Polynesian tattoo symbol: taro plant


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Hawaiian tattoo symbol taro rows

Kalo: (Hawaiian), taro plant.

We chose the Hawaiian term kalo because, despite being greatly important in all Polynesian cultures, Hawaiian people have a special relation with the taro plant.

There are several myths and legends about the taro plant throughout the Pacific area, and they all testify to the importance that this plant has always had to the cultures living there.

Taro plant

Every part of the plant is used. The roots and leaves of the taro (luau) are cooked and eaten, while the stalk is replanted to grow more plants.
This process guarantees the continuity of the plant, and Polynesian people found it very similar to how family works, with the offspring taking the place of their fathers to guarantee the continuity of the family.
The very word 'ohana (family), comes from the word used for the part being replanted, 'oha, and family members are called like parts of the plant, thus relating families to taro plants with offsprings.

A similar thing happens with flax, where all leaves are used except for the inner ones, which are never cut to allow the plant to keep growing from them.
There are graphical versions of the taro that actually closely resemble those of the flax leaves, and both share the same symbolism representing family union, tradition, and genealogy.

Flax leaves used for the taro

Taro and flax leaves

In Hawaii, this goes further, in that the taro plant is considered an ancestor of the Hawaiian people, and is therefore held sacred.
The legend tells that the sky father Wakea and his daughter Ho'ohokulani had a son, who was unfortunately stillborn, whom they called Haloa (eternal breath).
His parents buried him in a basket made of pandanus leaves (lau hala; taro and pandanus share similar symbolism) and mourned him, and the tears of his mother watered the earth were he laid.
From there, a new plant grew, which had long and tender leaves, yet strong and healthy.

Wakea and Ho'ohokulani had a second son, whom they also called Haloa, who lived to grow beautiful and strong, and who was the first Hawaiian.
Thus the taro plant is an ancestor of the Hawaiian people, and earth is sacred to them as their mother.

Pandanus leaves

Lauloa: long leaf

The ku pipi motif symbolizes community and abundance, and it represents the taro plants placed together in rows:

Ku pipi tattoo symbol

Another motif called kumu, representing origins, depicts the base of a plant and is also used to represent the stalk of the taro, which gets replanted:

Kumu tattoo symbol

The importance of the taro plant in Samoa is evident in the traditional male tattoo, the pe'a.
One central part in it, which represents the flying fox (i.e. pe'a) is also known as pulatama (small taro), and it symbolizes the close family, with another part below it, almost enclosing the pulatama, called pulatele (big taro) representing ancestors and the extended family embracing the close family, the offsprings, and supporting it.

Samoan traditional pea tattoo


Detail of the pulatama and puatele from the pe'a:

Pulatama and pulatele in pea tattoo

Flax leaves design sharing the same meaning of taro leaves:

Flax leaves in Samoan tattoo

Books about Polynesian Tattoos

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