150 Most Amazing Maori Tattoos, Meanings, History

Tattoo art is not something modern but has its history rooted into ancient tradition of the Polynesian islands. Among Polynesian tattoos, Maori tattoos are regarded as one of the most famous ones. The Maori tribe which is native to New Zealand is famous for its unique Maori art, which is revered by them as a sacred art form. Ingenuously referred to as moko, Maori arts are traditionally concentrated on the facial area, since head is considered sacred by this clan. These tattoos are extremely alluring and have a great aesthetic value, as they are designed in intricate curvilinear shapes and spiral patterns. In the Maori culture, these tattoos depict the status and prestige of the bearer.

The basic difference between Maori art and other tattoos is that the former are created by chiseling them on the body, rather than using puncturing technique as in conventional tattoo art. This makes the process painful and hard to bear, but the end results are absolutely fabulous.

In the past years, Maori arts tattoo were just worn by a number of people who belonged to certain tribes. But today, it is already different since there are already great numbers of people who choose to have these tattoos engraved on their bodies as gorgeous body adornments. These tattoos were actually worn by Maori people in the past, which is why they are called Maori art tattoos. Are you not that familiar with these tattoos? Is it your first time hearing it? If that is the case, then consider yourself lucky since this article will help you to get well acquainted about these extremely interesting tattoos.

Maori Tattoos


Way back in the year 1769, the art of Maori tattoo was introduced by Eastern Polynesian people to the individuals living in New Zealand. These Eastern Polynesian people were headed by Captain James Cook. The word “tattoo” was actually taken by Captain James Cook from the native Tahitian word, “tautau”. While traveling to the South Pacific, Captain James Cook and his company discovered the tattoos of Maori tribesmen, and they found them extremely gorgeous. This had pushed them to introduce the tattoos to some other people, making them extremely popular.

Traditional Maori Art

In the Maori tradition, tattoos are created on both the sexes, usually during adolescence, so as to mark this important transitive event in the life of the bearer. These tattoos were considered as a symbol of status and worth of the individual. While men have these carved on their faces, legs and buttocks, they can be seen on the lips, chin, back and neck of the females. Amazingly, every Maori art is unique in design and it is impossible to find duplication. Rather, they depict wonderful craftsmanship, with intricate detail and outstanding designing. The tattoo art is crafted by a moko specialist, who is called tohunga ta moko, most of these artists being male. The tradition of carving a art was celebrated more as an event and involved rituals like fasting, chanting and music. The logic behind the ritual of fasting is probably that the tattoos would cause the face to swell up, which made it necessary to fast.

Origin of Maori Art

The ancient legend traces the roots of Maori art to the underworld. The legend narrates that a young warrior called Mataora fell in love with the princess of the underworld, Niwareka. She left her underworld home to marry him, but was ill-treated by him, which made her return to her home. Mataora went back to repent and win over his lady-love, where he was taught the Maori art by the underworld king and he brought back the art to the Maori tribe.

In the modern times, it was believed that Maori tattoo came to New Zealand from Eastern Polynesia. These amazing tattoos were a source of fascination for the European explorers in the region. It is said that tattooed heads of the enemies were often kept by the Maori tribesmen as a symbol of power and conquest. They were even exchanged for weapons as Europeans were interested in collecting them.


Maori art involves chiseling rather than carving, which is the reason why it uses unique equipment to carry out the same. As opposed to the use of needles in conventional tattoo art, Maoris use special kinds of chisels made of albatross bone or shark teeth, called uhi, along with knives to create these designs. These were either smooth or serrated and were used together to create desired Maori designs. The tattoos were then created with the help of ink applied in the incisions. The ink used in Maori tattoo art is natural, and is basically of two types a black ink made of burnt wood and another one lighter in color, which is derived from an organism, which is a hybrid of a caterpillar and a vegetable. The former was used for creating facial tattoos while the latter was used for outlining.
The tattoo specialist creates the design by taking into consideration the facial structure of a person and designing the tattoo accordingly.

The procedure is quite tedious and painful as it involves making deep incisions or cuts in the skin and then filling the same with pigment, with the help of chisels dipped in the same. After the procedure is completed and the cuts are healed, grooves are left on the skin rather than the smooth result after needle tattooing. The bearer is supposed to endure the pain in order to exhibit his courage and power, as a person who cries or shows his suffering is considered weak. It is like a matter of honor for the people of the Maori clan. The healing process would probably take its time, with the skin becoming swollen and bleeding after the procedure. Application of a balm made of the leaves of karaka tree is recommended to speed up the healing process. Some other precautions to be observed after the procedure include abstinence from sexual intercourse and having just liquid food with the help of a wooden funnel, at least till the wounds are properly healed.


Traditionally, Maori tattoos stand for power, prestige and status and only influential people of the society could have them carved on their faces and bodies. Only people with a good social standing could afford these tattoos and low class people like slaves were not allowed to have them. Face tattoos symbolized the social position, accomplishments and ancestral lineage of men and it was an insult not to have the tattoo by high ranking people. For non Maori people, who are interested in this art, they must bear in mind the cultural significance of these tattoos before choosing a design. Most Maori designs are done on the sleeves and arms in contemporary times and tattoo lovers who have them just for the love of it prefer non-traditional designs. The reason is that traditional Maori designs are very detailed, which make their carving a very painful process.

Designs Options To Opt

The traditional Maori designs are very intricate and fine in detail, using some of the most amazing patterns ever seen in tattoo art around the globe. Here are some popular tattoo designs:

  • Male Facial Moko – The male facial moko is one of the most preferred traditional design, which is a symbol of power and prestige. It divides the face into eight sections- the center of the forehead, the area under the bows, the area under the eyes and nose, the area around the temples, the area around the nose, the cheek area, the chin area and the jaw area, each indicating a particular thing about his status and lineage. The left side displays the paternal side of ancestry, while the right side stands for the maternal side, and the design is made on each side according to the rank of his family sides.
  • Pikorua Design – Pikorua is a traditional design which depicts growth and joins together the sea and the earth. It shows that we may take diverse paths in the journey of life, but all of us ultimately end at one and the same place.
  • Nga Hau e Wha Design – This design represents the four corners of the earth. It shows that man should respect God as He is all-powerful, as shown by the Maori Gods, Tangaroa and Tawhirimatea, who can destroy everything with their miraculous powers.
  • Te Ora O Maui Design – This design showcases the powers of the legendary character Maui, who discovered Aotearoa, which is the Maori name of New Zealand. Maui, the last among the five boys, was thrown in the sea by his mother who thought he was still-born. But he was washed up on the shore and raised by a tohanga. This boy had amazing powers and made great accomplishments.
  • Koru Design – Koru refers to the spiral design and it stands for growth and new beginning. New Zealand is recognized the world over for its beautiful ferns and this leaf is represented by this spiral design.
  • Single and Double Twist Designs – Symbolically, single twist design is a symbol of the path of life as per the Maori culture. Besides single twist, Maori designs can also feature double or triple twists too, which represent the bonding of two people in a relationship of loyalty and friendship, something which would last for an eternity.
  • Hei Matau Design – Hei Matau or fish hook represents prosperity in Maori tradition, as it stands for fish which is available in abundance in the New Zealand and is also the staple food of the country. It also signifies good health, strength and a safe sail over the rough waters of life.
  • Hei Tiki Design – Hei Tiki is a good luck charm, which represents fertility, knowledge and clarity of thought of the wearer. It is a representation of an unborn embryo and has been considered as a good fortune talisman in Maori culture since ancient times.
  • Manaia Design – Manaia, a combination of bird, man and fish, is the spiritual guardian, who has mystical powers of sky, earth and water.

Besides these popular tattoo designs, Maori art makes use of diverse patterns like Hikuaua, Unaunahi, Taratarekae, Ahu ahu mataroa and Pakati, each having a symbolic meaning and significance. These traditional tribal tattoos have recently seen a surge in popularity among tattoo lovers all over the globe. They have been also used as a means to preserve the cultural heritage of this tribe.

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Designs for Maori Tattoos and their Symbolism

Unlike the other kinds of tattoos, the Maori tattoo is something very technical in terms of designs. Meaning to say, you cannot just add any sub designs you want. If you will do so, the real meaning of the tattoo may be ruined. As a matter of fact, even the single line involves in such tattoo has a very special meaning that you should know. Furthermore, here are some common designs of these tattoos including their meanings and symbolisms:

  • Fish Hook (Hei Matau) – This design is definitely beautiful specially when you already engraved it on your body. According to Maori people, the hei matau or the fish hook symbolizes prosperity. Fish hook was very important to the Maori people because they used it in catching fishes, which were the main proteins of their regular meals.
  • Spiral (Koru) – This design is indebted from the gorgeous unfurled fern leaf from one of the most beautiful ferns in the world that can richly be found in the beautiful country of New Zealand. Such designs symbolizes harmony, growth, and new beginnings.
  • Manaia – Such design of a Maori art tattoo simply looks like a head of a bird, a man’s body, and a fish’s tail. It will look like a bird that is sitting on your shoulder. The Maori people believed that this design is a perfect symbol of a spiritual guardian. When you have this tattoo, you can ensure a good guidance in your spiritual aspect of life.
  • Single Twist – This design will look like the “8” number. The path of life is the one that this design is representing. Not only that, this design also symbolizes eternity.
  • Double or Triple Twist – This is the most preferred tattoo design of Maori people. It is simply because this one represents loyalty and friendship. Whatever things happen in life, the two cultures or persons will be remained bonded and true to each other. This is the great significance of this design.


In case you are still thinking of having these tattoos, then it might be helpful for you if you will know that there are some famous celebrities in the world who have a Maori art on their body. Here are some names of these celebrities:

  • Rihanna – Rihanna is a very famous 28-year-old Barbadian songwriter and singer. She is a great fan of this art. In fact, she has this very gorgeous tattoo on her right hand. She got this tattoo when she went to New Zealand just recently.
  • Mike Tyson – Mike Tyson is a 50-year-old retired professional boxer who also has his own version of a Maori art. Since he is brave enough to be a boxer, it is no longer surprising why he has this Maori art on his face.
  • Robbie Williams – Robbie Williams is an English actor, songwriter, and singer. He has a very gorgeous Maori design on his left arm, and he is very proud of it.

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Placement Guide

They can be placed in several parts of the body. However the position that they are inked could also matters for the meaning of the tattoo. For an instance, a tattoo placed close to the mouth of a woman could represent their right to speak. The main placements for these tattoos are the face, shoulder, back, upper part of the arm, hips, legs and the chest.

Facts About Maori Art

As said, there are a lot of people in the world who are not well acquainted about these tattoos. In case you are one of those people, then here are some facts about these tattoos that you might be very interested to know:

  • Maori art is extremely complicated. Basing it in the past years, having this art is not that easy. It is simply because instead of needles, what are used in tattooing it are chisels and knives. Can you imagine yourself undergoing a tattoo session with the use of these things? What’s more is that the chisels are made from sharp stones, sharpened bones, or shark teeth.
  • Maori art uses natural inks. The Maori people in the past made use of natural inks in tattooing. For the black inks or pigments, burnt woods were used by the people. The lighter colors or pigments were produced from those caterpillars that were afflicted with fungus. Alternatively, animal fat that is mixed with burnt kauri gum can be utilized.
  • The main focus of a Maori art is the face. Yes, you read it right. Your face is where this tattoo should be placed. This is the main reason why it requires an intensive decision making before going for this. Keep it in your mind that these will be very obvious, unless you will normally cover your face when you go out, which is something very unusual, right? Hence, before going for these tattoos, take time in making your decision.
  • Maori people used Maori art in showing their social strata. Yes, if you are quite familiar with the history of Maori people, you will surely know this fact. Those who were having higher social ranking were the only ones who were allowed to have these tattoos. Those poor and slaves should not wear them. For men, having a Maori art on the face will also determine your ancestry, marital status, position and the like.
  • Maori art is known to be sacred. The Maori people believed that such tattoo is very sacred, which is why it requires a lot of expertise in doing such tattoo. You, as the wearer, should also think about it many times if this tattoo really suits you as far as its sacredness is concerned. And if you finally decided to go for this tattoo, you are not allowed to cry because of the intense pain that you might feel while undergoing the tattooing process.
  • Aside from the face, Maori art can also be placed on the neck, shoulders, and some other body parts. Yes, the main focus of this art is the face. However, that is already a thing in the past. In these modern days, some innovations of such tattoo are made, including the modern placements for this tattoo.

Final Words

Maori tattoos are of course, worth considering tattoos that you can have on your body. Even so, it needs a thorough decision making on your side because having these tattoos wouldn’t be easy for you. It can be very painful on your part and it is a very technical tattoo.


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