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How to choose your tattoo design

Every tattoo is an attempt by the wearer to express themselves, for themselves or to display to others. The content, colour, placement, size, shape and style of a tattoo are all variables which can be manipulated to help that attempt at self-expression. All these variables interact -- change one, you may have to change another or more. Often the tattoo that gets regretted is the result of a hastily made choice with the tattoo lasting longer than the whim of a moment. If you are not 100% sure about what you want, it may mean you aren’t ready for it. Keep searching in tattoo galleries, books, photos in tattoo shops, until you know for sure what kind of design and style you want.

To understand the process of how a tattoo is created by transforming sentiments into a design, please read Steve’s testimony (wonderfully tattooed by Marama, Bora Bora).

Tattoo Styles


Polynesian style is a branch of the Tribal style whose characteristic is bold black abstracts or figurative designs There are many different Polynesian styles of tattooing: Marquesan, Tahitian, Samoan, Hawaiian, Maori... Every Polynesian island has its own style and every tattooist also has his own style - more modern or more traditional, fineline highly detailed work that utilizes delicate single-needle outlines, or rougher style, more oriented on design or more oriented on symbolism...

The traditional styles of each archipelago of Oceania are presented in the online dictionary.

About the Meaning


A Dictionary of Polynesian Tattoo Symbols is available on this site (to subscribers). Until recently the “Bible” for Polynesian tattoo was the famous book by Karl von den Steinen which describes throughly traditional Marquesan patterns, their place on the body. But the meaning of the motifs was not mentioned clearly. You had to kind of decipher the ethnologic account in order to try to figure out the meanings.

This deciphering has been done for you in the Dictionary of Polynesian Tattoo Symbols. Every illustrations of Steinen’s book are presented in our online Dictionary of Polynesian Symbols.

About a Polynesian Alphabet


Many people ask if there is a Polynesian alphabet. The only written Polynesian script that we know is the Easter Island Rongo-Rongo. But these pictograms have not yet been fully deciphered. Artists can create letters in a Polynesian style - Marquesan, Hawaiian, Maori, Samoan, etc. There is a full Polynesian alphabet in our Dictionary of Polynesian Symbols.

Flash vs. Custom Art

Flash consists of pre-priced stock designs displayed on the walls of tattoo shops. Most tattooists consider Flash the 'bread and butter' of the industry because the easily reproduced designs tend to cost proportionately less.


Flash is the pattern-sheet and rubber-stamp school of tattooing which supplies tattooists with simple, easily transferable, mass-produced designs from which a client could choose an image as if he were choosing wallpaper. To choose an off the peg design on the spur of the moment is risky. Offered the restriction of having to wear the same outfit, or drive the same car 'forever', would you choose the first one to catch your eye?

Custom art may involve a design that the client brings into the studio or a collaboration between artist and client to create an original, one-of-a-kind piece of art. Custom work usually requires a consultation wherein design, placement, price and other concerns are discussed. Expect to pay a deposit when you book the actual tattoo appointment. An intricate design may take hours to research and create before the needle ever touches the skin. You can save money by doing a lot of the research yourself (i.e. bring in photocopies of images, designs, symbols, etc. that you want incorporated into your tattoo). Don't haggle with the price - if you have a budget, say so. Expect to pay for the best results unless you believe that you do not deserve the best.

Custom Design by Email

If there is no Polynesian-style tattooist close to your place, you can have a custom tattoo design done by a professional artist and sent to you by email. Then any good tattooist will be able to ink it on you. The design will be done according with your own life and symbols. Prices vary according to the size of the design. More details about the custom design service.

Choosing the artist

Choosing your tattoo has a lot to do with choosing the artist. Except if you already have your design on a piece of paper and only need to have it reproduced on your skin (which can be done by any good professional*). But in most cases the artist will have a large influence on the style of your tattoo. You will choose the studio mostly by looking at the pictures of their work. While doing that, keep in mind that some studios might present pictures of tattoos which were done by artists not working anymore for that studio. So make sure that the tattooist is still working for that studio. There is also the risk of dishonest studios which present photos of tattoos done by others. Although uncommon, this practice exists. I had to ban a studio from this site for that reason. I have selected for you a list of artists who work in Polynesian style. Some are specializing in Polynesian, others do other styles too.

* You should choose an artist who at least does some tribal to make sure he likes this style and will do your tattoo with gusto ;-)

Machine or traditional hand-tap


The traditional hand-tap tattoo tools are not as precise as tattoo machines but they are not more painful. Some people say they are actually less painful because the tapping rhythm is quite slow in comparison with the speed of the needle machine.

One or two stretchers (helpers who stretch the skin) are needed depending on the size of the tattoo.

In Tahiti, for health reasons, hand-tap combs are used only once. The artist makes the tattoo tools specially for each client who will take them home at the end of the tattooing.

The cutting edge of the tattoo combs are preferably made of boar tusk.

Several combs of different sizes are necessary for each tatau.

Hand-tap tattoos are much more expensive because the client needs to pay for the stretchers and for the tools, but it is certainly a unique experience.


Online Dictionary of Polynesian Tattoo Symbols. See details for access.

Best Polynesian tattoo pictures. See Gallery.

Tattooists list sorted by countries. See our Tattooists page.

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