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Cultural tattoos are more than just form of body art, according to students of Polynesia

A graphic of a Polynesian tattoo.

BYU–Hawaii students from Polynesia shared the meaning, symbolism and stories behind their cultural tattoos that can represent family, culture, faith and their personal identity.

Each shared a unique reason and purpose for obtaining the tattoo they have, and they shared the pride of the representation of their culture and family they also carry with it as a result.

Quincy Tahiata, a freshman from Australia double majoring in Pacific Island studies and social work, discussed his tattoos, which are on the top of his chest and on a portion of his upper back.

Each side has a representation of his parents’ heritage with many other motifs and symbolism within.

Tahiata shared, “On my front, it represents where my dad is from. It talks about a specific mountain where my dad is from in Tahiti.

“There are arrow-pointing patterns that point toward the mountain. It shows how our family will always go back to where we are from.

There are arrow-pointing patterns that point toward the mountain. It shows how our family will always go back to where we are from.
Quincy Tahiata


“Other specific motifs talk about me, and the other ones talk about my family, specifically my siblings. Others also talk about strength, courage and good luck.”

Religion and culture

Lisa Agafili, a senior from New Zealand double majoring in Pacific Island studies and TESOL, shared the cultural and familial significance of the decision to receive her tattoo. In her family, getting tattoos is customary.

Upon becoming a member of the Church, Agafili’s tattoo affected her family dynamic.

She said, “I got my tattoo before I became a member. I was supposed to get a malu.” She said a malu is the tattoo women receive on their legs in Samoan culture. “I was supposed to have a soa [partner] to get it with, but because I am a member now, I didn’t get it. I was stuck between religion and culture.

“It was hard for me to not do it, and my brother ended up not getting a tatau with anyone.” She said the tatau is the tattoo men receive on their legs.

Tahiata went on to discuss the symbolism and cultural significance of the tattoo on his back. He commented, “On the back, it talks about how the Maori side of my family is almost symmetrical. The reason being my grandparents are from the same tribe, but different parts of it. One half represents my grandfather’s side and the motifs of the design inside talk about my grandfather’s side.

“The other half of my back talks about my grandmother, and the patterns are the same, but it is reversed.

“If you look at the tattoo as a whole, you can see both parts make one face. The face represents my mother.”

If you look at the tattoo as a whole, you can see both parts make one face. The face represents my mother.
Quincy Tahiata


A community member from Laie, Clayton O’Conner, has tattoos that are a blend of two cultures. He explained what they represented and his decision to get them. He said, “It is a mix of Hawaiian and Samoan. I got it not really for myself but mostly for my family. I’m really close with my family, and I got this as sort of a gift just for them.”

Identity

O’Conner said, “I got this chest piece close to my heart that is symbolic of my parents. I have a flower pattern that is symbolic of my mom. The part surrounding it is like a shield for my dad.

“I have stuff on my arm going from oldest to youngest, representing my siblings.” He explained how all of the designs make up the shapes of various letters that make up the first initials of all of his siblings, including himself.

He also talked about the designs on his arm. He said, “The designs tell the things I love, like surfing, fish and the ocean. I also have a club, which is for protection.”

Agafili discussed how her tattoo was a part of her identity. “Growing up in New Zealand, your culture gets a bit lost. This was my way of keeping my identity.

“A lot of people think I’m Tongan, but when they take one look at it they immediately know I’m Samoan.

“[My tattoos] tell a story. They talk about the water, the bowl used to mix the ava [kava].”

Tahiata commented on how while all tattoos have their own respective meaning, Polynesian tattoos can carry more meaning than face value. He said, “This is not a new thing. This is hundreds and hundreds of years old.”

According to pbs.org, the Samoan tradition of applying tattoo, or tatau, is a skill passed on from father to son and tools and techniques used have changed very little.