Maori Tattoo Meanings

The Maori people are native to New Zealand, and tribal family groups continue to reside in the area and throughout Australia. Many people know of the Maori because of their intricate tattoos called Ta moko, which can cover a person from head to toe.

Significance and Design

The art of tattooing came to New Zealand from Polynesia, so there are many similarities between the tribal designs used by the Maori and those by South Pacific island natives.

Maori tattoos are typically done using a knife and chisel, and ink is often made from burnt wood or mashed bugs. Tattooing these designs is often a long process, and entails cutting into the skin and using the chisel to apply ink. The entire process is ritualized, and there are components from fasting to abstinence. There are many symbolic components of Maori tattoos, from their placement on the body to the design represented, and often people of significance are tattooed head to toe.

The Face Tattoo

The placement of the tattoos around the body holds a variety of meanings for the wearer. Perhaps the face tattoo is the best-known example of Ta moko, and it is one of the most important tattoos in Maori culture. The head is one of the most sacred parts of the body, and so the face tattoo often represents tribal standing and importance for the wearer

The meanings behind tattoos on the face include:

  • Center of the forehead (called a ngakaipikirau): denotes the person’s rank
  • Near the eyebrows (ngunga): the person’s position
  • Under the eyes (uirere): person’s rank within the tribe
  • Temples (uma): marital status
  • Under the nose (raurau): represents the person’s signature and was traditionally used for the transfer of objects and properties
  • Cheeks (wairua): the person’s type of work
  • Jaw (taitoto): birth status
  • Left side: paternal lineage
  • Right side: maternal ancestry

Maori Tattoo

Most Common Designs

All Maori tattoos are uniquely individual; they are often representative of traditions or specific roles within each tribal unit.

Typically, these designs are thematic in style and made up of different arrangements of symbols of importance. The most common themes and symbols used in Maori tattoos include:

  • Te ora O Maui: tells the story of the mythical figure of Maui discovering the land of New Zealand
  • Pikorua: represents growth, union, and the cyclical journey of life
  • Nga Hau E Wha: tells the story of the four corners of the earth and the sprits of the four winds
  • Te timatanga: this design tells the stories of the sprirts
  • Koru: a spiral shape that represents new beginnings and growth
  • Hei Matau: shaped like a fish hook and represents prosperity; safety, good health
  • Single twist: path of life; eternity symbol
  • Double/triple twist: union of people, loyalty, bond
  • Manaia: A figure that represents the spritual, supernatural; guardian spirit
  • Hei tiki: A symbol of good luck, fertility

Tribal Significance

Tattoing is highly important in the Maori culture, and is considered to be a ritual representing the rite of passage into adulthood. Tattoo artists are referred to as tohunga ta moko, and are considered to be holy figures.

The Messages the Maori Symbols Portray

The messages the Maori symbols portray are often about uniting people, the land, and oneself. As they are worn by people of importance within the Maori culture, they can denote power and strength.

People Who Wear the Design

People who wear the design tend to be strong, silent types, and those whose bodies are important to them. Many boxers and MMA fighters have Maori inspired tattoos, and the shoulder and leg are popular places for them.

Personal Meanings of Maori Tattoos

Personal meanings of Maori tattoos can be related to what the symbol represents, or a Maori story that you may relate to. Their placement on the body can also hold personal significance.

 Get Inspired: Maori Quotes

“Turn your face to the sun and let the shadows fall behind you”  ~ Maori proverb

“Aim for the highest cloud so if you miss you will hit a lofty mountain”  ~ Maori proverb

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