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45+ Hawaiian Tattoos to Celebrate Hawaiian History and Culture

by Sherri Owens

These tattoos are sure to give you island fever. From traditional symbols to scenic designs, there are many types of tattoo ideas for you to check out!

As someone who has studied Hawaiian history, culture, and art, I love designing tattoos for clients who have done their research. They are paying homage to this beautiful culture with such tattoos.

In addition to showing you the most stunning Hawaiian tattoos, I have also provided you with the histories and stories behind each of these designs. Enjoy!

The Best Hawaiian Tattoos

Here are the top Hawaiian tattoo designs you need to check out for yourself:

Traditional Hawaiian Tribal Tattoos

When you think of Hawaiian tattoos, you likely think of traditional Hawaiian tattoos, also known as tribal tattoos. In reality, though, most people don't know what real Hawaiian tribal tattoo designs look like.

Why? Well, let me try to explain:

Traditional Kakau Tribal Tattoo

Image by @kalehuakrug via Instagram

The thing is that a lot of people get confused with Polynesian culture. See, Polynesia consists of a very large triangular area with the three ends on the Hawaiian Islands, New Zealand, and Easter Island.

Traditional Hawaiian Forearm Tattoo

Image by @kalehuakrug via Instagram

And, while the areas within the triangle have influenced each over the centuries, the culture of each ethnographic region is unique. This includes their tattooing styles. Unfortunately, in recent years, non-indigenous people have been taking bits and pieces from each tribal tattooing culture and combining them without really understanding the unique meaning of each style from each culture.

Tribal Hawaiian Long Thigh Tattoo

Image by @kalehuakrug via Instagram

So: what is a traditional Hawaiian tattoo called?

Traditional Hawaiian tribal tattoos are known as kakau and they are quite different from the body art designed by Maori or Samoan cultures. With kakau tattoos, the designs tend to consist of geometric patterns. You are less likely to find curves or flowing lines in traditional Hawaiian patterns.

According to traditional Hawaiian tattooing practices, the tattoos were done with a long needle and mallet-like tool.

Traditional Hawaiian Tribal Leg Tattoo

Image by @kalehuakrug via Instagram

If you are interested in getting authentic traditional tattoos, then I would suggest that you research traditional Hawaiian culture in greater depth. This will help you discover more commonly used Hawaiian symbols for traditional Hawaiian tattoos.

Kakau Hawaiian Calf Tattoo

Image by @suluape_keone via Instagram

Some of these tribal tattoo designs include the kanaloa which are octopus tentacles and depict the grasping of truth. Then you have the koa‘e ula which is a red-tailed tropicbird that symbolizes a safe return home.

There is also the maka or the spear tip. This symbolizes a provider and a protector. The niho niho are triangular designs that symbolize protection. There is also the pawahe which is a woven pattern that depicts the ability to bring things together.

Hawaiian Stylized Design Leg Tattoo

Image by @marlolualemana via Instagram

If you are interested in getting traditional Hawaiian tattoos, I would recommend working with a tattoo artist who understands the history, culture, and meaning behind these designs. This will make it easier for you to get a more authentic Hawaiian tattoo and to be respectful of the Hawaiian culture.

Fusion Hawaiian Tribal Tattoos

There are many people of mixed Polynesian descent. This means that they may be some combination of Hawaiian along with Samoan, Tahitian, Maori, etc. If you belong to such a group as well, then you may want a tattoo that represents all of your cultures.

Fusion Hawaiian and Polynesian Neck Tattoo

Image by @kiti_ta_tatau via Instagram

This is where fusion Hawaiian tattoo designs come in. Here, you use tattooing styles from two or more Polynesian cultures to create your customized tattoo art.

Polynesian and Hawaiian Mixt Full Sleeve Tattoo

Image by @kiti_ta_tatau via Instagram

Once again, before you get fusion Hawaiian tattoo art, it is important to do your research. Understand the symbols, geometric patterns, etc. that are important to each culture. Then, figure out how you can combine all these elements in your Hawaiian tattoo design so that you can be respectful of both cultures.

Full Sleeve Hawaiian Tattoo Piece

Image by @tattoosbybigjohn via Instagram

It is also a good idea to work with a tattoo artist who has some experience with combining such Polynesian tattoos. Not only can they help you come up with a more authentic fusion Hawaiian tattoo, but they can also help you figure out a more cohesive design.

Hibiscus Flower Tattoos

If you are considering Hawaiian flower tattoos, then a hibiscus flower tattoo is one that you should consider. In particular, you may want to get a tattoo of yellow Hibiscus flowers as it is the state flower of Hawaii.

Happy Face Spider and Hibiscus Tattoo

Image by @alekivz via Instagram

The reason that the yellow flower is the state flower is because it is only found in Hawaii. Unfortunately, even on the islands, these flowers are quite rare. They are considered endangered.

It is because of this that I think that hibiscus flowers make for an excellent Hawaiian tattoo.

Yellow Tiny Hibiscus Flower Wrist Tattoo

Image by @sikes_spedtacular_students via Instagram

The Hawaiian culture and traditional way of life have been under threat for a long time. It all began with the Christian missionaries and Western traders, followed by the colonists. Between disease, conversions, and the barring of traditional practices, many Hawaiians lost their lives and their way of life.

Greyish Hibiscus Petal Wrist Tattoo

Image by @redbuddhatattoo via Instagram

And, these problems continue today as well. Even now, native Hawaiians are being priced out of their homes and the Hawaiian Islands by mainlanders due to a steady focus on tourism.

So, in many ways, the hibiscus Hawaiian can be a fitting depiction of these struggles.

Hawaiian Floral Forearm Wrap Tattoo

Image by @jniahstylee via Instagram

Another reason that these flowers are popular Hawaiian tattoo designs is because they can be rather simple to design. After all, if you want a minimalistic tattoo, then it is just a matter of matching the shape of the petals and the pistil. Then, you can add some color if you want.

Pink and Green Hibiscus Flower Tattoo

Image by @artbyjaimefaith and westsidetattoo719 via Instagram

Of course, you also don't have to stick with yellow hibiscus Hawaiian tattoos. In case you want a more colorful Hawaiian tattoo, you can easily add other shades as well.

Multicolored Hibiscus Floral Full Sleeve Tattoo

Image by @tattoosbytinamarie via Instagram

Kiʻi Tattoos

Now, you may look at the word kiʻi and be a bit confused by it. Odds are, though, that you are familiar with this part of Hawaiian culture. Kiʻi refers to statues or likenesses of the Hawaiian deities, gods, and important ancestors. These images were often carved into wood, although there are some stone carvings too.

Black and Grey KŪ TIKI Tattoo

Image by @kaha_kii via Instagram

The reason that you may not recognize the word kiʻi, is probably because you may be more familiar with the word tiki. Tiki, however, is a Maori word for similar statues and carvings. In Hawaii, the more appropriate term is kiʻi.

Tiki Hawaiian Tattoo Piece

Image by @keahitattoo and imuatattoo via Instagram

Now, there are many Akua or gods in Hawaiian culture. However, some of the major gods are Kāne - who is associated with life and creation, Kanaloa who is associated with creation, the ocean, and long-distance voyaging, Kū who is associated with labor, agriculture, industry, and Lono with growth, wisdom, healing, enlightenment, etc.

Hawaiian Tiki God Tattoo

Image by @samoan_mike via Instagram

If you are thinking about getting these Hawaiian tattoos, I do want to remind you that Akua and kiʻi are considered sacred. So, make sure that you do your research to ensure that you get an authentic Hawaiian tattoo that is respectful to the culture.

Lei Tattoos

Lei is widely associated with Hawaii - it is rather common for tourists visiting the islands to be draped with this colorful and fragrant wreath. Unfortunately, far too many people don't appreciate the importance and the history of lei in Hawaii.

Hawaiian Lei Forearm Tattoo

Image by @mr.inkwells via Instagram

Today, lei is given to people as a form of welcome, friendship, and aloha. Before Hawaii had contact with Europeans, the lei was used to denote wisdom, ranking within society, and even royal status!

Haku Lei with Custom Flora Tattoo

Image by @cryptogeist and green.house.hi via Instagram

With time, though, it began to be used as a symbol of love and compassion. A lot of effort goes into making the lei and people believe that a small part of you is transferred to the lei during this process. So, when you give someone a lei, you are giving them a part of you too.

Beautiful Lei with Hawaiians Flowers Back Tattoo

Image by @tattoosbypri via Instagram

Some view the lei as a celebration of the natural world. Therefore, some believe that when you make a lei from natural elements and wear it, you become one with those elements. So, getting a Hawaiian tattoo with a lei can be a way to depict being one with nature.

Pink Plumeria Lei Ankle Tattoo

Image by @francine.walraven.tattoo via Instagram

If you are of Hawaiian descent, you can also get a Lei Hawaiian tattoo to help you feel closer to your family and your roots. This is because many people learn how to make lei by watching older members of the family do it. Your lei Hawaiian tattoo can also be indicative of the Hawaiian traditions that can be passed down from one generation to another.

Colorful Lei Flowers with Lettering Tattoo

Image by @paigehunterart via Instagram

Tourists leaving Hawaii were sometimes told to toss their lei into the ocean before they left. The ocean was then meant to bring the lei back to the shores of Hawaii. This was said to be a sign that you, too, one day would return to the islands.

So, if you lived or visited Hawaii and would like to go back, then this can be a beautiful symbol to have inked on you.

Maileleli Garland Style Neck Tattoo

Image by @eastvanweartattooco via Instagram

Now, if you are considering lei Hawaiian tattoos, I do want to remind you that lei aren't just made of flowers. They can also be constructed of shells, leaves, nuts, and feathers. So, if you do want to do a different kind of tattoo, this is a detail that you may want to think about.

Leaves Hawaiian Lei Thigh Tattoo

Image by @nateskindesinze via Instagram

If you want to get into the true spirit of lei, you may want to have a close friend or family member help you design your Hawaiian tattoo. This can be a beautiful way for you to always carry a small part of them with you wherever you go.

Sea Turtle Hawaiian Tattoos

Known as honu in Hawaii, sea turtles are an important part of the culture. There are many different stories regarding honu.

Polynesian Styled Turtle and Tribal Tattoo

Image by @tattooshurt via Instagram

In one, the hero Aiai drew marks on a rock near the water, bringing the turtle to existence. As it was borne from a rock near the water, it is both a part of the ocean as well as the earth and so, must return to the sand to give birth.

Hawaiian Tribal Sea Turtle with Fire and Water Tattoo

Image by @tattoosbyandrewsussman via Instagram

People in Hawaii also thought of the sea turtle as a protector in some instances as it was sent as a monster to hunt down enemies. It was also seen as a messenger. And, more romantically, it was believed that sea turtles could act as canoes that could bring lovers to one another. Some saw turtles as family guardians.

Tropical Themed Turtle with Flowers Tattoo

Image by @solemn_oath_tattoo via Instagram

In any case, sometimes turtles used to be the property of the chief, and they were even grown in ponds. The meat was eaten and the rest of the turtle could be turned into tools, including hooks.

Tribal Polynesian Turtle Tattoo

Image by @fivefive_tattoo via Instagram

When choosing through these Hawaiian tattoos, you will notice that there are many different designs to choose from. If you want to keep things simple, then you can get a realistic honu inked on you. To make it a more Hawaiian tattoo, you can add elements of the culture, such as hibiscus flowers.

Hibiscus Turtle Hawaiian Tattoo

Image by @fallenangeltattoo via Instagram

Or, you can use the tribal designs to create a turtle design. For more authentic Hawaiian tattoo designs, make sure to use patterns and elements that you typically find in traditional Hawaiian tattoos.

Polynesian Tribal Turtle Tattoo

Image by @darioniccoli_tattoo via Instagram

Manta Ray Hawaiian Tattoos

The Hawaiian word for the manta is Hahalua and this can be interpreted as two breaths. This is perhaps because when the manta rises to the surface (although they don't do this very often), their experience from the deep parts of the ocean is transported to that above the water. And, so, it can be symbolic of the things that humans don't know.

Little Stingray with Hawaiian Influences Back Tattoo

Image by @siiliufau via Instagram

There is also the fact that when you see a manta ray in its natural habitat, it is a truly magnificent experience. In turn, this can not only fill you with wonder but also help you to connect with nature and your surroundings on a deeper level.

Manta Ray, Hawaiian, Maori, and Samoan Tattoo Designs

Image by @funhousetattoo via Instagram

Once again, with such Hawaiian tattoos, you have the option of getting a realistic manta ray. Or, you can choose to include tribal or traditional elements in the design to more closely associate it with Hawaii.

Polynesian Styled Manta Ray Thigh Tattoo

Image by @tattooshurt via Instagram

Moʻo Hawaiian Tattoos

Geckos may not be native to Hawaii, but they do play an important role in the culture. See, it used to be a popular belief that moʻo, Hawaiian dragons, or giant lizards could shapeshift and take on the appearance of a gecko.

Hawaiian Gecko Shoulder Tattoo

Image by @kendallbitton via Instagram

The reason that this was important is because the moʻo could possess impressive powers. Some had the power to destroy while others could be good to you and your household as long as you took care of them properly. If you failed to care for them, they could turn on you and bad luck could follow you.

Polynesian Themed Hawaiian Gecko Tattoo

Image by @tattootris via Instagram

Interestingly enough, this is indicative of an important aspect of Hawaiian culture. Many people do believe that you will get out what you put out into the world and how you treat others. So, this kind of tattoo can be a reminder of how you should be fair and just to all, especially if you want to be treated in this way too.

Tribal Hawaiian Gecko Tattoo

Image by @bonedeep via Instagram

You can decide to get a Hawaiian tattoo of one of the gecko species found in Hawaii. Your other option would be to consider Hawaiian tattoo designs where the gecko was inked according to a tribal pattern.  

Island Tattoos

Are you looking for Hawaiian tattoos that directly depict the region? If so, then you can go ahead and get an island tattoo. As the name suggests, these tattoos are based on the islands.

Hawaiian Islands as Gemstones Tattoo

Image by @janelleenvytattoo via Instagram

If you want, you can choose to depict one or more islands based on how they would appear on a map. In case you would like a slightly more personal approach to your body art, then you can consider the view from an island.

Sunset and Underwater Hawaiian Arm Tattoo

Image by @inkjunkyelvis via Instagram

There are plenty of additional elements that you can add to this kind of Hawaiian Polynesian tattoo. This includes crashing waves, shark teeth, traditional symbols, and anything else that you feel associates your tattoo more closely with Hawaii.

Hawaiian Tropical Island Arm Tattoo

Image by @savvy_tattooer via Instagram

Although this sounds like a pretty straightforward tattoo idea, there are a few different ways that you can get creative with it and make this tattoo your own. Fortunately, I have found some examples of this here and you can take inspiration from it for your tattoo!

Colorful Hawaiian Themed Full Sleeve Tattoo

Image by @ericziobrowski via Instagram

Tribal Themed Island Forearm Tattoo

Image by @holomua_tattoo via Instagram

Hawaii Island Themed Back Tattoo

Image by @colekawika via Instagram

Makau Tattoos

Makau is essentially fishing hooks - so why would you want to get a tattoo of a hook that was used for fishing? Well, this is because makau holds a fair amount of significance in Hawaiian culture.

Makau Fishing Hook Tattoo

Image by @victoriantattoowaikiki via Instagram

See, fishing was an important part of the culture because it provided food. As such, fisherman saw producing well-crafted hooks as a way of showing their respect for fish and the nourishment that they provided.

Grey Wash The Makau Tattoo

Image by @nephtali_brugueras_jr via Instagram

Hawaiians have been working on perfecting their hooks from generation to generation. So, this tattoo can also be a beautiful homage to all the people who came before you.

Makau Fishing Hook Ankle Tattoo

Image by @victoriantattoowaikiki via Instagram

Also, the hooks were carefully designed to match the kind of fish that the fishermen were trying to catch. Fishermen worked hard on these and sometimes even hid the hooks to avoid others seeing what they had created.

Makau with Plumeria and Monstera Leaf Tattoo

Image by @laura3mary_tattoos via Instagram

So, this kind of tattoo can also be a way to honor this art form as well.

Polynesian Design Makau Leg Tattoo

Image by @tigertattoo_spokane via Instagram

Do Hawaiians Have Traditional Tattoos?

Yes, they do- they are known as Kakau tattoos. It is important to remember that the patterns of these tattoos are unique to Hawaiian culture and can be quite different from other Polynesian regions. So, if this is a tattoo that you want to get, it is important to do your research.

Can I Get a Hawaiian Tattoo If I'm Not Hawaiian?

This is a bit of a tricky question to answer. If you want to be completely sure of how appropriate it would be for you to get a Hawaiian tattoo, then you may want to speak to native Hawaiians, particularly elders. They may be able to tell you whether this is a suitable tattoo for you or not.

Keep in mind that if you do decide to get a Hawaiian tattoo, it is important to do some research and find authentic design ideas. You should always be respectful of the culture that you are borrowing from.

What is the Most Popular Tattoo in Hawaii?

There isn't just one popular design. However, some of the top options are tribal tattoos, hibiscus flowers, sea turtles, etc.

Well, there you have it - the top Hawaiian tattoos for you to choose from! It doesn't matter if you want something fun or something meaningful, you can find a wide variety of tattoos to suit your style!

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