125 Maori Tattoos: Tradition and Trend (with Meaning)

The People of Maori have been carrying out the tradition of tattooing for centuries. This Maori art is embedded into the culture of the land and is practiced to this day.

Who are the Maori People?


The cultural identity of present-day New Zealand is greatly influenced by the Maori tradition and influence. The Maori people first arrived in New Zealand around the 1200s from Polynesia. The Maori people are formed by the various tribes and sub-tribes that migrated. They may have minor differences but all tribe’s practice, art, dance, and storytelling. Their language is their pride, they carry it with them in the form of body art, and it is also a considerable part of their other practices. There are only a few people who understand this language outside of the indigenous tribes.

Besides their intricate tattoos, they are also prominent for their war dance, inherently known as kappa haka. The Maoris are warriors and speculations regarding them carrying the warrior gene have existed for centuries.

The Maori Markings

The Maori tattoo is referred to as the Ta Moko. That is mainly the practice of caring for the skin rather than needling, which is done in the tattooing process. The people of Maori place these markings over the face and other parts of the body. The Maori markings are made using a specific tool known as UHI, unlike tattoos which are carved using needles.

Ta Moko is the symbol of Maori culture. It shows commitment and pride towards the Maori culture. The men of the tribes get these carvings placed on their faces, buttocks, thighs, and arms. The women wear it on their lips and chin.

The tattoo artist is referred to as the tohunga, who is an expert in creating the ta moko. The ritual of ta moko is considered sacred in the Maori culture and is known as tapu. Each design is unique and translates the inner being of the wearer onto their skin for all to see. It also states the wearer’s genealogy, their status, their achievements and their specific tribe.

Ta Moko has profound cultural significance, but the Kiri this does not. It is necessary to understand the meaning of both these designs.maori-tattoos

What is the difference?

Kiri tuhi is also a revered art form based on the Maori tradition of ta moko. But, there is the vast difference of identity that separates ta Moko from Kirituhi. This art form is carved by a non-Maori tattoo expert and is worn by non-Maori people.

In short, if the tattoo is not carved by a Maori or is being carved on the body of as non-Maori, then it is kirituhi. Kirituhi is a much-acclaimed art form, which is a means of sharing true and Maori culture with the rest of the world.

What does Ta moko mean for the people?


The word Moko itself can be translated as “blueprint.” In this case, it is the imprint of culture and whakapapa. Elaborate tales are surrounding this tradition and are seen as the sacred truth of the Maori people.

Ruamoko made the first Maori tattoo/markings while he was in the womb of his mother earth or as known in the Maori culture Papatuanka. His movement in the womb is symbolism of volcanic activity and earthquakes. This activity caused cracks, lines, and indentation on the skin of the earth.

Besides this version of the very first Moko, you will find there are several other adaptations as well. A Maori tattoo needs to be born of the authentic culture of the Maori people. If it is not done in a particular traditional manner, then it cannot be a Maori marking/ Ta Moko.

Maori art has inspired various tattoo designs all over the world. With movies and animations being influenced by the Maori culture there are several tattoo artist that offers the original deal. Your tattoo will seem precisely similar to the Moko, but for tattoo experts, it is necessary to understand that what indeed makes this Moko is the element of culture and tradition is what makes it a true moko.

For non-Maori tattoo artist, it is necessary to pay attention to detail and learn from the real culture of the Maori people. Using the correct terminology and imagery is extremely important while carving a Maori tattoo. If you are getting a traditional Maori tattoo, then it is better termed as Kirituhi.

To better understand the process and how it can be your very own unique design keep reading.maori-tattoos

Your story the kiriituhi way

The modern definition of kirituhi refers to the tattooing performed on the body and arms, whereas the Ta Moko is related to the practice of marking the face. There are a few design elements that are fundamental to the Maori inspired tattoo designs.

The markings/lines that resemble skin in the Maori tattoos are known as Manoah. These lines are the symbol of your life, your journey and the time that you spend on this planet. The Manuahitself can directly be translated to “heart.”

After the initial markings are complete the Manuah develop Koru, which are shoot like textures that form on the skin. These are referred to as Korus which is based on the shoots from the New Zealand fern. The Korus represent the people in your life who are important to you. This korus can be an indication for your loved ones such as your father, mother, better half or anyone that you hold dear.

The Kirituhi uses details to maintain the individuality of the tattoo for the wearer. If you are planning to get one, it is better to understand what each makes and the scar it leaves behind actually means to you.maori-tattoos

The Patterns

There are several patterns unique to the Maori tattoo art. You can choose to build a complete story using these patterns.

1.     Taratarekae:

This is a delicate design comprising of two parallel lines across the skin. Tiny inward triangles are added between the parallel lines. These triangular shapes are attached to both the lines. In Maori tradition, this pattern is a translation of whale teeth.

2.     Ahauaha mataru

This pattern is also placement of parallel lines across the body. But, these parallel lines are in pairs, and vertical lines are drawn connecting the double-parallel lines. This signifies excellent achievement and accomplishment in the field of sports and athletics. This pattern can also mean a fresh challenge for the wearer awaits.

3.     Unaunahi

This also uses the same double parallel pattern. But, the inner4 design is closely matches a leaf-like outline, much more oval in shape. This pattern represents fish scales that stands for health and abundance of wealth.

4.     Hikuaaua

This is another design placed between two double-parallel lines. The inner design is a geometrical shape. This symbolizes Taranaki which is a region in New Zealand. This design closely resembles the tail of the mackerel fish which refers to prosperity in the Maori tradition.

5.     Pakati

Like all the other patterns this is also placed between two double parallel lines. This also has a triangular geometrical design between the parallel lines. This is more commonly known as a dog skin cloak. This represents the warrior gene that Maori people carry. This is also drawn to represent the battles and wars that the wearer has fought. It shows the strength and courage of the wearer. 

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The Design Process

The process is quite simple. You need to first find a place that offers you the Kirituhi tattoo or a tattoo inspired by Maori art. Once you find a place that offers you the opportunity to get the design you like, you need to visit the tattoo expert. This is a form of consultation, where you present and discuss your ideas with the studio. Next, you need to book an appointment with the studio. On this day you can get the actual tattoo done if you are copying something already available or have a meeting with the tattoo expert and draft a design that you want.

A freehand tattoo?

The Maori art inspired tattoo usually holds meaning for the wearer. But, if you are planning to get it only for aesthetic reasons, you may still require a rough sketch on paper with the correct patterns and “shading.” For tradition tattoo enthusiasts this shading may refer to a deeper meaning, but for fashion purposes, it may be used to enhance the tattoo.

Most tattoo experts will freehand the complete design onto the skin with a tattoo marker. This also helps ensure that the representation in the tattoo is unique and precise for the wearer. This is primarily drawn to adjust the design to the making/contours of your specific body. Once the tattoo design is drafted, you can take a look at it for any additions or deductions that you would like.maori-tattoos

The face art

The face is the most delicate area of the body. The Maori culture considers the head to be the ruler of the body and as such the most sacred part. The Maori facial tattoo instills the exact representation of the culture. Today even the most loyal tattoo enthusiasts may not consider getting the face tattoo done as it is not the most understood form of body modification. But if you still want to know for information purposes then understanding the root of this tattoo is necessary.

The Maori used the face marking to symbolize status and rank in society. It is still considered the rite of passage for the people of Maori. It is one of their sacred rituals that define the individuality of the person regarding their culture and beliefs.


While the real Maori marking is done using a chisel and pigment created using burnt wood, today the process is different. The most tattoo artist will perform the complete service using only traditional tattoo methods, pushing the commercially created pigment into the skin with the needle.

The critical thing to understand, even when mimicking a Moai tattoo is that it is a very time-consuming and complicated commitment. Moreover, the tattoo artists should be an expert at it. The intricate designs including the patterns, shading and black lines are not easy to achieve for any first-timer.maori-tattoos


The pain that comes with the tattoo process depends mostly on the placement of the tattoo. If you are getting a face ta Moko, then it will be a ride. Case in point, the face heals far quicker than the body.

The traditional method of using the Uhi for these markings made this ritual one of the most painful experiences ever. Some parts of the Tamoko were completed using a mallet to push pigment into the skin. The traditional method consumes more hours than any tattoo created today. The Maori people only tattooed the body in segments to reduce the pain and time of the process.


The healing time for the traditional Maori tattoo was extended periods of time. But today a tattoo was done using a needle will take the time a typical tattoo takes to heal. The traditional Maori tattoos did not heal fully as they were intended to scar the skin prominently in parts where there was no pigment used. Today a period of 6 to 8 months will cover the damage. These designs are elaborate so that the healing times can vary depending on your health and tolerance towards wounds.

What is Unique?

Besides being a symbol of culture, the uniqueness of the Maori tattoo is that no two tattoos are the same. If you are getting this performed from an actual Maori tattoo expert, then there is a good chance that no one besides you has the same tattoo is yours. These tattoos speak of your personal experiences and stories. Of course, a tattoo copied from the internet may be found with a lot of people.

You can also search for other patterns and designs that can be added to Kirituhi art for your unique tattoo.