Shell Tattoo; The Meaning Behind The Thousand-Year-Old Tattoo Art

Tattoos have been part of human culture for thousands of years. Every unique tattoo designs help people express their different characteristics. So, you might ask, what does the shell tattoo represent? If you had this thought too, we got you covered.

Shell tattoos represent some inherent connection between a human with himself and also his surroundings. Shell tattoos symbolize the relationship between humans and the sea, prosperity, protection, and fertility. The tattoo also has deep roots in tribal culture, as it is a staple in the Polynesian tattoo culture, spreading around the world for thousands of years.

Let’s delve into the deeper meaning of the shell tattoo, and its symbolisms, and learn why this tattoo has a sacred meaning in Polynesian culture. Also, we would give you four ideas for a shell tattoo.

Shell Tattoo – Meanings in Detail

Tattoos are always used as a marker of culture and memories, picturing what things a person holds value to. Shell tattoos, in this regard, have different meanings and profess various meanings regarding person to person. Here are some of the predominant ones.


Shells are interconnected with the sea. As most shells are the product of the vast biodiversity of the sea, a shell symbolizes the vast sea or ocean. It is a unique symbolization as most of the shell shells can are harvested from the sea.

Hence, those who have deep connections with the sea use shell tattoos as a marker of their roots. It can be even done as a reminder of a memorable vacation taken near the sea.

With the incorporation of other sea symboling tattoos like starfish and the addition of geo markers of a specific place, it can illustrate the place in the most artistic way possible.


Getting a shell tattoo can mean that you want prosperity in life. shells have a deep affinity with wealth and progress in human history. In ancient times shells were used as currency in Roman, African, Indian, and Polynesian civilizations.

Seashells, in particular, were also a source of protein for seafaring civilizations. This is why those civilizations hold great importance to shells in their culture as a symbol of wealth. People of high nobility and wealth had this tattoo on their bodies to symbolize their wealth.

So a shell tattoo can be adorned by those who want to be prosperous and serve as a reminder of their life goals.


Shell tattoos can represent the metaphor that is protection. Shells are often seen as symbols of permanence because they are made of hard, durable materials and can last for many years.

Shells are the outer part of mollusks, which have very soft flesh. As protection from the environment, they have a shell that keeps the flesh safe from outer elements like dirt and stones.

As tattoos, shells may symbolize the enduring nature of a person’s thoughts, feelings, or beliefs. It creates a feeling that any extreme indulgence can’t pollute thoughts and assures others humanity is preserved in that person.


Shell tattoos are often in some tribal cultures, used as symbolism of fertility and growth.

From the seashell, comes out beautiful pearls, which people prize for their beauty and rarity. In greek culture, shells are associated with the goddess of fertility, Aphrodite, and are often used as a symbol of feminine power and sensuality.

In this context, a shell tattoo may represent the wearer’s connection to their own femininity or sexual identity.

The Polynesian Connection with Shell Tattoos

People of Polynesian descent are renowned for their beautiful and meaningful tattoos which have been practiced for thousands of years. It is more evident as the word tattoo comes from the Samoan word “Tatau”.

Polynesian tattoo tradition has been practiced for more than 2000 years in all the oceanic islands. Polynesians utilized tattoos to show their individuality and personality, with different meanings attributed to each design dependent on the cultural context.

Polynesian tattoos symbolize their seafaring and hardy cultural roots. Polynesians were early seafaring people who colonized from Guam to Hawaii long before Europeans started their colonization around the world.

Their seafaring and close connection with the sea have put their prints in the ‘Tatau’s, as the most famous and respected tattoos are of turtles, humans, oceans, and of course, shells.

Shells, in particular, seashells called ‘Pu’ in Samoan, are closely knitted with the life of Polynesian people.

Seashells were a valuable food source in ancient Polynesian civilizations, valued for their flesh and the beauty of their shell. Around the Polynesian islands, these shells were common and easy to get food, and their outer shell was used as ornaments and even currency at some point.

Hence they are a symbol of prosperity and abundance and their inclusion in tattoos distinguished important people. 

Samoans used trochus shell tattoos as representative of the social status of a person. It was done near the knee region and was used to identify chiefs, talking chiefs, and priests. The more shells were represented, the higher the rank of the person.

Also, Bivalve shells were in Samoan culture used which symbolized unity and bond. The two halves of a Bivalve Tattoo meant the coming of two parts to make one singular part in itself. These tattoos were used for intimacy and marriage. 

Shell Tattoos: 4 Designs for Yourself

shell Tattoos come in different sizes colors and patterns, which can get confusing for people who want this beautiful pattern to prettify their bodies. Tattoos are best when they represent the person you are. So here are some design ideas for tattoos so that you can get started with the inking process faster:

Small Shell Tattoo:

As shells are small beautiful things, it is justified if someone does a smaller version tattoo of it.

The small shell tattoos can be done in any place on the body. Whether it is your wrist or neck, ankle or forearm, or even behind the ears, this tattoo will beautify you everywhere it’s put.

This version of the tattoo is very reasonable for those who don’t like the pain associated with tattooing, as the smaller size doesn’t require much needlework to be done. Also smaller size means less money behind it, becoming a cost-effective tattoo.

Moreover, it draws less attention away from the person itself, so if you are in corporate ready to give a great presentation or at the Christmas dinner table mingling with family, this tattoo won’t take your eyes off you.

Shell and Starfish:

Starfish are closely associated with shells as most of them can be found in oceans. That’s why a Shells and Starfish tattoo is a good way to express someone’s ocean or aquatic roots.

Those who have lasting memories attached to the sea can have this tattoo as a reminder of those memories, making the everlasting in the process.

This is the perfect tattoo for those who have deep seafaring roots, as in those who are in the navy or those who spent time at sea. The various colors in the starfish can allow them to tell their story in form of the tattoo itself.

Conch Shells:

Conches are big shells that are frequently washed up on the seashore. They are quite rare and are frequently discovered in sea bottoms, but rarely on the beach.

They are huge and vertical in form since they belong to a snail species. Many individuals choose conch shell tattoos because of their distinctiveness.

As conch tattoos are always big in size, it’s perfect for those who want to get a big tattoo that connects their ocean roots. It looks amazing when done on the back.

The tattoo artist has a lot of freedom with this design. With different colors to add and different shapes to make, this tattoo can turn out to be a masterpiece.

Pilgrimage Shells:

Otherwise known as Scallop Shells, this shell pattern is unique to itself. It has verticle lines rather than commonly seen horizontal lines, making it eye-catchy. When designed with enormous patterns, these are distinctive and appealing.

Alone, a tinted black pilgrimage shell around the arm, neck, or even the lower back is quite fashionable. When creating this design, it is best not to blend it with anything else, or the design’s uniqueness will be gone.

If added with other tattoos, a colorful patina can enhance the whole design, with different colors symbolizing different moods.

Pilgrimage shells may be converted into tribal patterns, as they were once drawn by many tribal people for many purposes.


Does a shell tattoo bring good luck?

In some cultures, shell tattoos are done as a good luck charm. This is because this tattoo has a connection with the sea, the provider of wealth to coastal civilization. Also, it means protection from evil.

Is it disrespectful to get a Polynesian shell tattoo?

It depends on your intentions. All the Polynesian tattoos are sacred and deeply rooted in the culture. If someone greatly understands the meaning behind the tattoo, then it’s fine to do. But if someone does it because they want to and don’t understand the symbolism, it’s cultural appropriation and disrespect of a thousand-year-old culture.

What are used to do Polynesian tattoos?

Tattooing comb or Handmade needles are used to do Polynesian tattoos. It is a sacred tattoo so modern techniques are not used to do this tattoo

Final Words

The shell tattoo is a popular and attractive tattoo, with deep connections with various ancient civilizations. A person who wants to beautify their body with the symbolism of their ocean roots can surely get this tattoo done. Women can especially pick up this design to denote fertility and beauty.

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