Imagine having a sharp claw, beak or fish tooth dripping with ink plunged into your skin. Feels comfortable? Well to early Hawaiian society this was just a simple part of life. Whether it be for celebration or self expression tattooing with these quintessential tools has deep roots within the Hawaiian and wider Polynesian culture. It is also form of identification and a representation of a particular tribe.
Traditional tools used for the art of tattooing were mainly found objects from nature; whatever the tattooist could get their hands on. There was no set tool. Tattoo artists would sharpen the object against rocks to achieve and maintain optimal sharpness.
Not only were tattoos eye catching but often had a deeper more personal meaning than their Polynesian neighbours. Hawaiian tattoos on a mans body signified a benchmark of status. The defining characteristics of a high status tattoo included the quantity of ink applied to the face as well as the intricacy of the patterns. Being a chief or part of a chief’s family with in a society meant that you were worthy of ‘getting ink’ from highly skilled artists. Tattoos were mainly reserved for the face but it was not uncommon for women to display tattoos on their hands, feet, fingers and calves Women’s tattoos and the general public got their tattoos from apprentices’ artists.
The designs involved in Hawaiian tattooing evolved from flowing geometrical and symmetrical artworks into more pictorial forms as European influence began to infiltrate their culture.