What Are Hawaiian Tattoos? Styles, Tradition, & Culture

Tattoos are common in Hawaii, but they are different from traditional western tattoos. It’s not just the style, either. The things that they represent, the purpose they serve, and even the way they are chosen and inked are vastly different from what you might be used to.

What is a Hawaiian Tattoo Called?

A Hawaiian tattoo is called a “Kakau”. It comes from the Hawaiian words “ka” and “kau”, meaning “to strike” and “to place” respectively.

Interestingly, the word “tattoo” is actually said to come to us from the Polynesian word “tatau”, which means the same thing as the Hawaiian word.

The word “tattoo” can also be used in reference to a drumbeat or performance. You could be forgiven for thinking that the etymology was the same and that the “drumbeat” usage was a reference to the constant tapping of the needle. In actual fact, it has an entirely unique origin and comes to us from the Dutch word “taptoe”, which means “to close the tap”, in reference to a cask.

Tattoos weren’t invented in Hawaii though. In fact, they have been around for thousands of years. Otzi the Iceman, a natural mummy discovered in the Alps and dated to as late as 3370 BC, was found with basic tattoos, and there have been dozens of other tattooed mummies everywhere from Alaska to Egypt and Siberia.

It’s believed that Polynesia wasn’t settled until between 3,000-1,000 BC, at which point tattooing was already relatively common.

The Tradition of Hawaiian Tattoos

Hawaiian tattoos are steeped in Polynesian culture and are considered sacred and honorable. Traditionally, Hawaiians got tattoos to honor their ancestors and if their actions were deemed dishonorable, they weren’t ready for a tattoo.

Ancient Hawaiian tattoos were made by tapping a needle into the skin, transferring the pigment (consisting of ash and soot) inside. It was painful and laborious, and this also played a role in turning the tattoo into something honorable and powerful. After all, the more tattoos you had, the more of this pain you had endured, thus showing your bravery and strength to the community.

Both men and women got tattoos but men tended to cover more of their bodies and use them as a way of inducing fear in their enemies, while also showing their strength and honor.

What Does a Hawaiian Tattoo Look Like?

Hawaiian tattoos are tribal tattoos that use overlapping symbols to create a complex design. They use black ink and typically choose patterns or symbols that depict or honor the person’s ancestors or reflect the movement and balance of nature.

Modern Hawaiian tattoo designs are based on tribal tattoos that have been around for centuries. Some tattooists even use the same ancient techniques, and traditionally, the designs are chosen by the tattooist and not the customer.

However, most modern tattoos pay only passing reference to the styles and techniques of old. They use modern equipment and choose styles based on aesthetics and not culture or lineage.

How Do They Tattoo in Hawaii?

Traditional Hawaiian tribal tattoos are created using hand-tapping techniques, often with a steady cadence akin to a beating heart. It takes a great deal of skill to create these tattoos and also requires a lot of patience and high pain tolerance. At the same time, it produces an incredible effect.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you’ll find ancient pigments and tools made of wood and bone in every tattoo parlor. Many of the tattooists on the Hawaiian islands use modern techniques and simply follow traditional tribal tattoo designs.

Surprisingly, traditional Hawaiian tattoos had all but vanished in the latter half of the 20th century and were replaced entirely by tools. A few traditionalists brought them back, though, and a renewed interested in Hawaiian tribal tattoos and Hawaiian culture in general means there are now a few skilled practitioners.

How Expensive are Tattoos in Hawaii?

A Hawaiian tattoo can cost you anywhere from $300 to $600 on average, depending on whether you opt for a traditional one or a modern one.

Traditional Hawaiian tattoos cost more than their contemporary counterparts. Not only does it require a very specific skillset, but traditional tattoos take longer to complete.

As with all tattoo parlors, the price can vary greatly from one location to the next and there are several options in Hawaii. Do your research, shop around, and check with several different options to find the best value for money.

Are Tattoos Accepted in Hawaii?

Although tattoos play an important role in Hawaiian culture and are ubiquitous throughout its history, they are a growing problem in the workplace.

Some employers may not look fondly on applicants with tattoos, especially if those tattoos are in visible places (such as the face and hands) or there are a lot of them (as with sleeve tattoos).

Thankfully, most employers don’t discriminate, at least not openly, but if you don’t have a stable career or want to embark on a profession in the customer service industry, this is something you need to keep in mind.

Is it Disrespectful to Get a Hawaiian Tattoo?

There is never a clear answer to questions like this, as not everyone will react the same way and not everyone will get the same tattoo or have the same intent.

If you’re a non-Hawaiian and you get a tattoo that tells your story and that of your ancestors, one that is well-considered and executed, it generally won’t be considered disrespectful to most Hawaiians.

If you half-ass a tattoo using Hawaiian symbols and modern techniques, and you mix it with themes from western culture before bragging to everyone how “authentic” it is, you’ll probably offend everyone.

However, there will always be a diehard traditionalist who is offended when any non-Hawaiian gets a Hawaiian tattoo, just as there will always be Hawaiians who couldn’t care less about anyone else and just see tattoos as a form of personal expression.

Go with your gut, but if you actually want a traditional Hawaiian tattoo and not just a basic tribal design that uses Hawaiian symbols and styles, do your research and get it from a local tattooist.

What is a Pe’a Tattoo?

The Pe’a is a type of Samoan tattoo that goes from the middle of the torso to the knees, like a pair of long shorts that have been pulled a little too high.

These traditional tattoos use geometric patterns composed of lines, dots, and arrows, creating a complex and intricate image.

What Do Hawaiian Triangle Tattoos Mean?

Triangles often symbolize shark teeth. However, they can also indicate spears, in which case they are used to represent both life and death.

Did the Ancient Hawaiians Get Tattoos?

Yes! Both Hawaiian men and women got tattoos and they played an important role in ancient Hawaii. They signified respect, honor, strength, and bravery. They told a person’s story and connected them to their ancestors. They were also used by Hawaiian warriors to show their strength and to intimidate their enemies.

In addition to the usual geometric designs, popular Hawaiian tattoo designs include:

  • Hibiscus flower
  • Hula dancer
  • Pineapple
  • Palm tree
  • Sea turtle
  • Sunset
  • The Hawaiian Islands

What Are the Best Places to Get Hawaiian Tribal Tattoos?

It should go without saying that the best place to get a Hawaiian tattoo is in Hawaii, but there are many tattoo shops and tattooists to choose from, so which ones are best?

808 Tattoo (Honolulu)

A tattoo studio that has been in operation for more than 15 years and has an unrivaled reputation. It does piercings, tattoos, and tattoo removals.

Visit 808 Tattoo.

Beach Park Tattoo (Kailua)

A small family-owned tattoo studio that offers traditional Hawaiian tattoos, as well as many modern alternatives.

Visit Beach Park Tattoo on Facebook.

Mid Pacific Tattoo (Maui)

Mid Pacific Tattoo has several locations on the island of Maui and specializes in a variety of tattoo art styles, including Polynesian tattoos, American tattoos, dot work, and realism.

Visit Mid Pacific Tattoo.

Bespoke (Honolulu)

A leading studio that creates beautiful bespoke creations. Check out the link below to see some of their work.

Visit Bespoke.

Tattoolicious (Honolulu)

A studio that has been open for over 20 years and offers high-quality custom tattoos from several highly-skilled artists.

You can see a list of the studio’s tattoo art on its website. It’s sorted by artist to help you find the one that’s best suited to your needs.

Visit Tattoolicious.

Little Tsunami Tattoo (Kauai)

The longest-running tattoo studio in Kauai and a great place for some expert inking, including Hawaiian symbols, Western art, and animal art.

Visit Little Tsunami Tattoo.

Sacred Art (Honolulu)

Located in Waikiki, Sacred Art is a team of skilled and award-winning artists. They offer original designs, tribal designs, and both old and new-school art.

Visit Sacred Art.

Zen Tattoo (Maui)

Zen Tattoo has been around for a few years now and produces a range of beautiful tattoos, with three experienced artists on staff.

Visit Zen Tattoo Maui.