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The style and practices of tattooing that were part of the native Hawaiian culture are part of the family of Polynesian cultures that all practiced tattooing. The tattooing wasn't just ornamental, but an integral part of their social and spiritual expression as well.
As with many other Polynesian cultures, in Hawaiian tattooing, the most elaborate designs and the heaviest application of imagery is on the royal family and highest ranking social classes, tapering off as you move down the social chain. Certain patterns and designs were reserved for royalty, and in fact, the tattoos worn helped identify just what part of the social strata to which the wearer belonged. Men were tattooed more heavily than women, with designs on their bodies and limbs. Hawaiian women were primarily tattooed on their lower arms and hands, and sometimes as a sign of mourning, on their tongues.
Designs were monochromatic, a darkish blue-black against the natural skin tone. The images were taken from the natural Hawaiian landscape, with many of the geometric patterns reflecting plants, birds and sea life. Tattooing tied closely with Hawaiian spiritual life, with tattoos relating to blessings, protection, healing and death.
Inks were made from plant materials or the soot from burned kukui nuts. Various British sailors noted fish oil or coconut oil added to the ink mix from time to time. The tattoos were hand-struck, using bone and stick implements. The tattoo needle was on a stick, and was then hit with a second stick to make the skin puncture. The needle itself might have been carved from bird beak or a fish bone.
Modern day Hawaiian tattooing shows vibrant interpretations of traditional Hawaiian tattoo designs as well as designs that have evolved as part of American tattoo culture but connected to Hawaii. Every sailor who got tattooed in Hawaii in W.W.II got a hula girl on his arm so he could make her dance. Floral tattoos are popular souvenirs with modern visitors as is the ever-present tribal tattoo armband.
If you'd like more information about Hawaiian tattooing, you might like
Tattoo Traditions of Hawaii
by Tricia Allen
The Hawaiian Tattoo
also by P. F. Kwiatkowski
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