Everything You Need to Know About Maori Tattoos

3 Februar 2023

Maori tattoos have become one of the most popular tribal designs to get, with many from all over the world choosing styles of tattoos that have been derived from Maori culture. The Maori were a group of people from Polynesia who mostly settled in New Zealand and they have a rich history when it comes to tattooing! The Maori culture and tattoos were very intertwined and still are today, with many representing their past and their ancestors using the unique styles and designs of the different tattoos. Tattoos were used as a way to identify significant people in the tribe and even to celebrate unions and marriages between two people. The tohunga tā moko were the tattoo artists of this time and they held great respect within the tribe, often given weapons and tools as payment for the tattoos that they created. The following is a brief look into the history of Maori tattoo culture and the significance of the different styles!

History of The Maori Tattoo: What is Maori Tattoo Art?

Tattoos have had deep traditional ties to Maori culture for hundreds of years, symbolizing strength, power and honor. There are many different types of Maori tattoos that each hold different meanings and symbolism related to different aspects of the culture. Some tattoos were even believed to have been given special magical powers gifted from God, giving those who were adorned in these tattoos significant power and great strength! Along with displaying power and strength, these tattoos were also adorned on certain individuals to show family history and rank, with those from certain areas having different kinds of tattoos to show the tribe that they were from!

If you want to relate this to today’s world, tattoos were used as a sort of identity document, showing where you are from and your family’s status! The way that the tattoos were completed was also done in a traditional way, with different processes and symbolic events used for a variety of life events ranging from puberty to marriage. The different Maori tattoo meanings were used by a variety of different Maori tribes and still hold great cultural and traditional significance to these communities today!

How Were Maori Tattoos Made?

As explained above, there were different methods and rituals used in the process of tattooing for different life events. Tā moko, which was the traditional tattooing name given in Maori culture, used pigments that were created from charcoal that was then mixed with different liquids, usually water or oil that was derived from different plant species. This mixture was known as wai ngārahu and it gave the tattoos the vibrant black color and striking designs that we have become acquainted with in the Maori tattoos that we see today. The chisels that were used to transfer this pigment into the skin were known as Uhi and these tools were often created from the bones of different sea birds to give the sharp point needed to plant the tattoo on the skin

The process was done by soaking the uhi in the wai ngārahu and then chiselling this pigment onto the skin. This process was extremely painful and due to the fact that the uhi was made with charcoal, they were predominantly a bright black color. It was extremely significant to receive one of these tattoos and the process was done at different points in life. The area where the tattoo was done also held great cultural significance, with Maori face tattoos being one of the most popular and unique. The Maori tattoo traditions and the cultural significance of the designs meant that the Maori people were proud of the tattoos that they received as they showed status within a village! There were a variety of different types of Maori tattoos that were done for different reasons, some of which are still used today.

How have The Tools And Processes Of Maori Tattoos Changed?

The tools and processes of Maori tattoos have significantly changed over the years, mostly due to the introduction of new processes and tools by European settlers. Upon European arrival, the bones of seabirds used as the tools to tattoo were replaced with metals that were crafted into chisels. By the first world war, these metal chisels were then replaced by needles as a more modern form of tattooing became the safer option to use. Later, the Maori tattoo process became completely modernized with the introduction of tattoo guns and machines, which then became the preferred option. Today, some tribes still like to use the more traditional tools and processes, but these tools are sanitized to ensure that the person receiving the tattoos does not get infected with any germs or bacteria.

Maori Tattoo Symbols and Their Meanings

There are many different types of Maori tattoos, each with its own unique designs and symbolism behind them. Certain tattoos were more commonly done on certain parts of the body and used to signify a wide range of different things. The following is a list of the different Maori tattoo symbols and their meanings.


The Pakati symbol is an infill pattern that was used in a number of different designs and types of artwork. It was also known as a dog skin cloak and is representative of strength and courage. Many warriors from different tribes were adorned with this type of tattoo, signifying that they were warriors and expressed a great amount of courage going into battle.

Koru (Loop)

Also known as the loop tattoo, the Koru is one of the most recognizable and traditional styles of tattoo known to the Maori. This spiral tattoo was often done on the face and chest and was used to express family connections, not just with those who were alive, but also with the ancestors who came before them! As one of the most traditional Maori tattoos known within this culture, they are still often seen today, both by those who belong to the Maori culture and those who do not!

Pikorua (Twist)

These types of tattoos were commonly done on couples who were getting married, visually signifying and completing the union of marriage. The tattoo depicts two intertwined ferns and it was a type of tattoo that was introduced into Maori culture after contact with European settlers. It mainly symbolizes connection, whether the connection is between two people or even two communities.


The ocean was an integral part of the lives of the Maori people, giving them the food that they needed to survive! Many different Maori tattoos pay homage to the relationship that the various tribes had with the ocean. The Unaunahi tattoo was one of these tattoos and they depict fish scales on the skin, representing prosperity! They are still quite common today among the Maori people as well as others who like the design and the connection of the ocean!

Hei Matau

The Hai Matau Maori tattoo is designed around looking like a traditional fish hook which was often made from bones or shells. Fishing and the ocean were once a large part of Maori culture and this culture’s traditional roots were heavily ingrained in relying on the ocean for food. The symbol represents both prosperity and safe travels when out on the water. It held great significance for the Maori tribes of the past and still holds this significance and cultural representation today!


The Moana tattoo is incredibly significant in Maori culture and represents the life-giving and turbulent nature of the oceans. While the ocean gives life and food, the Maori culture also recognised the danger and turbulence of the water. This tattoo signifies the strength of the ocean as well as the need for appreciation of the life that it gives!


The Hikuana Maori tattoo represents the people of Taranaki and evokes the symbol of a mackerel tail in the design. This is another tattoo that represents prosperity and wealth when it comes to the ocean, with the beautiful mackerel tail displaying the wealth of those who adorned them.

Ahu Ahu Mataroa

The Ahu Ahu Mataroa tattoo was extremely significant in many different Maori tribes and it expressed an achievement that one had accomplished. The actual design of the tattoo is made up of a ladder, representing the steps that the person had to take to achieve this goal! These were a very important part of Maori culture and still hold great significance today.


The Mania tattoo is extremely spiritual and signifies the connection between the spiritual world and people. This tattoo is designed to look like a creature with the head of a human, a bird body and the tail of a fish. It was most commonly placed on the shoulder of the person to ward off any evil spirits that he/she may come into contact with!


This tattoo was inspired by the gentle giants of the ocean and expresses both strength and sensitivity! Designed in the shape of a whale tooth, the Taratarekae tattoo symbolizes the ability to maintain characteristics centered around both strength and sensitivity, which made up a large part of tribal life in many communities!

Te Ora O Maui

This beautiful design and tattoo is representative of the famous Maui, an ancient folklore tale about a man who was believed to have made the days longer, brought fire to the Maori people and almost gave immortality to humans! It was also believed that Maui was the one who found New Zealand for the Maori people, where they would eventually settle after leaving Polynesia. The tattoo represents Maui making this great voyage.

Nga Hau E Wha

This tattoo represents the two Maori gods, Tawhirimatea and Tangaroa, and has great cultural significance to the Maori people. Its direct translation is ‘the four winds’ and is believed to have represented the four corners of the earth. Today, it is a popular choice thanks to the symbolism behind respecting the earth that God has given us, no matter what culture you are from or where you live in the world!

Te Timatanga

This beautiful design is made up of an image of a turtle, which symbolizes both the strength of navigating alone as well as the importance of having a family structure to come back to! This beautiful design is intricate, with many smaller styles of different tattoos often filled into the body of the turtle. Te Timatanga still holds great symbolic meaning for the Maori, representing the importance of family and strength when navigating the world on your own!

How Did Maori Tattoo Art Become Popular?

Maori tattoos are one of the most popular tribal tattoo designs used today, with many people choosing to adorn their skin with the stunning and vibrant symbols of the Maori people. Maori tattoo art became popular first in New Zealand and spread through to the rest of the world. One of the great things about the Maori tribal tattoo designs that are used for these tattoos is that they are symbolic of many different things, expressing beautiful representations of different aspects of life, from connections to one another to an appreciation of the natural world.

There are many Maori people who get this style of tattoo for its cultural significance and as a way to connect to their ancestors who came before them. There are also others who have taken the different styles of tribal designs and made them their own! Maori tattoos are extremely popular today and if you are thinking of getting one of these designs, the team here at Cleopatra Ink would love to help make your vision come to life!

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