Polynesian tattoos have always made badass statements on people’s skin. One of the more popular Polynesian tattoos is the Maori tattoo. Even if you are not that into tattoos, you can’t possibly miss the beautiful tattoos worn by, say, some of the members of the New Zealand All Blacks.
Maori tattoos are a symbol of pride for the Maori people and rightfully so. These tattoos look rustic and classy at the same time. For some, they may just look cool but for those who know better, every line, every swirl, and every curve of each Maori tattoo screams power and honor.
History of Maori Tattoos
The Maori tattoos or, if we are actually being specific, Ta Moko, is a sacred tradition of marking the body and face of Maori people. The legend of this art revolves around the love story of Mataoroa and Niwareka. For the Maori people, Ta Moko is a treasure, with each person bearing a unique one.
The traditional Ta Moko may look like the tattoos that we encounter almost every single day but it actually isn’t. While they both involve ink and are both permanent, the skin where tattoos are applied remains smooth. When it comes to the authentic Ta Moko, the skin where it is applied is left with grooves.
Ta Moko, especially the ones inked on a person’s head, serves as a person’s identification. They represent who that person is, where he is from, and what his job is. They even put their signature there! I kid you not, those signatures are used for doing official transactions in the old Maori society.
The Resurrection of Maori Tattoos
During the 20th century, the number of people practicing the sacred art of Ta Moko had significantly dwindled, this is mainly due to colonization. Some viewed Ta Moko as unseemly and inappropriate. The Maori people, who once considered Ta Moko as their identity, didn’t think of it as something that one must have anymore.
However, the popularity of Ta Moko has risen along with the popularity of other Polynesian tattoos in the past few years. Nowadays, more and more are taking pride in wearing these marks rooted deeply in who they are. And it’s not just the Maori people.
Maori tattoos are gaining popularity all over the world. The authentic design elements used in traditional Maori tattoos are being adapted and given more modern twists. Fun fact, though, a lot of the Maori tattoos that you will see these days can’t be considered Ta Moko. They are called Kiri Tuhi, meaning skin art/writing, instead.
The Maori Tattoo and Its Meaning
Elements of a Maori Tattoo
All Ta Moko consist of the same main elements: the Manuah, which means heart, and the Korus. The Manuah lines serve as the framework of a Maori tattoo and represent a person’s life and journey. The Korus are the swirls that branch off from the main Manuah lines, like the shoots of ferns.
While Manuah represents the life of the person wearing the tattoo, the Koru represents the people important to the said person. Aside from the Manuah and Korus, Maori tattoos also involve infill patterns. Each pattern also bears a distinct meaning.
- Unaunahi (fish scales)- health, abundance
- Taratarekae (whale teeth)
- Pakati (dog skin cloak)- strength, courage
- Ahu ahu mataroa- athleticism, new challenges
- Hikuaua (mackerel tail)- prosperity, Taranaki
The Facial Maori Tattoo and Its Significance
Maori tattoos can be placed almost anywhere in the body but the most common, and important, placement is one’s face because, for the Maori people, the head is the most sacred part of a person’s body. Historically, the men sport tattoos that cover their whole face, unlike the women who only have tattoos on their nostrils, chin, and lips.
Facial Moko tattoos signify social standing so, only those in the upper echelon of society have them. Each facial Moko tells a unique story and no two Ta Moko are alike since the facial structure of a person is one of the main consideration for each design. In fact, this Maori tattoo may even serve as some sort of personal identification or even a full resume!
Facial Maori tattoos are very loud and may seem too intimidating for other people, but for the Maori people, it is the heart of who they are. In this Maori tattoo, the face is divided into eight parts and each part tells different things about a person.
- Ngakaipikirau- center of the forehead, shows rank
- Ngunga- underside of brows, position
- Uirere- eyes and nose area, hapu/sub-tribe rank
- Uma- temples, marital status, number of times he’s had
- Raurau- below the nose, his signature
- Taiohou- cheeks, his job (or at least the nature of it)
- Wairua- chin, stature
- Taitoto- jaw, ancestry
Other Prominent Placements of Maori Tattoos
Again, the most common and most important body part for Ta Moko is the head. It is so sacred that only the ash from burnt wood can be used as ink in facial tattoos. But Ta Moko can also be done in other body parts.
The men also adorn their legs, back and, buttocks (considered as sensual areas) with Ta Moko. The women also wear Ta Moko on their things, necks, and arms. For these tattoos, they use inks from caterpillars and burnt kauri gum with fat from animals.
Other Popular Maori Tattoo Designs
The Maori tattoo’s Pikorua design is a symbol of the joining of sea and earth and also represents growth. This design has a very specific meaning- that each of us may choose different paths in life but at the end of the day, we will all end up in one place.
The Nga Hau e Wha design literally translates to ‘the four winds’. For the Maori people, this tattoo design is a symbol of God being all-powerful, that we must revere God as, to put it simply, “God giveth and God taketh away”
The Te Ora O Maui design may sound familiar, especially for those who’ve watched a particular Disney movie. Yes, that Maui is the basis of this design or at least the basis of that Maui is. In Maori mythology, Maui is the one who discovered New Zealand or Aotearoa.
Apparently, Maui’s mother threw him into the sea for she believed that he was still-born. The baby was actually alive and ended up being raised by a tohunga. To keep the story short, Maui was gifted with powers and he went on to do heroic things. The character of Maui and his legendary feats is the main feature of the Te Ora O Maui design.
The Koru design features spiral designs, much like the delightful ferns of New Zealand. This design can mean new beginnings and growth.
Twist designs mean a lot to the Maori people. In their culture, a single twist symbolizes the path one takes in life. On the other hand, double twists (and sometimes triple twists) signifies the unbreakable bond of two people joined by friendship and faithfulness.
Fish hooks, or Hei Matau in the Maori language, is another popular design of Ta Moko. This design embodies prosperity. The reason behind that is simple, fish (which the Hei Matau design stands for) is the staple food of New Zealand and they’re pretty abundant there. Hei Matau can also symbolize strength, good health and safe sailing (not just literally but also in life).
The Manaia design features a, true to its name, Manaia. The Manaia is one of Maori’s mythological creatures. It is an amalgamation of man, bird, and fish. For the Maoris, Manaia is a spirit guardian that has the powers of sky (bird), water (fish) and earth (man).
For Maori people, the Hei Tiki design represents sound mind and fertility. Hei Tiki is a talisman, said to be the image of an unborn embryo, and has been considered as something that brings good fortune.
The Process of Getting a Maori Tattoo
As we have said earlier, Ta Moko is not exactly the same as the tattoos we commonly know. You will see the difference if you look closely at a Ta Moko or simply touch it. The difference is caused by the procedures of getting a Ta Moko, which is unlike the normal tattooing process.
Ta Moko is done by making cuts to the area where it is to be tattooed. Once the cuts are made, the ink is forced through those cuts. Yep, getting an authentic Ta Moko is a very painful business. And you can’t cry as this is a sign of weakness.
Getting a Ta Moko is a very sacred celebration for the Maori. There are certain things that are to be observed and it is often accompanied by chanting, singing, and music. Perhaps this is to take a person’s mind off the pain. Maori tattoos take a lot of time as well. Some of the parts are allowed to heal first before the process is continued.
Because of the difference between Ta Moko and common tattoos, a tattoo inspired by Maori tattoos can’t be called Ta Moko, too. Ta Moko does not involve tattoo guns, that’s why the distinction between Ta Moko and Kiri Tuhi is very important.