Maori Tattoos – Tattoo Ideas & The Meaning of Maori Tattoo Designs

Maori tattoos stand as some of the most visually stunning tribal tattoo designs in the world. Maori tattoos are a type of Polynesian tattoo design, but have developed their own extremely unique identity. The art of Tattooing is considered sacred among the Maori people of New Zealand. Its exact origin is unknown. It was probably passed to them from the East Polynesian Islands. Maori tattoo designs can be very striking and beautiful. Maori body art is based on the spiral, are curvilinear and consist of curved shapes set in intricate patterns. These can be visually very stunning and many artists have taken inspiration for modern tattoo ideas from the traditional Maori style.

Another great distinction of Maori tattoos is that they are often placed upon the face. Perhaps this is partly due to the cool New Zealand climate but also probably owes a lot to the Maori warrior culture – as facial tattoos would have made the warriors look like demons and scared the hell out of their enemies!

History of Maori Tattoos

Traditional Maori Tattoos were made using bone chisels, in a process known in the Maori language as Ta Moko. The Maori words Ta Moko mean: ‘to strike’ or ‘to tap’. The traditional Maori tattoos differed from other tattoo styles in that they were carved into the skin with bone chisels rather than punctured with needles. A finished tattoo is known simply as Moko. Maori tattoos usually covered the face, buttocks and legs of Maori men. Maori women usually wore tattoos on the chin and lips and occasionally on the back of the neck. Acquiring a Maori tattoo could be long and painful process which had great ritual significance.

According to Maori legend, Ta moko originally came from the Underworld. A young warrior called Mataora fell in love with Niwareka, the princess of the underworld. She agreed to marry him and return to the human world. However, Mataora soon mistreated her and Niwareka went back to her fathers kingdom. Sick with grief, and with his face paint smudged, Mataora went down to the underworld to try and win her back. He succeeded and the King of the Underworld also taught him the art of Ta Moko.

Instead of using needles to apply the Maori tattoos to the skin, the Maori people used knives and chisels called uhi. The ink was applied by making incisions with the uhi. Traditionally, these uhi were made from Albatross bone. Two kinds of tattoo ink were used. The tattoo ink for the body was made from an organism common to New Zealand that is half vegetable and half caterpillar. The caterpillar has become infected with a fungus which starts growing on it’s head.

To make the ink, vegetable caterpillars were dried and heated over a fire to make black charcoal. This was then mixed with muttonbird fat to make the ink. Interestingly, the Maori also used the vegetable caterpillar as a food source and ate them upon occasion. The darker black ink used on the face was made from burning wood. By the end of the 19th century contact with the western world gave the Maori access to needles.

Maori tattooing usually started at adolescence and was used to mark important milestones in life. The first tattoos marked the transition from child to adult. Maori tattoos were meant to be much more than decorative. They also showed a person had courage and strength. Maori women also had tattoos, but usually less elaborate. Perhaps, they had less need to show courage or strength. The process of tattooing involved much ritual and was usually accompanied with music, chanting and ritual fasting. The fasting part was probably actually quite necessary as the face of the tattooed would probably swell up from the wounds inflicted during the tattooing!

Maori tattoos were considered such an important part of the Maori culture that a person with no tattoos was considered to be without worth or status!

Maori tattoo artists were most often men, though there were also some female tohunga ta moko – moko artists.

Maori Tattoo Designs today

The Maori traditions – including ta moko – lost much of their significance, after European settlers colonised New Zealand. However since the 1990’s the Maori culture and traditions are experiencing a great revival. Maori tattoos have also experienced a real comeback and are extremely popular once again. Even the old equipment, like the bone chisels, are being used once more.

Maori Tattoos

Leg Maori Tattoos

In the west Maori tattoos are also very fashionable. Striking black Maori swirling designs can look for effective upon pale skin. The warrior idea behind Maori tattoos no doubt appeals to many men. Maori tattoo designs have a timeless appeal and have also influenced many other tattoo styles – such as tribal tattoo ideas.

Celebrities with Maori Tattoos include:

Singer, Robbie Williams has a Maori sleeve tattoo design on his arm, designed by Dutch tattoo artist Henk Schiffmacher.

Singer and Guitarist, Ben Harper has Maori tattoo designs all over his body.

Former boxer, Mike Tyson has a tribal tattoo design on his face which was most likely inspired by the traditional Maori facial tattoo idea.

Where on the body can you wear an Maori Tattoo?

Due the their great flexibility it is possible to have a Maori tattoo on pretty much any part of the body. Maori tattoo designs can also be great ‘space fillers’ used to link or connect other tattoos. Maori tattoo designs can really be any size, large or small. This mean that a talented tattoo artist should have no problem making a design to fit any area.

It should be remembered that the traditional Maori tattoos were used for the personal identification of certain Maori tribes. By copying a certain tribes tattoo design for your tattoo idea you could be stealing their identity which could easily be seen as an insult! If you want a Maori inspired design you should find a tattoo artist who has experience with Maori tattoo designs and knowledge of different Maori Tattoo meanings. He can make a tattoo design, for your tattoo idea, which has the style of Moko, without the symbolic meanings which could land you in trouble should you ever visit the wrong part of New Zealand!

If you are thinking about getting a Maori tattoo you can also find many fine examples of body art to help inspire your tattoo ideas – including examples of Maori tattoo flash – by looking online. You will also find many tattoo images and tattoo pictures.

Other great places to put Maori Tattoos would be:

Maori tattoo on arm
Maori back tattoos
Maori wrist tattoos
Maori tattoos on leg
Maori tattoos on hip
Maori tattoos on neck
Maori tattoos on buttocks
Maori sleeve tattoos

Images by:

guiskatenator and micaeltattoo

lucianoxlima and neuro74