In the ancient Hawaiian tradition of tattooing, called kakau, the meaning of the individual tattoo, or uhi, varied depending on the individual getting the tattoo, his social status and even where on the islands he lived. Their particular meanings ranged from the superficial to the profound.
Some Hawaiian tattoos were used simply as decorative elements. Others represented such things as loyalty to a chief or a connection to a person or place. They were also used to mark major milestones or events in a person's life. Uhi, as well as scarring of the body, were used as an expression of grief or sorrow. Some tattoos were used to designate members of an outcast class of society known as the kaua. Still others were used as decorations for social groups. When Europeans came to Hawaii, the imagery began to change, and text was added to the tattoos. The tradition of kakau began to experience a revival in the 1980s. The purpose of an uhi in Hawaii today is mainly an expression of personal identity, just as it is elsewhere, and a symbol of one's commitment to the Hawaiian heritage and its ancient culture. An armband around the bicep is the most common example of a Hawaiian tattoo.