Inside: What is Ta Moko? Does it Hurt?

What you might not know about the Maori people, is that they aren’t actually a single collective, but a collection of diverse tribes. Each Maori tribe has its own unique practices, beliefs and subcultures that set it apart from the others. These unique differences are represented in their tattoos. Tattoos play a significant role in Maori culture, not just a symbolic one, but a practical one as well.

The Maori people use tattoos to represent their heritage, personal identity, and even career path. Some tattoos are awarded to those who have undertaken a test of strength or mental fortitude.

Ta Moko Tattoos were used to represent a person’s social status.

Ta Moko Tattoo Definition

The Ta Moko Tells a Story

In the Maori language, a tattoo is also referred to as ‘Kirituhi’. ‘Kiri’ means ‘Skin’ and ‘Tuhi’ means ‘Art’, so ‘Kirituhi’ literally translates to ‘Skin Art’. Traditionally, the Ta Moko tattoo features unique design elements. It is important to know what these elements are, in order to understand the symbolism used in the Ta Moko tattoo to tell a story.


Manawa are flat, parallel lines of ink. ‘Manawa’ literally means ‘Heart’. These lines represent your life, and the patterns you place inside them symbolize your experience, and the aspects of your life that are most important to you.

Inside The Manawa

Pakati is known as the ‘dog skin cloak’ tattoo. It features a pattern that looks like arrowheads within the Manawa, and is meant to symbolize strength and courage.

The Hikuaua resembles a thick vertical lightning bolt, or ‘M’ shapes, that are meant to look like the scales on a mackerel’s tail. This tattoo is used by people of the Taranaki region, it is said to symbolize prosperity.

The Unaunahi tattoo is made of round fish scales layered in a row. This tattoo is said to represent wellness and abundance.

The Ahu ahu mataroa tattoo features simple, thin vertical lines within the horizontal lines of the Manawa. This tattoo was awarded to those who proved their athletic prowess through various achievements.

The Taratarekae tattoo features two parallel rows of small horizontal triangles that are meant to resemble whale teeth. This tattoo is meant to symbolize both strength and sensitivity.

Ta Moko Tattoos

Ta Moko Tattoo Examples

1. Ta Moko Spine Tattoo

2. Face Ta Moko Design

3. Ta Moko Shoulder Piece

4. Maori Moko Face Idea

5. Ta Moko Leg Sleeve

More Complex Ta Moko Tattoos

The Maori people also marked their bodies with emblems that represented supernatural beings from their spiritual beliefs. For example, the Manaia was a tattoo depicting a being with the upper body of a man, the head of a bird, and the lower body of a fish. The Maori people believed that the Manaia’s purpose was to guide spirits to the afterlife.

Hei Tiki was a being that resembled a small monkey. This simian creature was said to be a symbol of luck, those who tattooed Hei Tiki on their skin believed it would bring them good fortune. Some also saw Hei Tiki as a talisman of fertility. Other than tattoos, this symbol was also carved into precious rocks and worn by the Maori people.

The Koru was a simple spiral design, said to be based on a curled fern leaf. The Maori people believed that the Koru symbolized new beginnings and second chances, and harmony.

The Hei Matau is a symbol based on the hooks that the Maori people use to fish. The Hei Matau encapsulates strength, determination and prosperity, as well as health.

What Makes This Tattoo Different?

For the Maori people, the Ta Moko tattoo is far more than just an aesthetic choice or fashion statement. The Ta Moko tattoo holds a deeply spiritual significance for the Maori people. In Maori culture, the head is considered the most sacred part of the human body. That is why facial tattoos are incredibly popular amongst the Maori people. The Facial Ta Moko tattoo was used as a symbol of a person’s social standing or political power.

What many outsiders may not know, is that no two Ta Moko tattoos are ever the same. Each Ta Moko tattoo is one of a kind, making it all the more special to those who wear them.

Who Practices Ta Moko Tattoo Art?

In the Maori language, Ta Moko tattoo artists were known as tohunga Ta Moko, literally translating to “Ta Moko Specialist.” These people aren’t ordinary artists. In fact, they are considered holy by the rest of Maori society. While most Tohunga Ta Moko were men, there were a few women who practiced the sacred art as well.

The Ta Moko Tattoo Today

The Ta Moko Tattoo is still incredibly popular among the modern Maori people. In fact, as they have migrated, they have taken the Ta Moko tattoo with them, causing its popularity to spread around the world.

Learn More About Tattoos

  • What is a Flat Needle? – Tattoo artists use a variety of tools and needles to create their masterpieces. A flat needle delivers higher quantities of ink and are therefore great instruments for outlining, highlighting, shading, or even coloring. Read more about needle types and how to use them.
  • Why your Tattoo Pens Matter – There are various ways to create a tattoo. Tattoo pens are a simplified tool from the traditional tattoo machine that uses a small motor to drive a needle up and down. The result is a simplified and lower cost method of tattoo creation. Read more about tattoo pens and their advantages and disadvantages.
  • What is a Tattoo Blowout? – Tattoo blowouts are not super common, but when they do occur it is generally because of the tattoo artist applying too much pressure. The ink is placed below the surface of the skin and in turn is injected into the next layer of fat. This can cause a number of issue both with the tattoo clarify, longevity, and even some health concerns. Read more about how this happens and what to do.