Skip to main content

Maori Tattoo Designs: Think Before You Ink

I've always been fascinated by the designs of the tattoos of the Maori, their intricate details and beauty are a sight to behold.


The Meanings Behind Maori Tattoos

The urge to decorate and adorn our bodies is human nature but for some cultures, their body art is more than just a decoration. For the Maori, their Mokos (as the Maori tattoo designs are known) hold powerful meanings.

Maori tattoo designs, which are among the most distinctive tattoos in modern society, have their origins in the ancient tradition of body art practiced by the Maori people of New Zealand. The main distinguishing factor of Maori tattoo designs is that they are based on the spiral and are curvilinear as opposed to the straight-line geometrical designs of other Polynesian tattoos.

References to Maori tattoo designs were recorded as far back as the 1800s in the journals of Europeans who settled in New Zealand. During these times, the tattoos were not only for decorative purposes but more to portray the legal identity of the individual. As the Maori were illiterate, they used to draw the entire facial design when they signed legal documents. This meant that each of the designs had to be unique as they were in effect the only way that the Maori could write their name.

For the Maori, these tattoos symbolize spiritual rituals related to specific events in a person's life. The men were only allowed to receive their first tattoo upon reaching adolescence. (In the photograph of Maori warriors above, the younger man has only his first tattoo whereas the older warrior has his entire face tattooed.) Only significant events that called for celebration would be rewarded any further additions to the original moko. Before receiving a Maori tattoo, the person would have to fast. The entire lwi would be present at the ceremony itself, and this would be celebrated with music and dancing.

The only men who were not tattooed were commoners and slaves. All tribesmen had at least a face tattoo, and many had tattoos on other parts of their bodies as well. The men believed that the moko made them both attractive to women and fierce warriors.

Women Maori were also tattooed but invariably only outlining and coloring of their lips and a few lines or spirals on their chins, cheeks or foreheads.

Significance of the Designs and Patterns

Maori tattoo designs are meant to enhance the facial features and expressions of the individual and therefore follow the natural contours of the face or body. Tattoo designs for the legs and buttocks are similar to the face tattoos except that the curves and spirals are more distinct and bolder than the face tattoos.

The Maori tattoo designs traditionally followed set rules that often had unique variations depending on the location of the individuals. The variations were mainly due to the cultural complexities of the many lwi and clans native to New Zealand. Although the rules governing Maori tattoo designs were well known and practiced the designs remained specific to individuals, families, clans, and tribes.

The Maori people ceased using full facial moko tattoos by the end of the 1800s, but the practice of tattooing other parts of the body was continued by the native people. The revival of tattooing in New Zealand during the past few decades is so heavily influenced by the Maori moko past that it is now recognized as a genre on its own.

The use of bold lines combined with the repetition of specific design motifs distinguishes Maori tattoo designs. What makes Moko so unique is the fact that not only were the faces tattooed but the skin was cut to make parallel ridges and grooved scars.

Courtesy SarahG on

Courtesy SarahG on

Ta Moko

Ta Moko is the art of facial decoration and was performed by a tohangu ta moko (tattoo specialists) who were usually men. Ta Moko was traditionally performed using various chisel-shaped instruments made from Albatross bone, shell or metal. These "chisels" were dipped in ink, (made of burned wood for facial tattoos) and then struck with a mallet. This had to be done with a reasonable amount of force to ensure that the scarred ridges and grooves would be made, an integral part of the moko.

Despite the fact that this caused intense pain and excessive bleeding, the Maori men had been taught that it was indignant to flinch or make a sound during the entire process. Judging from the comment by Mana Maori in response to this article, it seems that the Maori have a high pain threshold as some deny that the tattooing was intensely painful.

There are two different types of moko patterns; one where the lines of the pattern are pigmented, and the other where the background is pigmented or darkened and the lines of the pattern in clear skin then contrast with the pigmented skin. This type of tattoo is known as the puhoro.

Research and Think Before You Get a Maori Tattoo

I read a slogan somewhere that said "Think before you ink." This is particularly applicable to Maori tattoo designs, and one should study the Maori culture before deciding on any particular Maori tattoo.

The original beauty of the Maori tattoos are not always evident in the newer adapted designs. The Maoris chose designs that best suited the contours of the individual's facial features something that the modern tattoo artist sometimes fails to do.

Many people select a design based purely on the aesthetic value of the design disregarding the unique contours of their face. If you wish to honor and respect the tribal cultures behind these exquisitely designed tattoos, then you should at least take the time to research the lives and art behind these tattoos. Once you understand their culture select a design that you can relate to and understand

No one should consider getting a Maori facial tattoo without truly understanding the origin and history of the design.

The real art of the Maori tattoo designs is the actual art of tattooing, and only an experienced tattoo artist should be used to ensure that the end result is of the highest quality.

Remember that whatever you allow someone to place on your skin will from now on be the face you present to the world.

Modern Maori Tattoos

Modern Maori tattoos are more commonly placed on the body and not on the face as was the tradition of the Maori tribes. The arms and legs are now adorned with the long spiral designs that were originally placed near the ear and cheeks.

Many people prefer not to use exact replicas of the original Maori designs as a sign of respect for the Maori culture. The tendency is to use designs inspired and influenced by the Maori art, but instead of using graceful rounded spirals, people select to use a square variation of the spiral and bring clouds, waves, fire or wind into their Maori tattoos.

Modern Maori tattoo designs are generally more colorful and often include red, blue, orange or yellow if the design lends itself to multi-coloring.

I doubt whether you will find another author who has so much insight into the Maori tribes. D. R. Simmons, is an expert on the Maori tribes, their customs and origins. He has written six other books about the Maori namely:

  • Whakairo: Maori Tribal Art
  • Maori Auckland
  • The great New Zealand myth: A Discovery of the study and origin traditions of the Maori
  • The Whare Runanga = The Maori Meeting House
  • Iconography of New Zealand Maori Religion
  • The Carved Pare: A Maori Mirror of the Universe

An excellent documentary by Don Stafford, well known New Zealand historian documenting the Maori traditions. This DVD has unique footage of Maori traditions including the War Dance (the Haka)., Powhiri (Traditional Marae Welcome) plus songs and dance, making this video a timeless record.  This documentary will take you  thousands of years back to the coming of the Maori. You will be able to see the progress of the Maori through the ages and  the struggles they encounter in developing the land and the unfolding of their unique isolated culture.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2009 Laura du Toit


craig nz on March 13, 2017:

its not disrespect ful to wear ta moko only if you directly copy a worn tattoo which is someones own story identity... so design your own dont take stencils from a artist. the mexican dude is wrong its a free country but get your own story

kathleen pearce on May 01, 2016:

i have 14 tattoos and many more that i want however i came across one which i think is beautiful however my tattooist advised me it is a maori design i understand that these are special to the maori people are is there a restriction on myself having one i have every bit of respect for all tribes and would not want to disrespect anyone therefore could someone possibly inbox me with advise many thanks

roger on March 09, 2012:

i on the other hand love the desighn of the maori tattoo i am of mexican descent and plan on getting a maori tattoo on my forearm :) all the negative comments our ur own opinions, this is a free country and we have the right to do as we please, love the hub

Jeanne on March 05, 2012:

I am a woman, 34 years of age. I have had my forehead tattooed six yers ago. I love it.

If a Maori woman is considered beautiful with her tattooed face, why not a western woman?

I like tat there is a trend to tattoo faces among modern women.

It can be very attractive and sexually enticing.

My boyfriend loves it and we are planning more tattooing of my face.

Of course I feel some reluctance, but I'm sure I will go through with it in the near future.

Let's have some positive comments. Viva the tattooed woman !!


Laura du Toit (author) from South Africa on February 15, 2012:

That is your own opinion Lee. I however disagree with you. I can not see how getting a Maori tattoo can be classified as disrespectful. Passing snide remarks or laughing at Maori people because of the ir Maori tattoos because you have no knowledge or understanding of the Maori tatto - that is disrespectful.

Lee on February 12, 2012:

If your heritage is not Maori, do not get a Maori tattoo. It is disrespectful in every way even if its not meant to be.

Joanne1225 from Central Pennsylvania on December 30, 2011:

A journey into a subject I found to be fascinating! Kudos to you for your excellent work. I enjoyed it immensely.

Laura du Toit (author) from South Africa on August 25, 2011:

Thank you for your positive feedback Eaglekiwi. The fact that you are part Maori makes your positive feedback on my hub extra special!

Eaglekiwi from New Zealand on August 25, 2011:

Great hub and being part Maori I relished the memories and enjoyed the pics on this hub!

I applaud the respect shown to poster Mana Maori on the facts he highlighted too.

Now to choose my tattoo.My niece has a nice one on the side of her leg.It looks very stylish. Maybe.

maxiep from Perth, Western Australia on August 21, 2011:

The designs are really spectacular and it's amazing how they spread so wide across the pacific before there were aeroplanes or any easy way of moving between the islands

ladyeagle_cdc from San Juan City, Philippines on June 26, 2011:

i appreciate the art however not on my face... nice hub!

writer83 from Cyber Space on February 27, 2011:

great hub !

Mohan Kumar from UK on January 03, 2011:

This is awesome, I learnt so much about the Maori tattoo designs and their significance. Very interesting hub and very well researched and written.

dobo700 from Australia on October 18, 2010:

Cool hub - nice to see some of my NZ heritage

Laura du Toit (author) from South Africa on October 06, 2010:

Thanks for dropping by Elayne. Different cultures can teach us a lot about mankind and very often about ourselves!

Elayne from Rocky Mountains on October 05, 2010:

I live in Hawaii and we have many Maori people here also. I have also been to New Zealand and enjoy the Maori culture. Thanks for an interesting hub.

michelle on July 08, 2010:

arent they cool im getting one soon

monetlavey on May 25, 2010:

oh snap!

Laura du Toit (author) from South Africa on May 01, 2010:

Thank you for your comment and insight into Maori tradition. All information written in this hub was properly researched and is in no way meant to belittle the Maori people. I have removed all references to Maoris and replaced it with "Maori" For the sake of all readers not familiar to the NZ reference to lwi as opposed to tribes I have not removed all references to "tribes".

As the information in the hub is not based on my personal perception but rather on information gathered from people who have studied the Maori I have not removed statements that you are in disagreement with but suggest that my readers refer to your comment for additional insight and other opinions.

Thank you very much for enlightening both myself and my readers.

BTW "whether" would be the more appropriate word to use in your comment as opposed to "weather". :)

Mana Maori on May 01, 2010:

While I can see from your article that you are trying to be culturally sensitive, unfortunately you are helping to perpetuate myths about our culture as well as belittle it ie: "As the Maoris were illiterate..."

but as it says on (which is actually written by Maori who know their culture) in the whakairo section: "Although Maori did not develop an alphabet type of reading and writing until after the white man came, they had a highly developed reading and writing style..."

Another stereotype myth perpetuating comment: "Despite the fact that this caused intense pain and excessive bleeding..." Not according to my grandparents who actually had full face ta moko done the traditional way in the 1800's

"This type of tattoo is known as the puhoro..." Puhoro is a specific design with its own symbolism and significance.

"No-one should consider getting a Maori facial tattoo without truly understanding the origin and history of the design..." TOTALLY AGREE! :D Although I must admit that it is amusing at times reading what people actually have written on themselves! *LOL* (at least I am not illiterate as I can read Ta Moko - hmm ... wonder who is really illiterate ?!? )

Women did and still do have full face Ta Moko

Iwi is the correct word, not tribe and Iwi is used in mainstream English speaking NZ - you can also hear that word used a lot in the NZ mainstream media - without a translation as "tribe" is a derogatory word with primitive connotations

Also, there is no s in Maori so there is no such word as Maoris - and most people in NZ know that regardless of weather or not they are Maori or Pakeha. Even the mainstream media do not really use Maori with the s, and if they do there is always an uproar.

Please remove the s from Maori and change the offensive tribe to Iwi and as for tribesman, person maybe? I have never heard the term tribesman used to refer to us!

@ It's just me - shocking! guess if me and the whanau turned up in Alaska we would be kicked out or get a criminal record! But I am glad your Auka has passed on the knowledge to you - and hopefully one day you will be able to legally reclaim your heritage and traditions - Kia kaha :)

It's just me from Alaska on March 11, 2010:

Here in Alaska it's illegal to tattoo your face, I believe that it is because it's our native tradition to do so. My Auka told me how to choose my tattoos for when it does become legal again.

Laura du Toit (author) from South Africa on February 12, 2010:

Glad you enjoyed the hub TattooDesign

TattooDesign on February 12, 2010:

Very interesting tattoo hub, I learnt loads. Your hard work is much appreciated.

Laura du Toit (author) from South Africa on November 04, 2009:

Thanks Joe

Glad you enjoyed reading. I feel to each his own but am glad that face art is not part of my culture.

tattoo_design on November 04, 2009:

I just love checking out different styles and cultures body art. Personally I draw the line at facial art, but where it is more subtle I think it can look good (as opposed to complete facial coverage).

Agree though very well researched info - thanks


Laura du Toit (author) from South Africa on October 20, 2009:

Thanks lorlie6

It was interesting to research - I think the research is what I always enjoy most!

Laurel Rogers from Bishop, Ca on October 20, 2009:

This hub is wonderfully well-researched and cautionary-well done, Laura.

Laura du Toit (author) from South Africa on October 20, 2009:

Thanks - not for the faint hearted!

lynnechandler on October 20, 2009:

Wow, I've inked but can't imagine inking like that not for me at all. Thanks for the great hub.