7 Polynesian tattoo symbols

for protection

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We live through uncertain times, where we need protection more than ever (and wisdom).

In Polynesian cultures there are several symbols that relate to protection, and we'll list here the 7 most commonly seen in tattooing.


protective symbol manaia

The manaia is a mythological creature in Maori culture and it is usually depicted with the head of a bird, the body of a man and the tail of a fish, representing power over every element: air, earth, and water.
It is usually shaped in side view like an eight figure as in the image above, which recalls a sea horse (manaia is one Maori word to describe the sea horse).
It is considered a messenger between the material world and the world of spirits and it symbolizes protection from evil, much like a guardian angel.

It's common practice to depict the manaia with three fingers to symbolize harmony between sky, land, and sea.


protective symbol taniwha

In Maori mythology, taniwha are beings living in deep pools of rivers, dark caves, or in the sea, especially where dangerous currents or breakers are present.
They have a dual nature and can be either powerful protective guardians of people and places (kaitiaki), or dangerous and predatory beings punishing everyone who does not respect sacred places.

You can read more and see some examples of taniwha in this previous article: Polynesian tattoo symbols - Taniwha.


protective symbol tiki

A tiki represents a divine being.
It can be a god, or even an ancestor who reached demigod status for his achievements and authority

They can be included as a full figure, but it's usually just the face, or even parts like the eye, the ear, or the nostrils, that are woven into tattoos.

More information and examples can be found in this previous article: Polynesian tattoo symbols - Tiki.


protective symbol lizard

Mo'o, or moko is the name given to lizards and other similar animals throughout Polynesia.
They are powerful creatures who can bring good luck, communicate to the gods and access the invisible world as well as bring death and bad omens to unrespectful people.

In Australian Aboriginal culture lizards represent regeneration, transformation, and survival through hardships.

In Maori culture they are often regarded as guardians and a lizard was often buried next to the newly built houses, or carved on their walls, to keep every disease and evil spirit away from them.

Woven mat

protective symbol mat

People throughout Polynesia used to hold a weapon in one hand, while protecting the other side of the body from blows by covering it with woven mats and capes.
The motif used in tattooing to represent these mats consists of crossing lines in braid style, or in checkered patterns as in the Marquesan traditional breast plate of chiefs.


protective symbol malu

Malu is usually translated as shield. It is the name of the traditional Samoan female tattoo, and it comes from the main element tattooed on the back of the knee of women.
It represents the four walls of the home, and the protection they give.

Shark teeth

protective symbol shark teeth

Shark teeth are a symboll of protection in water.
This originates for a Hawaiian legend about a woman and a shark that was her aumakua

The legend and more informations about shark teeth as a tattoo symbol can be found in this previous article: Polynesian tattoo symbols - Shark teeth.

But what is exactly a aumakua?
Several animals can actually be held as protectors: sometimes ancestors who reached a highest status are turned into demigods after their death, and they can come back to assist, guide, and protect their kin.
These deified ancestors coming back in the shape of an animal are called aumakua, and every family treasures and respects this special bond with their own specific spirit animals.

We also have a free ebook with 28 protective Polynesian tattoos.
You can freely download it here for more inspiration and ideas:

Books about Polynesian Tattoos

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