For most people, the idea of Hawaiian tattoo designs inspires images of hula dancers, leis, and hibiscus flowers. These three symbols are associated with Hawaii and Hawaiian cultures. They are popular tattoo motifs. Women in particular are drawn to the exotic beauty of the hibiscus. For many, they associate the flower with summer and fun. Hibiscus tattoos look tropical, feminine, and delicate. They can be any number of colors, but are often tattooed in pinks, oranges, yellows, and reds. These colors harken to the warmth and heat of summer. They also contrast the green leaves of the plant which are sometimes included in the flower tattoo design. The hibiscus plant and flower is important in Hawaiian culture.
The hibiscus is a delicate flower, easily damaged and destroyed. It has a short, fragile life. A tattoo is a way to appreciate the hibiscus flower in a more permanent way. Hawaiian natives use the fibers of the plant to make their traditional grass skirts and the plants, including the flowers, are very valuable. Hula dancers are a fascinating part of traditional Hawaiian culture. The dances tell the important stories of the people.
Hula dancers were favorite tattoos of sailors because they represented exoticism and beauty. The sailors were often drawn to the mysterious and intriguing natives of the places they visited and got tattoos to represent their travels.
Leis are garlands of flowers that are offered to guests. Although full lei tattoos are not common, bright, vibrant, and native flowers used to create these garlands are often incorporated into tattoo designs. Hula dancers are usually depicted with leis on, often just barely covering their naked breasts.
But tattooing has a much longer history in Polynesian societies than these symbols. The Hawaiian style of traditional tattoos is similar to other nations, in that the designs are usually geometric patterns done black lines. The original native Hawaiian tattoos were done with found objects, like bones or animal claws. These tattoos were usually symmetric, and later evolved to represent animals and mask-like faces. Birds, fish, lizards, turtles, and flowers were all represented pictorially. Some scholars belief this development is a direct influence of contact with outsiders, but these designs are still valued as traditional and cultural, being important to the ancestors and historic society.
The traditional tattoo art of Hawaii is known as kakau and, like the hula dances, had stories and meaning woven among the pattern and designs. The modern incarnation of Hawaiian kakua can be small designs or quite extensive art work. Those interested in tribal tattooing or those looking to embrace their Hawaiian heritage are usually interested in these designs. Hawaiian culture, like the traditions and customs of many indigenous peoples, was repressed by the Westerners who shared their land. Many natives still feel that 'mainlanders' are ruining their island, their way of life, and the traditions of their ancestors. Currently, there is an extensive cultural movement within Hawaii to reclaim these lost traditions and embrace native culture. Tattooing is a large part of this movement and traditional designs are once again becoming popular.
In Hawaiian culture, tattoos were used to denote status and importance, just like other Polynesian islands. Those with power among tribes were the most tattooed, along with their family members. While male tattoos might cover their body, female tattoos were reserved for harms, feet, ears, and lips. Today, though, women often get tattoos that would once have been reserved for men. Likewise, commoners and those not of royal descent get extensive and elaborate designs that would not have been acceptable in traditional times.
These two occurrences show that, while Hawaiians are rediscovering their native culture and taking pride in their history, they are also adapting it to better suit their modern philosophies. This is how all cultures develop – either they adapt and evolve or they become stagnant and obsolete. Variations of traditional rituals and practices should not be viewed as a bastardization of society, but as an evolution. These reinvented, but traditionally inspired tattoo designs still demonstrate a love and pride of heritage, embracing Hawaiian culture and the past.