The History of Maori Tattoos: Significance and Modern Practices

Maori tattoos, also known as Ta Moko, hold a deep cultural significance in Maori culture. These traditional tattoos are unique to the Maori people of New Zealand and are considered a sacred art form. 

The designs are intricate and often tell the story of the wearer’s genealogy, tribal affiliations, and personal achievements. Each tattoo is carefully crafted by skilled artists and holds great importance within the Maori community.

Fashion or Significance

The practice of Maori tattoos dates back centuries and has been passed down through generations as a way to honour ancestors and preserve cultural heritage. 

The designs are not only aesthetically pleasing, but also serve as a way to connect individuals to their roots and uphold traditional values. 

In modern times, Maori tattoos have gained popularity outside of the Maori community, with many people from different cultures seeking to incorporate these ancient symbols into their own body art. 

In the following sections, we will delve into the significance of Maori tattoos and explore how they are practised in contemporary society.

  • Maori tattoos, known as ta moko, have a rich cultural significance in Maori society and are considered a sacred art form passed down through generations.
  • Traditional Maori tattoos were created using chisels to carve intricate designs into the skin, representing the wearer’s genealogy, social status, and personal achievements.
  • In modern times, Maori tattoos have experienced a revival, with many Maori and non-Maori individuals getting ta moko as a way to connect with Maori culture and express their own identity.
  • The process of receiving a ta moko involves consultation with a Maori tattoo artist, who will design a unique tattoo based on the wearer’s personal story and cultural background.
  • While Maori tattoos have become popular in mainstream culture, it is important to respect the cultural significance and tapu (sacredness) of ta moko and to understand the history and traditions behind this ancient art form.
History of Maori Tattoos

What is the significance of Maori tattoos and what are the modern practices

Traditional Maori Tattoos

Maori tattoos, also known as “ta moko,” have a deep cultural significance for the indigenous Maori people of New Zealand. 

These tattoos are not merely decorative, but hold spiritual and symbolic meanings that connect the wearer to their ancestors and tribal roots. 

Each tattoo design is unique and tells a story of the wearer’s genealogy, tribe, social status, and personal experiences.

Significance of Maori Tattoos

In Maori culture, tattoos are considered sacred and are a rite of passage. 

They are believed to enhance a person’s mauri, or life force, and strengthen their connection to the spiritual world. 

Maori tattoos are also a way to honour ancestors, preserve tribal traditions, and demonstrate resilience and courage.

Modern Practices of Maori Tattoos

While Maori tattoos have deep historical roots, they have also evolved to incorporate modern techniques and styles. 

Today, many Maori people choose to get traditional tattoos to reclaim their cultural identity and express pride in their heritage. 

Tattoo artists may use contemporary equipment and methods, but they still follow the traditional protocols and designs to honour the ancestors.

Maintaining Cultural Respect

It is important for those considering Maori tattoos to understand and respect the cultural significance behind them. 

It is not merely a fashion statement, but a deep spiritual practice that should be approached with reverence and understanding. 

Before getting a Maori tattoo, individuals should educate themselves on the meanings and customs associated with the art form.

Choosing a Tattoo Artist

When getting a Maori tattoo, it is essential to find a skilled and knowledgeable tattoo artist who understands the cultural significance of the designs. 

They should be experienced in Maori tattooing techniques and have a deep respect for the traditions and protocols involved. 

Researching the artist’s background and portfolio is crucial to ensure a culturally authentic and respectful tattoo experience.

Tips for Getting a Maori Tattoo

  • Educate Yourself: Before getting a Maori tattoo, take the time to research the meanings and cultural significance behind the designs. 

Understanding the symbolism and traditions associated with ta moko will help you appreciate the tattoo on a deeper level.

  • Choose a Reputable Artist: It’s crucial to find a skilled and knowledgeable tattoo artist who specialises in Maori tattoos and respects the cultural protocols. 

Look for artists with experience in traditional Maori tattooing techniques and a portfolio that demonstrates their expertise in this art form.

  • Open Communication: When consulting with your tattoo artist, communicate openly about your desires, intentions, and the significance you want your tattoo to hold. 

This collaboration ensures that the design accurately reflects your personal journey and cultural background.

  • Respect the Process: Getting a Maori tattoo is not just about the end result but also the journey. 

Respect the cultural significance of the tattooing process and the traditions involved. 

Approach the experience with humility, reverence, and a willingness to learn.

  • Proper Aftercare: Once you’ve received your Maori tattoo, follow the aftercare instructions provided by your tattoo artist diligently. 

Proper care is essential for preserving the integrity and beauty of the tattoo over time, ensuring that it remains a cherished symbol of your cultural heritage.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the significance of Maori tattoos?

Maori tattoos, also known as moko, hold deep cultural significance and tell the story of a person’s ancestry and social status. 

They are considered a sacred art form that connects the wearer to their ancestors and cultural heritage.

What is the history of Maori tattoos?

The tradition of Maori tattoos dates back centuries, with each design representing a specific aspect of Maori culture. 

Originally, tattoos were created using chisels made of bone and ink derived from natural sources such as burnt kauri gum.

Are Maori tattoos still practised today?

Yes, Maori tattoos are still practised today, both within the Maori community and by people around the world who are drawn to the beauty and cultural significance of moko. 

Modern techniques and technology have made it easier to create intricate and detailed designs.

What are some common symbols in Maori tattoos?

Common symbols in Maori tattoos include spirals, fern fronds, and koru (unfurling fern). Each symbol has its own meaning and significance, often tied to aspects of nature or Maori mythology.

Do Maori tattoos have any spiritual significance?

Yes, Maori tattoos are believed to have spiritual significance, serving as a way to connect the wearer to their ancestors and deities. 

The tattooing process itself is seen as a sacred ritual that requires careful preparation and respect.

Can anyone get a Maori tattoo?

While Maori tattoos are traditionally reserved for those with Maori ancestry, many people from diverse backgrounds choose to get Maori-inspired designs as a way to honor the culture and art form. 

It is important to work with a skilled tattoo artist who understands the cultural significance of moko.

How long does it take to get a Maori tattoo?

The length of time it takes to get a Maori tattoo can vary depending on the complexity of the design and the skill of the tattoo artist. 

Some tattoos can be completed in a single session, while others may require multiple sessions over a period of weeks or months.

Are there any taboos or restrictions associated with Maori tattoos?

Yes, there are certain taboos and restrictions associated with Maori tattoos, such as not touching someone’s head or face tattoos as they are considered tapu (sacred). 

It is important to show respect and understanding when interacting with individuals who have Maori tattoos.

How can I learn more about Maori tattoos and their significance?

To learn more about Maori tattoos and their significance, consider visiting museums or cultural centres that showcase Maori art and artefacts. 

You can also read books and articles written by Maori scholars and artists who have expertise in moko.

Can Maori tattoos be removed or covered up?

While it is possible to remove or cover up a Maori tattoo, the process can be complex and may not completely erase the design. 

It is important to carefully consider the decision to get a Maori tattoo and be prepared to commit to the design for life.

Maori people of New Zealand


The history of Maori tattoos is a rich and vibrant tapestry that reflects the deep cultural heritage of the Maori people. 

From ancient traditions to modern practices, moko continues to hold a special place in Maori culture and in the hearts of those who choose to wear it. 

As the art of Maori tattoos evolves and adapts to the modern world, it is important to honour and respect the cultural significance of moko and the stories it tells.

Whether you are drawn to the beauty of Maori tattoos or simply curious about their significance, taking the time to learn more about this sacred art form can deepen your appreciation for the traditions and values of the Maori people. 

By understanding the history and significance of Maori tattoos, we can all gain a greater respect for the cultural practices that help to shape our world.