Tattoo Traditions of Polynesia
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Do you use a machine or old style tools?
I tattoo with machine for several reasons.  Most people today want real precision in their designs that isn't possible with bone tools.  With the bone tools you get a very simple, bold look.  Also, traditional tools can be a health risk if not handled properly, whereas everything I use is disposable.  If someone wants a tattoo done with traditional tools, I would recommend Su'a Sulu'ape Aisea Toetu'u at Soul Signature in Honolulu. He has developed a way of hafting stainless steel disposable needles onto traditional tools, so it is perfectly safe and gives a slightly cleaner, sharper looking line. Aisea's website is
How does one go about getting an appointment with you?
It's fairly easy, check the schedule and appointments link on my home page and ideally, give me a call. If you are SURE you want an appointment sometime within my next few trips, then you'll want to get your deposit sent in. I do consultations free, either by phone or I person.  I talk far faster than I type and there's a lot of information to communicate initially to a first-time client, so e-mail can be restrictive. Once I get a sense for what you're looking for, I'll email you sample photographs of tattoos I've already done, just to get a better sense of what you really like stylistically. We'll discuss meanings on the phone, as it is too complex to e-mail. Once we narrow down the style and the meaning that you want, then I can start drawing for you and sending sketches via e-mail. Typically after this process involves three to five phone calls and five to eight e-mails. When your art is done & we know how long we need for your appointment block, then we should be ready to look at scheduling your actual appointment date & time. I give preference in scheduling according to the date of deposit, so signing up early is a good thing.
What about meaning?  Do all Polynesian tattoos have different meanings?  And is there a good website or a book with a list of motif meanings?
Meanings are complicated. In ancient times most of the symbols had meanings, but not all of those are known today. It varies from island group to island group as to how much information was recorded before the demise of the art. In some cases, like the Marquesas, meanings are pretty well known. In other cases, we know very little. The same symbol would not necessarily carry the same meaning from one island group to the next. As for an easily available source or list of meanings, no there isn't, and if you see one, be skeptical!  BEWARE OF TATTOO DICTIONARIES!  Meanings are complicated enough that the interpretation may vary from one family to the next or from one valley to the next. They are NOT universal, by any means.  Even within a single island group, such as Hawaii, not everybody will interpret the same symbol the same way.  It's only through reading all of the original documents  (most of which are the journals of the early explorers and first visitors to the islands) can we get an inkling of what the designs might have meant in ancient times. Or in some cases, talking to elders IF the knowledge was retained over the years. Most symbols found their origins in nature-- they are visual translations from our surrounding environment. Now, most of those elements also carry a deeper significance, like the Samoan canoe that is represented in the pe'a signifies the individual's maturity and ability to carry his responsibility of his family and village. A canoe however, might have very different meanings in another island groups, or might not have been used at all!
How does go about choosing a design that has meaning today?
The first step (and perhaps the hardest) is to narrow down what you want to convey and what you want your tattoo to mean. I suggest creating a list and identify what is important enough for you to wear on your body for life.  Some of these points might translate and some of them will not. As a general rule, abstracts, concepts might not. Also, if something wasn't a prevalent feature in Polynesian culture, it would not be represented. For example, independence was not something viewed in a positive light. Polynesian cultures were community oriented so they wouldn't have valued or symbolized independence. And physical elements not found in Polynesian cultures will not be represented, such as an eagle. Now, there is nothing wrong with taking non-Polynesian designs and representing them in a Polynesian-influenced style. This is done fairly frequently, but is not truly a Polynesian tattoo.  But perhaps this is appropriate as we are modern people faced with a myriad of outside influences. Your best bet is to find an artist that has lived in the islands and truly studied the art (including the older documents) and working with them to create something meaningful for you.
How much of what we see today is truly traditional—I mean that it's the same design with the same meaning worn in ancient times?
Very little.  Most of what is done today is a modern interpretation of the older styles, incorporating both old symbols with modern or borrowed ones. Tahitian tattooing today, or example, is drastically different than Tahitian tattoos of ancient times. In early times, they were much like the designs seen in a Samoan woman's malu. Today what I a call the pan-Polynesian style is by far the most popular. This is a blend of elements from a number of the island cultures recombined into modern designs which are heavily influenced by the older styles. Remember, we are modern people!  Wearing modern designs is not inappropriate.
Do you do both ancient and modern styles?
Yes, I do both. Usually the decision as to what is appropriate for a particular person to wear depends on how deeply involved they are with a given culture. For some cultural practitioners, it is most appropriate that they wear the designs of their ancestors, whereas for outsiders, modern variations are often more appropriate.
So do you only tattoo Polynesians?
No, I tattoo lots of folks from a wide range of cultures and backgrounds.
But you only tattoo Polynesian designs?
95% of what I do is Polynesian, or Polynesian-inspired. But I also do other Pacific styles (Micronesian and Melanesian), NW Coast designs, Celtic designs, sometimes even Kanji characters.  I only do black graphic tattoos, though. No color and nothing realistic (like a portrait).
Will you just create a design for a tattoo so I can have an artist in my area apply it?
I work in Hawaii, San Francisco, Los Angeles and North San Diego County and about 20% of my clients fly in for their appointments.  But if you can't get to me, no, I don't do design work for other tattooists. There are several Polynesian tattooists who are excellent artists and will often do this pending their schedule. You can contact any one of them to discuss your needs and work out a price which can be paid via paypal and do the process online via email. For a list of these artists see, UNDER DEVELOPMENT—please check back .
Can you interpret or tell me the meaning of the tattoo I already wear?
No, that's not my responsibility.  Again, meanings are complicated in this truly was the responsibility of your tattooist at the time of your tattoo.
How can someone reach you?  I see your phone number, but not an e-mail.

Yes, I truly prefer the phone, if you are within the US or Canada. If you are out of the US, you can e-mail me at Oftentimes when I am traveling I cannot check e-mail regularly, then I return home to a huge backlog.  If you don't get a response, check my schedule and please resend when you know I'm home. Calling is usually better, though. My home number in Hawai'i: (808) 734-8677 (please remember we are 2 hours earlier than CA).

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