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Protected by a hard shell, equipped to navigate both land and water, capable of crossing oceans and exceptionally long-lived, it is no wonder that the turtle has been revered for thousands of years by cultures all over the world as a symbol of strength, stability and stamina. Although tattoo art has been embraced by numerous cultures throughout history, nowhere has the sea turtle been associated with tattoos more than in the Pacific Islands. The art of tattooing has been prevalent on almost every shore of the Pacific, but achieved particular significance in Polynesia, the area defined by Hawaii in the north, New Zealand to the west, and Easter Island to the east. Where a person stood in the hierarchical society of Polynesia was determined by their current role in the tribe, as well as by their genealogy and maturity. Shark, lizard and turtle tattoo designs were primary symbols, used throughout Polynesian society. One Hawaiian myth says that it was "Honu" (Hawaiian for turtle) who guided the first inhabitants of Hawaii to their new home.
Although there are alternate myths, a reverence for the turtle's prowess in navigation is part of the Hawaiian culture.
Capable of laying a hundred eggs at one time, they are viewed as symbols of fertility and creation. The sea turtle's ability to return home connects them with guidance, good luck and faithfulness. Their slow movement has some negative connotations, such as the decreased mobility of old age, but primarily the slow, dogged movement of turtles denotes steadfastness, as in Aesop's fable of the tortoise winning the race against the hare. Polynesian tattoos are an ancient art that has been receiving a lot of attention in modern times.
The people of the Polynesian islands have evolved their own distinct culture over hundreds, even thousands of years. Polynesia is a group of islands spread over the Pacific Ocean (over 1000; Polynesia is the Greek word for many islands).
Hawaii: Hawaiian tattoo designs are distinct from other Polynesian tattoos in that sense that they have a more personal meaning. Samoa: Samoan tattoos are generally very large and denote the social status and rank of the man or woman who wears it.


French Polynesia (Tahiti): traditionally, only people of a high social ranking had tattoos. The Marquesa Islands: a group of islands in French Polynesia with a deeply rooted tattoo tradition.
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Covering one third of the planet, the Pacific Ocean is the realm of the sea turtle, and upon every land mass that the turtle has visited, legends and myths have arisen about the singular creature.
Mohawk mythology ascribes earthquakes to the great World Turtle, stretching in reaction to bearing the weight of the world. As a culture with no writing, the Polynesians not only used tattoos as talismans of protection and spirituality, but as a way to exhibit their status. An ancient petroglyph that depicts a turtle with a vertical line drawn down its shell supports this mythology.
Ancient Hawaiians believed that their "Aumakua" (guardian spirits) could take the shape of a variety of animals, including the turtle. The curved, intact nature of the turtle shape makes it a good artistic choice for shoulder designs. These turtles are generally depicted cheerfully, viewed as a symbol that a positive attitude and determined effort spell success in life. Though few of us who are not from the Polynesian islands would be willing to undergo the painful and lengthy procedure that real Polynesian tattoos necessitate, we might well be attracted to elements of the traditional tribal designs and wish to incorporate them into our own tattoos – using modern methods (most of us anyway). Though there are many islands in this area, the people all came from a common homeland – though no one is exactly sure where this might have been, or when they came or how. Women and men had a combination of bold lines and dots on their forehead, from one ear to the other. On Samoa the art of tattooing stayed alive throughout history, where in other parts of Polynesia, tattoos disappeared after missionaries banned them.


They cover almost half of a man’s body, starting from just under the ribcage, and continuing down to the ankles. The people of the Marquesa islands were the most heavily tattooed of all the Polynesian tribes.
For example, practically all of these people practice the art of tattooing, and they do so in startlingly similar ways. The tattoo process was very painful and a lot of perseverance was needed to endure the long tattoo sessions. By looking at a tattoo, insiders get to know the social status and rank of the tattooed person. A tribal turtle tattoo might have had a more significant meaning to one tribe than another, gaining particular importance through an association to family genealogy.
A 19th century missionary to Polynesia recorded that Pa te Pou Ariki, Chief of the Takitumu tribe in Rarotonga (one of the Cook Islands) had turtle tattoos on both knees. It is said the great turtle Kailua would turn into a human female and appear to protect children playing on the beach from danger.
The missionary noted that the turtle symbol was "reserved for the chief alone," indicating that the turtle was deeply associated with the chief's genealogy.
Because they had no written language, tattoos were used to depict social status, family history and spirituality. Temples were the home of those large wooden Tiki statues, who have tattoo patterns on the hands and the face.



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