices and symbols to connect people to their land and history.
Tonga, Fiji, Cook and many more are experiencing this revival, to finally join the 5 better known styles in the spotlight.

Among the 5 main Polynesian tattoo styles, Maori, Samoan, Marquesan and Hawaiian are the most traditional ones, while the Tahitian tattoo style has evolved from them to shape a new, more figurative style that often includes realistic elements to achieve the 'wow' factor that contributed to their present popularity.


The art of Manu Farrarons is an excellent example of this modern Polynesian style that blends realistic elements and traditional symbols.

Tahitian style backpiece tattoo

So, how can I recognize a Polynesian tattoo and identify its exact style?

We can usually do it from its composing elements and from its overall look.
The following images illustrate how the same subject and story may be rendered in each of the 5 main Polynesian tattoo styles: Maori, Marquesan, Samoan, Tahitian and Hawaiian, each with a brief explanation of the main characteristics of that specific style:

Maori style back manta tattoo

Maori style tattoo
Features: rich with round elements, spirals, and intricate fillings.
This highly decorative tattoo style is easily recognizable for its spiraling thin lines and for the importance of blank space (parts of the design are actually created by leaving areas with specific shapes without ink).

Marquesan style back manta tattoo

Marquesan style tattoo
Features: geometrical with large blocks and solid black areas. Asymmetrical body sides for men, mostly symmetrical for women.
The darkest of all Polynesian styles, often incorporating large areas of solid black.

Samoan style back manta tattoo

Samoan style tattoo
Features: rectilinear, geometrical, repetitive. Highly symmetrical body sides.
The male version can include solid areas while the female version is much lighter.

Tahitian style back manta tattoo

Tahitian style tattoo
Features: highly figurative, with smooth and rounded elements, naturalistic.
It taps into other Polynesian styles, mainly Marquesan and eventually Samoan, blending them with modern influences and Western art.

Hawaiian style back manta tattoo

Hawaiian style tattoo
Features: highly geometric, often based on repetition.
Thanks to the work of traditional practitioners like Keone Nunes, over the past two decades the Hawaiian traditional tattoo was brought back on the stage respecting its roots and original purpose.


The style from Fijian and Tongan tattoos looks similar to the one from Samoa (originally, tattooing was actually brought to Samoa from Fiji), but they often include flower patterns, which are not prominent in Samoan designs.

If I asked you now "What style is Dwayne Johnson's Polynesian tattoo?" you'd probably correctly answer: "Marquesan".

"But Dwayne Johnson is Samoan!" you may say-- and you'd be right.
It actually caused some stir among Samoans when he got it, but he was eventually forgiven, demonstrating that an act of admiration for another culture can be accepted without offense.

Now that you know and can recognize the styles, how about "reading" their meaning?
Well, that's not as easy, and it's another story too-- see you in the next article!

Books about Polynesian Tattoos

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