Maori Tattoo Designs & Their Meaning

Maori tattoos were introduced by the people of Eastern Polynesia and were etched onto the skin as a sign of status back when tribes were still prominent. People nowadays don’t really get Maori tattoos based on their history, but more so because of their unique detailing that makes no two pieces the same. 

Many tattoo designs come and go in terms of popularity, but Maori tattoos go back many years and are still as popular today as they were back in 1769.

What Are Maori Tattoos?

Maori tattoos originate from the name “Ta moko,” which means “to permanently mark the body and face.” Of course, looking back hundreds of years, you won’t be surprised to know that tattoos didn’t take place how they do now. 

Back then, the skin was carved using chisels—leaving the skin with an uneven groove which ink was then poured into. Just a little different from the tattoo needles we use today. 

Ta moko was a vital component of Maori culture, and people had the tattoos to show their level of commitment to their tribe. In return, they received recognized respect from the people. 

It was seen as a sacred ritual, where the tattoo was performed by a “tohunga ta moko,” who was the expert in tattoos. 

Designs were made so uniquely that different things about the wearer could be identified simply by looking at their tattoo. Information that could be conveyed in a design included the wearer’s status, achievements, genealogy and tribal affiliations. 

Popular Maori Designs

Different designs and patterns have various meanings, and this is how people could identify the wearer’s attributes. While this is still the case in some parts of the world, not everyone gets these designs based on their underlying meaning nowadays.

Tribal tattoos are another name for Maori-inspired tattoos and provide lots of versatility for the design. In today’s society, particularly across America and Europe, people get these tattoos simply because they look bold and cool. They are sometimes unaware of the strong history that Maori designs possess.

However, some people do their research before heading into the tattoo store, which is always advisable, and know exactly which design they want in order to portray particular meanings. 


What Does It Look Like? 

Best described as a dog skin cloak.

What Does It Represent?

Courage and strength. This design is usually found on the bodies of warriors who fought in battles. 


What Does It Look Like?

The tail of a mackerel fish.

What Does It Represent?

Prosperity. However, it also represents a region of New Zealand known as Taranaki. The people from Taranaki would wear this design to easily identify other locals.


What Does It Look Like?

Fish scales.

What Does It Represent?

An abundance of health, so you knew these people were the strongest among the tribes.

Ahu Ahu Mataroa

What Does It Look Like?

Best described as a sideways ladder, with continuous lines that weren’t exactly straight. 

What Does It Represent?

It is used to represent a new challenge, but also to recognize achievements in sport and athletic competitions. 


What Does It Look Like?

The design is taken from the structure of whale teeth in the mouth.

What Does It Represent?

Sensitivity and strength. 


What Does It Look Like?

A mythical creature in Maori culture, the Manaia is believed to be the messenger between the mortal world and the spiritual world. The most popular design shows a creature with the head of a bird, the tail of a fish and the body of a man. 

What Does It Represent?

This design symbolizes a spiritual guardian that provides for and protects the earth, sky and sea. The Manaia is believed to have supernatural powers, and the ability to guide one’s spirit to the afterlife once death occurs.

Hei Tiki

What Does It Look Like?

Similar to an unborn fetus, with monkey-like features. 

What Does It Represent?

A symbol of fertility and a good luck charm for the people. Wearers were seen as being knowledgeable, loyal and clear thinkers, with strong characters. 

Not only was this design tattooed, but sculptures were made of the Hei Tiki and carved out of greenstone. The sculptures were put in homes to bring good luck and would be passed on through generations as valuable possessions. 

Common Color Combinations

It’s uncommon to find Maori tattoos in any color other than black. The traditional tattoos were black and bold, as colored ink wasn’t readily available like it is today.

Some people may come into the studio and ask for Maori designs that incorporate color, which of course, is very much possible today. However, the original Maori tattoos are always black. 

Common Body Placements

Maori tattoos were very common in the past on the face and were used to determine many things about a person. 

Tribes could identify a man’s social status, marital status, position within the tribe and qualifications. Different areas of the face would represent different meanings.

What About Today?

Nowadays, when people pop into the tattoo studio, they don’t usually ask for these designs over their faces. We often find that people want these Maori-style tattoos across their backs, on their shoulders and arms.

These tattoos are usually large in size, which is why you need a large surface area to work with. It is rare to see this design in smaller areas such as the wrist or hand.

This style of tattoo is common among males and females today; whereas historically,  men were the only ones to display Maori tattoos on their bodies. 

Maori Tattoo Inspiration 


If you’re feeling bold, you may opt for a full or half sleeve on your arm. With such a large area of skin to work with, you can have a mixture of different Maori designs incorporated into the tattoo.

We often see a focus point for the tattoo, perhaps of the Hei Tiki or Manaia in the center with other designs surrounding it. Sharp, bold lines can be added vertically in line with the shape of the arm.

Upper Leg

There’s a lot of space to work with on the thigh area, and a common Maori design includes one that wraps around the leg like a band. 

Include smaller shapes and designs to create a larger finished tattoo when it comes together. 

Chest and Back

When it comes to Maori tattoos, it’s a case of go big or go home. The chest and back areas offer you a large space to create large, bold Maori designs that incorporate different patterns into them.

We often see a larger center design in the middle, with other lines and patterns expanded into the background.

Foot and Ankle

For smaller Maori tattoos, the feet and ankles are an excellent placement. Designs can be wrapped around the ankle and expanded onto the front of the foot to create a small yet bold piece of ink.


There’s still some controversy out there about neck tattoos, and it’s still a topic of conversation that pops up in discussions around tattoo placement suitability. 

Nevertheless, when people do get neck tattoos, they often cover the entire neck as a real statement piece of art. 

Maori tattoos are perfect for this, as their strikingly bold and black designs stand out. They can easily be wrapped around the neck to give an effective and strong message through the power of tattoo art.

Best Maori Tattoos