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Traditional Hawaiian Tattooing: Primary Sources

Selected annotated bibliography on traditional Hawaiian tattooing.

John Webber drawing

A Native of Atooi, Sandwich Islands by John Webber, sepia wash over pencil, 1778, Private Collection, Honolulu


John Webber
A Native of Atooi, Sandwich Islands
Sepia wash over pencil, 1778
Private Collection, Honolulu

Primary Sources

Arago, J. Narrative of a Voyage Around the World. Amsterdam: N. Israel and New York: De Capo Press, 1971.
UHM Call Number: G 420 .F8 A7 1971
582 pages. Originally published in London with an extended title in 1823; Arago was draftsman to the de Freycinet expeditions in 1817, 1818, 1819, and 1820. In part II (p. 147), the author compares Hawaiian tattoo designs to those of the Carolines with an explanation of the technique used. Arago's illustrations show foreign influence of written language and animals.

Beaglehole, J. C. ed. The Journals of Captain James Cook on His Voyages of Discovery: The Voyage of the Resolution and Discovery 1776-1780, vol. III, part two. Woodbridge: Boydel Press and the Hakluyt Society, 1967.
UHM Call Number: G 420 .C62 C66 1999 v.3 pt.2

1647 pages. The narratives and original artwork from Cook's voyages are often cited as the best primary source materials on tattooing in Hawaiʻi prior to outside influences. The extensive index cites numerous page references on tattooing (p. 1597).

Choris, Louis. Voyage Pittoresque Autour du Monde, avec des Portraits de Sauvages d'Amérique, d'Asie, d'Afrique, et des îles du Grand Océan: des Paysages, des vues Maritimes, et plusiers objects d'Histoire Naturelle. Paris: Impr. de Firmin Didot, 1822.
UHM Call Number: HAWN RARE f G420 C55
149 pages; 103 color plates. Section II is a chapter titled Iles Sandwich, 24 pages with 19 color plates. Two of the plates are iconic images of Hawaiian tattoo: plate XII "Danse des hommes dans les iles Sandwich" and plate XIX "Interieur d'une maison d'un chef dans les Iles Sandwich." French text.

de Freycinet, Louis Claude de Saulses. "Hawaii in 1819: A Narrative Account by Louis Claude De Saulses De Freycinet". Ella L. Wiswell, trans. and Marion Kelly, ed. Honolulu: Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Pacific Anthropological Records no. 26, 1978.
UHM Call Number: GN4 P32 no. 26
136 pages. This English translation of de Freycinet's voyaging account covers chapters 27 & 28 from Voyage around the World Undertaken by Order of the King Performed on his Majesty's Corvettes L'Uranie and L'Physicienne in the Years 1817, 1819, and 1820. He discusses tattooing as a method of adornment (p. 62-63). Goats are mentioned in the descriptions of designs showing the evolution of motifs with animals introduced to the islands.

Ellis, William. Journal of William Ellis: Narrative of a Tour of Hawaii, or Owhyhee; with Remarks on the History, Traditions, Manners, Customs, and Language of the Inhabitants of the Sandwich Islands. Rutland, VT and Tokyo, Japan: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1979.
UHM Call Number: DU 623 .E47 1979
363 pages. Originally published in England in 1825, this edition has introductions by Terence Barrow and Thurston Twigg-Smith. The author was an English missionary who wrote prolifically, documenting his observations in this and other journals. The index breaks down tattooing on the various parts of the body plus materials and techniques for easy reference to the eleven places it is mentioned in the journal.

Emory, Kenneth P. "Hawaiian Tattooing." Occasional Papers of Bernice P. Bishop Museum, v. 18, no. 17. Honolulu: Bernice P. Bishop Museum, 1946.
UHM Call Number:
AM101 .B448 v.17-18
35 pages. This is one of the most important references on the subject of Hawaiian tattooing. Emory makes note of accounts made by the early European voyagers, first hand accounts of cultural authorities such as Mary Kawena Pukui, and his personal examination of tattooed mummies in burial caves. Drawings show tattoo designs on arms, legs and on the hands of women.

Ii, John Papa. Fragments of Hawaiian History. Translated by Mary Kawena Pukui, Edited by Dorothy B. Barrere. Special publication 70. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, Revised edition 1983.
UHM Call Number: DU 627 .I4 1983
202 pages. Ii is a nineteenth century authority on Hawaiian culture and history. In reference to hula gourd drums (p. 137), he states: "The left hand of each performer was beautifully tattooed because that was the hand that held the cord attached to the drum through a hole." Tattoo is also mentioned briefly (p. 9) in reference to tattoos on the back of chief Kiwalao.

Malo, David. Hawaiian Antiquities: Moolelo Hawaii. 2nd ed. Translated by Dr. Nathaniel B. Emerson. Special Publication 2. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1951.
UHM Call Number: DU625 .M25 1987
178 pages. This is one of few authoritative texts on Hawaiian history by a 19th century Hawaiian scholar. The author was noted for his memory. This source is repeatedly cited for its information on "kauwa" or the slave caste and associated tattooing customs (p. 70-72).

William Ellis drawing

Ellis, William Webb d 1785 :Sandwich Islands? [A man of Atooi, (Waimea, Kauai) Hawaii, seated in a Windsor chair. January 1778] courtesy of Alexander Turnbull Library, NZ

Ellis, William Webb d 1785 :Sandwich Islands? [A man of Atooi, (Waimea, Kauai) Hawaii, seated in a Windsor chair. January 1778]

Reference Number: A-264-045

A bearded and tattooed young man, seated in a Windsor chair, probably aboard the Resolution off the coast of Waimea, Kauai Island, Hawaii. He is in profile, his left side facing the viewer and untattooed, but with elaborate tattooing along the full length of his left arm. His hair-style shows a roll of hair along the top of his head, with short hair on the side.

[Image and caption courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, New Zealand (]