Maori Tattoo Meaning

By Tattoo Artist On July 17, 2012 Under Ancient Tattoos

The Real Meaning of Maori Tattoo

Have you ever been awed by the beauty of Maori tattoo? Have you wondered where the designs originated or whether it is possible to have one for yourself? Maori tribal tattoo

A Maori tattoo, or “moko,” is steeped in tradition. It is a form of body art that the Maori people brought from Polynesia to New Zealand hundreds of years ago and is considered to be highly sacred. Beginning at a person’s adolescence, tattoos were traditionally applied as a “rite of passage” and then repeated periodically as a celebration of significant events in a person’s life. The designs were often symbols of rank, social status and prestige.  Since each individual is unique, each Maori tattoo is unique as well, with complex patterns that involve intricately designed, curved shapes and spirals.

The Legend behind Moko

According to Maori mythology, a young warrior named Mataora fell deeply in love with Niwareka, a lovely princess of the underworld. Mataora courted Niwareka, and in time, she accepted his advances and joined him above ground in the world of humans so that they could be wed. When Mataora began to mistreat her, Niwareka fled back to her father’s underworld kingdom. Mataora was devastated and ashamed, and he made his way to the underworld to win her back. He arrived tired and disheveled, with his face-paint smeared from the ordeal of his travels. Eventually, Niwareka forgave him, and her father taught Mataora the art of Maori tribe tattooing so that his countenance was restored. Mataora and Niwareka returned together to the human world, bringing with them the art of “ta moko.”

Who are the Maori?

The Māori are indigenous Polynesian people living in New Zealand. They came to New Zealand from eastern Polynesia, arriving in canoes around 1300 a.d. Over a period of several hundred years, in an environment of isolation, they developed a unique culture that included their own language, social customs, crafts and performing arts.

When Europeans first arrived to the New Zealand coast beginning in the 17th century, the Maoir people began to be influenced by the Western culture. The two cultures lived together peacefully until the 1860s, when disputes increased over land sales. Decades of conflict followed. The Maori population dramatically declined during this period of discord, a time that was also riddled with disease epidemics. Fortunately, by the 20th century, the Maori population began to recover, and they are now the second-largest ethnic group in New Zealand.

Moko, Then and Today

The Maori ‘tattoo artist’ was called the tohunga-ta-moko. Originally, the tattoo processes didn’t involve needles. Instead, tattoo tools were knives and chisels fashioned from shark’s teeth, bones or sharp stones. The inks came from natural sources. Some of the darker pigments were derived from burnt wood; some of the lighter pigments were from sources such as caterpillars that were infested with a certain type of fungus.

Because of the tools used, the Maori tattoo process was extremely painful and needed to be applied in stages, giving enough time for healing. Maori tattoos had two design types: One design involved blackening the lines that were carved into the skin. The second designed involved blackening the background and leaving the lines clear.

Facial tattoos were most common because the Maori considers a person’s head to be the most sacred part of the body. Traditionally, men had full facial tattoos, while women were tattooed only on their chin, lips and nostrils. Although some Maori men and women chose to also have tattoos on other parts of their bodies, facial tattoos were the most common.

Full facial tattoos declined for men by the middle of the 19th century, but women continued their adornment throughout the 20th century. There has been a comeback in “moko” since the 1990’s (although the process now uses modern tattoo machines) and non-Maori are increasingly incorporating these ancient designs into their own art. At the same time, the Maori have begun to revive their ancient methods of tattooing so that their cultural heritage might be preserved.

Choosing a Maori Tattoo

Maori tattoo meaning SleeveIf you are interested in getting a Maori tattoo, it will be important that you appreciate the culture of the Maori people and clearly understand the meaning of the design you select. Remember—Maori designs are a form of personal communication. They will be telling a story uniquely about you. Don’t decide hastily, and choose a tattoo artist who is skilled in the creation of Maori designs. If you make a thoughtful decision in terms of design and tattoo artist, you will proudly display your tattoo for years to come.


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