Polynesian tattoo symbol: shark teeth

"niho peata"


Marquesan tattoo symbol enata

Niho peata: (Marquesan) m. shark teeth.

Niho peata in Marquesan language, niho mao in Tahitian, niho manō in Hawaiian, niho mako in Maori-- the similarity of the terms describing this symbol and its presence throughout the whole Pacific area testify to its importance in Polynesian cultures.

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Sharks are regarded as fearless hunters, powerful creatures that dominate the oceans.
Based on their characteristics and on myths and legends, sharks (and therefore the shark teeth motifs used to represent them) are symbolic of strength, guile, protection and guidance.

Triangles are an ubiquitous element in Polynesian art and the simplest, most common way to represent shark teeth.
It's not a universal symbol though, since triangles can also represent other elements like trochus shells, bonito, tree roots, mountains and more.
It's possible to identify them based on the disposition of the triangles and on their filling:

Polynesian symbols  with triangles

Infinite patterns can be created, and several different motifs can be seen in Hawaiian traditions, where they are called niho mano (many teeth):

Hawaiian motifs

Specific combinations are handed down within some families, being part of their heritage, and their use is restricted to those families only.

Shark teeth as symbols of sharks can also be used to represent an 'aumakua, an entity having supernatural powers (usually a deified ancestor or a spirit), which appears to men in the form of an animal, to give them advice, omens and sometimes punishments.
In the case of deified ancestors, families will maintain in time a special relation to their specific animals.
The role of the 'aumakua is not so different from the totemic animals of Native Americans: they bring messages and guide and protect us. We must learn their lesson and respect them in order to preserve the bond with them and be protected.

This idea is strongly related to another important concept in Polynesian cultures: people, Nature and the spirits are all parts of a unique identity and none of them can prosper without the others.
The Hawaiian symbol that represents this is shaped by the union of three tooth-like black triangles with an inverted white triangle in their center, and it's called lō kahi (unity, agreement).

Lo kahi Hawaiian symbol

The core of this belief is defined by another Hawaiian word, kuleana, which is translated as "a two-way responsibility", and embodies the strong relation that exists between all things, the people, and the ancestors.
For example, if people take care of the land, the land will take care of them.

Always keep in mind this when preparing a Polynesian tattoo, and try to balance equally the elements that refer to people, to nature and animals, and to spirits and supernatural beings.


There are several known variants of the shark teeth symbol, from the simpler ones represented by a solid colored or empty triangle

Shark teeth symbol

to more elaborated versions that have fillings made of lines and smaller triangles, used both as separate elements or repeating patterns

Shark teeth patterns

Shark teeth aligned on a circular pattern are often used in Tahitian tattooing (modern Polynesian style) to represent the sun:

Shark teeth making a sun


Shark teeth motifs play an important role in this halfsleeve tattoo where they represent adaptability and protection:

Polynesian tattoo symbol shark teeth for protection

Shark teeth motifs are also perfect to create decorative patterns that add meaning to a tattoo like in the following design:

Polynesian hammerhead shark tattoo

Different shark teeth variants can be used together and they perfectly blend with non-Polynesian elements as well:

Lotus andi turtle tattoo

The sun in this tattoo for the calf was designed using a double row of interlocking shark teeth:

Double row of shark teeth pattern

You can click on the photos to read the full description of each tattoo.

You can also download a PDF quick cheatsheet to this symbol:

Polynesian symbols cheatsheets: shark teeth


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