What is the meaning of a Maori tattoo?

tatouage maori

Last Updated:

Maori tattooing, an art deeply rooted in tradition, plays a key role in the expression of identity, personality, social status and individual history. Inspired by the rich culture and spirituality of New Zealand’s indigenous Maori people, these works are distinguished by their intricate geometric patterns, often adorning the face, arms, legs or torso.

This guide invites you to explore the richness of Maori tattooing: from its deep symbolism and origins, to its iconic designs and evolution in the contemporary world.

Whether you’re interested in an ephemeral or permanent Maori tattoo, you’ll discover everything you need to know to choose the design that suits you best.

maori tattoo

What is a Maori tattoo?

The importance of tattooing in Maori society

Originating in the rich spiritual culture of the Maoris, the indigenous people of New Zealand, Maori tattooing, or moko, is a thousand-year-old tradition dating back over 2000 years. It’s not just an art, but a sacred practice, marked by a belief in the magical powers inherited from divinities.

This form of bodily expression symbolized an individual’s belonging to a specific clan, tribe, island or even region. Tattooing, performed with sharpened combs made of bone, tortoise shell or mother-of-pearl and impregnated with charcoal ink, was synonymous with bravery and endurance due to the intense pain involved. Thus, getting a tattoo became an important event, marked by rituals involving song, dance and music.

Engraved designs not only symbolized high social status, but were also acquired in exchange for precious objects, a tradition that often reserved them for elites and important figures.

The tattoo as a mark of identity and status

More than a work of art, the Maori tattoo was a veritable identity card, reflecting the wearer’s history, personality, social rank and marital status.

Each design, with its variations in location, size, color and orientation, carried a particular meaning. Nature, animals, plants, stars and deities are recurrent motifs.

Traditionally, designs were applied to the face, arms, legs or torso, the face being considered the ultimate representation of a person’s soul and identity.

For men, the facial tattoo was divided into eight sections revealing different fragments of the individual’s life, from genealogy to beliefs. Women, on the other hand, usually had their chins, lips and nostrils tattooed.

What are the main symbols and motifs of Maori tattoos?


The spiral, or Koru, is an emblematic Maori symbol that illustrates the concept of new life, growth and renewal. Inspired by the spiral fern, it evokes the unfolding of life and its hidden potential.

This motif conveys values of peace, harmony and interconnection between past, present and future. Widely used in Maori art, sculpture and tattoos, the Koru’s beauty and symmetry can also be found in jewelry, clothing and decorative objects.


A powerful Maori symbol, the Manaia embodies the figure of the guardian and spiritual protector. It is represented by a hybrid being, with a bird’s head, a human body and a fish tail, symbolizing the union of the spiritual, human and natural worlds.

Manaia acts as a bridge between the physical and spiritual worlds, offering protection and guidance. It is recognized for its supernatural powers, bringing luck and defense against evil spirits. A bearer of balance and harmony, manaia reflects the duality between the material and the spiritual.


Represented by a stylized human figure, the Tiki is a powerful symbol of fertility and preservation in Maori culture, embodying the common ancestor of all Maori.

Considered the first man and created by the gods, the Tiki symbolizes the source of all life and the guardian of knowledge. Worn as a pendant, it is believed to transmit life force and ancestral wisdom, while embodying loyalty, courage and devotion.


The double spiral, or Pikorua, symbolizes indissoluble, perpetual commitment. Inspired by weaving patterns and pikopiko, a local fern, this motif represents the indissoluble union between two people, whether partners, friends or relatives.

It illustrates the idea that, despite differences in path, the bond remains unalterable and solid. The double spiral is a precious gift, synonymous with unwavering affection and loyalty.

Shark teeth

Shark teeth, called niho mano in Maori, are a powerful Maori symbol of strength and protection. They embody not only shelter and guidance, but also power, ferocity and remarkable adaptability.

Sharks occupy an important place in Maori mythology, where they are worshipped as gods protecting travelers and fishermen.

Their teeth, frequently depicted in Maori tattoos on various parts of the body such as the arms, legs or back, are believed to provide the wearer with the same strength, courage and divine protection as the shark itself.

maori tattoo

Maori tattoos: modern interpretation and respect for tradition

Growing popularity and contemporary evolution

Maori tattooing enjoys a growing notoriety around the world, appealing to an ever-increasing number of people for its splendor, rich detail and profound meaning.

Today’s versions of Maori tattooing use modern tools, offrent a wider color palette and offer customizable designs to suit individual preferences and requirements.

What’s more, they can be temporary, allowing you to test their aesthetics before deciding on a permanent tattoo.

Contemporary Maori tattoos are seen as a means of personal expression, a demonstration of creativity and an art form in their own right.

How to choose the right tattoo design?

Choosing a Maori tattoo design should not be done lightly. The choice must reflect the personality, personal history, values and aspirations of the wearer.

It is essential that the design chosen is in harmony with Maori culture and spirituality, the roots of this ancestral art. Each motif carries a profound meaning, influenced by its location, size, colors and orientation.

It is therefore essential to research the symbolism of Maori motifs before proceeding, afin order to select the one that best conveys the desired identity and message.

Cultural responsibility in Maori tattooing

Maori tattooing goes far beyond simple body decoration. It represents a precious cultural heritage that deserves to be respected and preserved. This type of tattoo is deeply rooted in the culture and identity of the Maori people, originally from New Zealand, who have faced discrimination and repression throughout history.

Thus, for the Maoris, the tattoo is akin to a symbol of fierté, resistance and affirmation. It also serves to share their culture and knowledge with future generations. For those considering a Maori tattoo, it’s essential to understand and respect its meaning and origins, and not to reduce it to a mere trend.

It’s important to avoid any form of cultural appropriation, defined as the use of a cultural element without understanding its context, deeper meaning or value.

The age-old art of Maori tattooing embodies the very essence of Maori culture and identity, through the complexity of its designs and the depth of its symbolism. These motifs, inspired by nature, wildlife, divinities and spiritual concepts, bear witness to a tradition that, while modernizing, has not forgotten its roots.