Posts Tagged ‘mata hoata’

Aloha! Here are some tattoos that I have done over the past few weeks and am finally getting around to posting. I won’t get into too much detail with each one but will give an overview instead, since this is mainly for the tattoo collector to understand the symbols being used.

Here is the breakdown:

IMG_2061 nate

This tattoo was his first and the intention behind it was to mark his life at this point, to pay tribute to his family and to give him strength as he goes forth in life and joins the military. (His skin was barely recovered from a sunburn). He will eventually get a sleeve with this shoulder cap acting as the basis.

a) matavau = harpoon: hunter of fish, love of fishing.

b) hulu pu’eo = owl feathers (x2): this is for his family aumakua, the owl.

c) nalu = wave: love of the sea.

d) niho = tooth: protection, protection of the tattoo.

e) ka’ake = upraised arm: strength, warrior.

f) niho, see d.

g) hena/i’ima = hand; this holds the tattoo to his body.


This tattoo of a honu, or turtle was meant to be an overall protective piece, as is the nature of the honu. It is populated with motifs specific to his time and place in life, at the moment. It is symmetrical and so the meaning on one side is reflected on the other. it was finished off with traditional tap tatau.

a) pepehipu = pounded, armor: this is an analog to tapa cloth that was used as armor in battle. Here it protects the turtle from attack.

b) koru = Unfurling fern head: life, breath, growth.

c) niho = tooth: protection, protection of the tattoo.

d) kofati = fold/crease: this symbol is a mark of authority.

e) mata = eye: to look out for danger, to protect.

f) ama kopeka/ ahi = flame/fire: fire or light to illuminate his path as he moves forward. This motif augments ‘g’, as well.

g) manu = bird: freedom, flight, direction, home.

h) mata hoata = all-seeing eyes: protects from unseen dangers, is also the face of the honu in this case.


This chest plate is a continuation of the Polynesian theme that he has going on on the right side of his body. I did not do any of the other work, nor did I do the Borneo rose that this tattoo surrounds.
The upper portion was done several weeks before and had not finished healing completely when I went back over some of the areas. This is why some of it appears puffy.

a) kofati = crease/fold: symbolizing nobility and connectedness with the earth.

b) (twin) koru = Unfurling fern head: life, breath, growth.

c) unaunahi = fish scales: symbolizes his love and respect of the sea.

d) mata hoata = all-seeing eyes: protects from unseen dangers. In this instance, done in profile with the row of niho acting as the mouth; the upper portion near the rose is the eye.

e) ama kopeka/ ahi = flame/fire: fire or light to illuminate his path as he moves forward.

f) hena/i’ima = hand; this holds the tattoo to his body.

g) hoka = rafter: this rafter motif symbolizes bravery and courage and is populated with etua in Fibonacchi sequence.

h) creator etua = gosling: this represents the wearer as a father.

i) peka ou mei = protective spirit: protection from evil.

j) ka’ake = upraised arm: strength, warrior.


This shoulder cap was his first tattoo and is a unique tiki that overall, displays the image of a star gazing fisherman. This person is an amateur astronomer and came here with the intent to visit Mauna Kea to see the stars. He wanted something to commemorate this, as well as show his love of the sea and fishing in particular. Because the ancient Polynesians utilized the stars to navigate, this all made perfect sense! This is another mirrored image with the symbols on both sides having the same meaning and intent.

a) nutu kaha = mouth: power and protection given by ancestors.

b) mekau = fish hook: these two hooks, back to back, make up the jawline of the tiki and represent his love of fishing.

c) hinenao/pahoe = cherished daughter/ wife: love for the female members of his family.

d) hikuhiku tau = bonito (tuna) tails: warrior, speed, to run quickly.

e) hena/i’ima = hand; this holds the tattoo to his body. It is also the ears of the tiki.

f) mata hoata = all-seeing eyes: protects from unseen dangers, and is also the upward looking eyes of the star gazer.

g) ani ata = the sky, the heavens: the heavens, the place where angels dwell, promise, success.


This lower shoulder cap is meant to create symmetry from the piece above it (shark aumakua, not done by me) so that we can begin to create a sleeve. The entire piece is family-centric.

a) pepehipu = pounded tapa cloth: this area is meant as armor and protects the entire tattoo. It is also inset with niho for added strength.

b) lauhala = woven mat analog; family unity; binds the elements in this tattoo.

c) koru = Unfurling fern head: life, breath, growth.

black d) hiki a tama = cherished child: there are 6 simplified hiki a tama motifs that adorn the koru, each one symbolizing a grandchild.

white d) niho = tooth: This motif is an extension of koru/hiki a tama and represents his children.

e) niho = tooth: This ties in with the entire ‘g’ motif and represent the years that he and his wife were married (34).

f) niho = tooth: This trio of niho represent the holy trinity.

g) itiiti’i/niho = alliance/ teeth: This binding motif represents his marriage to his wife. There are 2 niho; one on each side of the binding that represent him and his wife, respectively.

Thank you all for looking and aloha!


I had a ton of fun with this tattoo! Meeting with the client. determining his history, drawing up the piece and then executing it, galvanized within me, the reason that I love my job so much: meeting and spending time with like-minded individuals.
This person hails from the Similkameen Indian Band (which is an offshoot of the Okanagan First Nation) in B.C., Canada. We immediately hit it off when he and his girlfriend came into the shop, asking about the significance of Polynesian tattoo. Because Polynesians and Native Americans are sister cultures, we ended up discussing the similarities of both and found that as individuals, he and I were very much the same in regards to our beliefs in both our cultures and personal lives. It is for these rare interactions, that I live to do what I do. I love meeting people from other parts of the world that have a profound love and respect for culture and spirituality as I do. It is rare, indeed and I covet those times like a junkie.
He had much history to discuss and like most folks it was filled with both happiness and sadness, love and loss, turmoil and prosperity. What we decided to glorify in this piece was his connection with the earth and the love for his family as the center point. He lives in a small village, virtually off the grid, and so his sense of community and connection to the ancient ways of his ancestors were also key points to consider. Hunting, communing with nature and respecting the practices of his ancestors are a very large part of his everyday life. I wanted to show that in the tattoo and it was not difficult. Sometimes tattoos design themselves and this is such a case.
I am so happy with this design because it manifested itself organically and in the end, displayed characteristics that were true to classic Marquesan tattoo (CMT) design, without anything being forced.
That is indeed a rarity.
Balance was what I chose to focus on because he was born on the scorpio/libra cusp and felt that balance was a key element in shaping his life. So everything in this piece is symmetrical and a mirror of itself, much like CMT. Not only that, but the entire piece works on the dual plane principle of CMT as well.
When all paka are taken into account (from a frontal plane), the entire piece can be seen to resemble an etua, or godling/divinity. The circle makes the head with each wedge shaped paka resembling (two upper and two lower, at each side of the tattoo) arms and legs, respectively.
As it happened to turn out, also along this frontal plane, another shape manifested itself in the lower quadrant, and that is the image of a face, with the koru forming a nose and the two ipu on either sides acting as eyes.
I did not intentionally set out to make this happen, it just occurred organically, which is always the best way for this to happen!
So, here is a breakdown of the motifs that speak of this person’s past and also giving him guidance and protection in the future.

Top to bottom:

The upper portion of this piece is split into 3 paka, with the circle being the center piece. From top to bottom the circle contains the following:

a) Past, present and future waves (hala, ano, mua) done as a flowing ribbon. The top arc is his past, the middle two converging lines are the present and the small pint at which they converge, the future.

b) Star (hoku), this is in reference to his spirit animal, the horse, as well as illuminates and guides him to prosperity in all future endeavors.

c) Birds (na manu), these birds represent his two daughters as well as freedom.

d) Sky/heavens/ancestors (ani ata) this represents his ancestors looking over him

Because of the symmetry of this piece, I will explain both right and left paka as one.

e) Hand (hena, i’ima) this hand holds the tattoo to the body.

f) Teeth (niho), protection

g) Palm frond (lau niu), connection to the earth, nobility

h) Eye (mata), to look out for danger, protection

When the two paka are viewed as one this is the All-seeing eyes, or mata hoata (protection from future threats)

i) Eye (mata), to look out for danger, protection

j) Spear (ihe), symbolizing the hunter

k) Teeth (niho), protection

l) Container of mana (ipu), container of power, the universe and creation

m) Container of mana (ipu), container of power, the universe and creation

n) Fish net (pahiko a tuivi), the purpose of this motif is to catch sin, or protect from sin

o) Hand (hena, i’ima) this hand holds the tattoo to the body.

p) Eye (mata), to look out for danger, protection

q) Fernhead (koru), Maori shape symbolizing growth, new beginnings, breath and life. Flowing from opposite directions for balance.

Thank you for spending time reading my blog and thank you for your interest in Polynesian tattoos.
Aloha and peace! R

kane_bd 10590697_10204863204361570_1296974058169257576_n

This client wanted a piece that could be added to at a latter date, one that reflected his new direction in life while combining elements of his family lineage, past occupation and love of music. I included a protection motif, as such things are an intrinsic aspect of Polynesian tattoo to a greater or lesser degree.

The breakdown of the piece is as follows:

a) Koru with kape and pakura elements- The koru is a Maori motif and has several meanings but are generally meant to convey life, breath or new beginnings. In this case it represents this person’s new direction in life.
The line elements in the tattoo represent a non-curved variation of pakura, or footprints of the swamp hen. They are simply meant to connect the tattoo and are also placed on the outside of koru.
The circular motifs  on the outside of the koru are called, kape and represent eyebrows/lashes. This symbol represents beauty, attention, and intelligence.

b) Mata hoata- All seeing eye motif is done in profile in this tattoo. The nose can be seen at the bottom of this motif, moving upward we can see the eye as the principle element. At the bottom there are a row of niho. The entire motif is to look out for danger; to protect him from threats when his attention may be elsewhere.

c) Koru with pakura

d) Ipu- Container of mana, the universe. Ipu are containers that store mana (power) but also represent the female uterus vis a vis creation. It is used to show the creation of all things and therefore is synonymous with the universe. The ipu in this sense represents his creation of music.

e) Ama kopeka- Fire. This speaks of his past as a firefighter. The flame also represents illumination and is also a symbol of defiance when used with vai meama.

f) Niho- Teeth. These symbols are spread throughout this piece and all are done in Fibonacci sequence to represent the mana inherent in everything in nature. They are a protective as well as warrior motif.

g) Unaunahi- Fish scales. This Maori symbol was used a lot in woodcarving and represents fish scales which themselves represent abundance (of food) or bounty. In this tattoo there are 4 scales, each representing a member of his family that are healers (nurses, doctors, etc.).

h) Koru with pakura.

Looking forward to adding to this beast!

I hope you enjoyed the breakdown. Peace and aloha!

roger_chest rogerbd

This chest tattoo was conceived as an aesthetic piece rather than a specific representational piece reflecting family, protection, or any other personal intent. I enjoy creating these pieces because there is less emphasis on retaining and conveying meaning in individual parts. More effort can be put into making the overall piece shine as a whole, rather than attempting to bring cohesion to a collection of pieces.
The motifs that are used are a mix of modern Marquesan and Maori. The chest plate and subsequent paka comprised of a-g, is a mata hoata, or brilliant eyes. This is to provide another set of eyes that look out for danger and protect the person. Above the mata hoata is a lei of ani ata, representing the horizon, clouds, heaven and ancestors. I placed a mata komoe, or death’s head motif in the center to refer to this person’s warrior spirit and ‘dark side’.
I chose to use koru throughout to match the piece on his left arm that was a poorly executed Maori piece and also because I felt that this tattoo was a new beginning of sorts, for this person. The difficulty, I thought, would be to blend the Western tribal on his right side (that I did not do) with the Polynesian style on his left (out of view in this shot, did not do, either), but in the end, it didn’t look all that disparate and actually flows well, in my opinion.
What you see in the top shot (before) are the stencils applied to the area. All other work was done free hand. There is more to this piece than is shown as he wanted to fill in gaps at the back of his arms. Eventually, this will include a full back plate.
This was done over two sessions; five hours each. I used Stigma V3 and Centri machines, and Fusion Ink as always.

Breakdown of motifs:

a) hope vehine/kea= creation, protection
b) ihu=  nose: breath, life (nose of mata hoata)
c) niho= teeth: courage, to protect from pain/harm
d) koru= breath, life, new beginnings (some contain open, curved lines called pakura, representing bird foot prints)
e) kai, tai= ocean
f) niho peata/ mano= shark teeth, warrior spirit, to devour, to drive out (mouth of the mata hoata)
g) mata= eyes (eyes of the mata hoata)
h) any ata= clouds, horizon where the sea meets the sky, heaven, ancestors watching over
i) mata komoe= death’s head: warrior spirit
j) ama kopeka= flame, dancing flame: fire that keeps death at bay
k) kohati= fold, crease: mark of authority
l) unaunahi= fish scales: love of the sea, fisherman
m) hinenao= love, to love passionately (representing his wife)
n) ka’ake= upraised arm: strength, power, rainbow, to lift, fly, generosity
o) pohu= Marquesan folk hero; bravery, courage

Peace! R

jimmy_ribs jimmy_bd

This person came to me with the intent of adding to his collection of traditional Marquesan tattoo. He already had the idea of the shape of the paka and the motifs to populate the piece. It is very straight forward in placement and execution, with the mata hoata directly under his armpit. The next motif was inspired by a paweke, in this case a weave pattern, that his mother created, by accident one day as she was weaving. I really appreciate inclusion of motifs that have a personal connection with the person being tattooed. The other motifs are for his own personal reasons and so I won’t elaborate.


a) mata hoata: brilliant eye, used to foresee danger and protect

b) poi’i: sacred  shell (fish), this is a symbol of distinction, wealth and also an analog to the creator of the universe

c) pawehe: this is his mother’s weave pattern

d) niho: teeth, this protects the tattoo

e) feo’o: compass, this gives direction, guidance

f) hope vehine: backside of woman, this is a protective symbol, strength symbol and an analog to the twin goddesses of tattoo


The mata hoata, or ‘brilliant eyes’, seeming ubiquity in Marquesan tattoo, places it in a position of prominence in the hierarchy of motifs utilized by the Marquesans. As I touched upon in the above post in regards to the ‘evolution’ of the poi’i via mata komoe (death’s head), which I believe is incorrect, the general ‘understanding’ is that the mata komoe begat the mata hoata.


My intention for presenting index theory arguments regarding Marquesan tattoo imagery is to provide a different reasoning to the conventional accepted wisdom, on the basis that such wisdom often originated from a non-Polynesian perspective desperate to ‘fit’ the Polynesian mindset into a westernized viewpoint and ideology. Much of what we know in regards to Marquesan tattoo comes from Langsdorff, Krusenstern, Von den Steinen, Handy, and to a greater extent, the intellectual acrobatics of Gell. Naturalists, explorers, artists and anthropologists, the lot of them, but still, they might as well have all been aliens landing on a foreign planet called the Marquesas. And they were.

Von den Steinen created the most complete account of the art of the peoples of the Marquesas. His three volume set sheds a glaring light where none had shone before. He illuminated a very important part of Polynesian culture that would have surely become lost to time had he not done so. In fact, if he did not possess incredible artistic talent (coupled with the classic Teutonic predisposition for accuracy and meticulousness) I would have very little to write about on the subject of Marquesan tattoo!

That being said, Von den Steinen relied on, and became obsessed with, a very popular scientific theory of the time, that being Darwin’s evolutionary theory. Von den Steinen was born four years after, On the Origins of Species, was published.

I do not intend to get into Von den Steinen’s head, nor pretend to know intimate details about the man, but I will say that his obsession with recognizing evolution in everything around, was what caused him to make broad generalizations about many of things that he encountered. To a fault (in my humble opinion).

This particular skewed perception is what he based all of his account of Marquesan tattoo art; to a lesser degree with Marquesan plastic art.

The mata hoata is one such symbol that he felt ‘evolved’ from other symbols. Not necessarily  in the sense of a chronological evolution (like the latest sports car taking styling cues from a line of predecessors), but in the sense that if you took ‘exhibit A’ and turned it clockwise, then cut it in half, it would form ‘exhibit B’. He believed that much of Marquesan art maintained this sort of progression; that one thing begat another, then another begat another, and so on.

Looking at Marquesan tattoo art from this perspective, it is easy to see why he believed he was correct. A great deal of the artwork looks indeed like bastardized versions of completely unrelated subject matter. The Kea (turtle) motif, if split in half and turned 90 degrees does indeed seem to form the basis for the Kena’s bath motif, as well as the general shape of the Hope Vehine (women’s buttocks) motif. The Aniata motif (clouded sky or heaven) does look like a dumbed down version of an extended Etua (gosling) motif. The concept of dualities and multiplicity was something that the Marquesans certainly embraced as a culture, but to gloss everything that they produced as ‘evolutions’ of one or another base concepts, does not place much value on the artist, or his/her agency. Inspiration is a very key ingredient of creation (if any of you have had the ‘pleasure’ of reading Gell’s books you will see this theory argued>into>the>ground) and simply stating that it is evolution is a great disservice to the field.

My argument, in terms of Marquesan art not being solely a product of re-iterations of themes, stems from two simple points.

First, despite Von den Steinen creating an exquisite collection of Marquesan art, he only spent 6 months in the islands, in the year 1897. This is not enough time to establish any basis of evolution. In order to establish evolution, one must go back to the prototype, and clearly 6 months does not allow time for that to happen (granted, he spent the next 20 years honing his research before he published his three volumes on the subject).

Secondly, the time in which he performed his field work, was at the end of what is considered the evolution of the Marquesan culture as a whole. He encountered relics and artifacts that although may have appeared ancient, were indeed created in the nineteenth-century, and if they were not, how was he to know? Marquesans treated time not as a procession of days, to months, to years, but rather as collection of extended instances, that could span a life time. Every day was a continuation of the last, as was every night. They had no seasons (except dry and wet) and relied on the good favor of the gods to produce fruit, for example. They did not rely on seasonal changes to dictate their lives; they just lived.

Now, that I have succeeded in boring the reader to tears with the back story, I will waste no time, and get directly to my argument.


Mata hoata are known as, “Brilliant Eyes”. They are a stylized rendition of the upper part of a face (although some have mouths), mainly the eyes, nose, ears and cheeks.


As you can see from this classic Von den Steinen illustration, the mata hoata motif was used extensively and is, in my opinion, the cornerstone of Marquesan tattoo art.

The Marquesans believed that the body consisted of several entities, that collectively, made the body a whole. Legs and arms, the neck and head were all considered separate beings that were attached to a main body, that was itself, a separate entity. Collectively the body and its sub-parts were considered as one, yet, they were also considered independent, so to speak, from the rest. If an illness or sickness overcame the foot, for example, the foot was treated as an independent being, and while the person was being treated, the kahuna (priest/doctor) would speak to the foot and treat it as a completely distinct entity (Melville, p.100, 1846).

I mention this only because it will help to illustrate my point about mata hoata placement. As you can see from the illustration, some of the mata hoata are upside down (shoulder area), and some are sideways (back of thigh and knee). For the most part they appear right side up, but I think it is important to distinguish the variations.


Going back then, to my statement that Marquesans considered their bodies to be an assemblage of ‘parts’ that create a whole, one can easily see how this concept plays out. The top two mata hoata are placed  on each arm, facing backwards to ‘see’ danger from behind. They are upside down because when the arms are lifted over the head (as in battle when swinging a club) the eyes then become right side up. The next instance is on the rib cage protecting the person from harm from the side. Moving down we see a mata hoata placed sideways on the upper thigh, this placement makes the image ‘right side up’ when the leg is crooked at a 90 degree angle, just as it would be when running or swinging a club. The next instance on the knee is placed with the same intention in mind.

Mata hoata are also found on the front side of an individual as well, on the arms, chest, torso, hands and legs.


You can see the variation of the motif in I and II. I believe that like all art, the difference in style of mata hoata are clearly a reflection of the artist’s subjectivity. There was a certain accepted ‘look’ that I think everyone agreed was what defined the image, but other than the obligatory elements of the ‘face’ construct, I think that the overall size, shape and form that the mata hoata took was completely up to the person applying the tattoo. Perhaps there is more to it as far as one tribe having certain favored elements included in the design and so on, but I won’t get into that now.

This argument is, after all, about the index and not of the agency.

Again, I believe that the index of the mata hoata was not an evolution of a pre-existing motif. Yes, if you were to split the Hope Vehine motif in half and turn each part 90 degrees and put them back together, you will have the rough shape of the mata hoata, but to say that the Marquesans were breaking out their protractors while designing tattoos, or convoluting their art to that extent, is a path I choose to steer clear of for the moment. I like to think that people (artists) are inspired by what surrounds them, what they come in contact with on a regular basis. I know that I am. Whenever I attempt to make things ‘tricky’ to solicit wonder, it almost always falls flat. I don’t think the Marquesans were much different.

My theory is this:

The index of mata hoata derived from a sea creature, namely, the crab.


The purpose of Marquesan tattoo was to protect the wearer from the contagion of ‘sacredness’ that surrounded them on a daily basis (Gell, p.174, 1993). The individual segments (paka) which can be seen in the Von den Steinen illustration, fit together like armor, which is the reasoning behind the shapes of the paka. A ‘seam’ runs down the back of this person segmenting the area, not unlike a shell. The same application can also be seen on the legs and arms. Tattoo, as far as the Marquesans were concerned, acted as a metaphorical device (Gell, p. 181, 1993).

Why a crab?

Well, the crab was an animal (like the turtle) that the Marquesans would come into contact with frequently, it was armored (a trait the Marquesans felt compelled to emulate) and it was something that was totally relatable (think of how many people have dragon tattoos, but have never seen a dragon). They put images on their bodies that they could recognize and that were ‘real’ to them. Even the evil spirits (fanaua) of women that had died giving birth to a child (this happened a lot) were considered real, which was why the fanaua was another highly utilized motif.

If you look at the structure of the crab’s face, with its retractable eyes and armored mandibles, you can plainly see the mata hoata. The ovoid shape of the eye is apparent, as is the sunlight that reflecting from it.


Again, the other facial elements differ. In ‘I’ above you can see different nose forms. Some appear to be poka’a (a, d), one is a papua (b), and c has a nose comprised of an etua. In ‘II’, the eyes in b are etua, while the eyes in c are a combination of eel bones and poka’a.  All of these flourishes are subjective, the base of the design is still very much intact.


In this photo, the recesses of the eyes and the mandibles clearly form the mata hoata shape.

Therefore, it is my belief that the mata hoata index derived from a crab face. The crab is armored and is protected from all sides. It can see danger approaching from any direction.

The Marquesans believed that the tattoo was armor to protect them from the contagious sacredness of being. Life in the mortal realm was fragile and one needed protection from the will of the gods, whose power could manifest suddenly and bring dire consequences. Not to mention protection from their enemies, who often lived in the next valley over.

Unfortunately, their tattoos could not protect them from the intrusion of western culture, and the misunderstandings that such contact precipitated.