The Maori tattoo

The Polynesian Maori style

Tribal tattoo, the Maori tattoo is from the Polynesian tribe Maori, inhabitants of New Zealand.

The term Tattoo or tattoo in French comes from the word Tatau in Polynesian meaning to strike, it is also derived from the Tahitian word “Ta-Atua”, which is the coupling of the word “Ta”: drawing inscribed in the skin “and” Atua ” : spirit “.

To better define the Maori tattoo, a reference in the art of tattooing, we will focus on:

  • His origins
  • His techniques
  • His symbols

The origins of the Maori tattoo:

Historically, it is at the end of the eighteenth century that the word is reported in the West by James Cook on his return from his travels in Polynesia. The word tatau is common in many Polynesian cultures. It was in 1769 that the word tattoo made its entry into everyday language, and in 1858 that the word was officially “francisé”.

Of Maori origin, the Polynesian tattoo is imbued with a very strong symbolic. Rite of passage tattoo marked the body of Polynesians and inscribed the history of their life, expression of social rank, clan or personality for example, it was primarily intended for prestigious personalities and higher classes.

Tatouage Maori
Maori tattoo

In New Zealand, the birth of the tattoo Maori would be of divine origin, from a love story, the tattoo would have been transmitted to men.

The tattoo is at the time “the” external sign of wealth and power. Chiefs and warriors were most often tattooed all over the body, the head was spared except for priests.

For women, tattooing was an ornament; tattoos are circumscribed from the hands to the feet, to the lips and sometimes to the thighs and buttocks for the women of chiefs.

Banished by the missionaries at the end of the 18th century, the Polynesian tattoo has reappeared today among Polynesians striving to enhance their origins.

Maori tattoo techniques:

The original technique of Polynesian tattooing is extremely painful: a comb made of shark tooth or bone or the end of a handle on which the tattooist tapped to insert pigments extracted from diluted walnut charcoal into the dermis.

To this is added a smaller stick, which was used as a kind of percussion: the tattooist held the comb in one hand and the other struck first to push the teeth of the comb, impregnated with dye, in the flesh. The dye used was obtained from the Tiairi bancoule nut.

These traditional instruments were banned in 1986 by the Ministry of Health.

Highly sought after and in vogue today, the dotwork technique, literally the work of the point, is the contemporary replica of the traditional Maori inking mode.

The aesthetics and the symbolism of the Maori tattoo:

The Maori tattoo is a real identity card, we write his story on the body with identifiable symbols:

The Tiki

The tiki is a human representation of the Polynesian demi-gods: deified ancestors and chiefs who were sublimated after their death. It mainly symbolizes protection and power, it is mainly used as a lucky charm.

Tatouage Tiki
Tiki tattoo

The turtle

The turtle is very important in the Polynesian culture, it symbolizes strength and protection. She is considered a deity who would facilitate the passage of souls to their place of rest.

Tatouage Tortue
Turtle tattoo

The turtle shell

Very present in the Polynesian seascape, the turtle shell represents longevity, health, fertility and peace.

The Marquise Cross

Symbol of balance between the elements, the marquise cross is one of the key symbols of Polynesian tattoos.

Tatouage Croix Marquisienne
Marquisian Cross Tattoo

The sun

Often associated with other symbols, it has various meanings but it expresses above all eternity, a source related to life and death.

tatouage soleil
tattoo sun

The ocean

Final destination at the end of their lives the ocean is a tattoo very common in Polynesia. Symbol of the beyond, it can also represent eternity.

Symboles Océan
Ocean symbols

Shark teeth

Regarded as a god in the Polynesian legend, he is a symbol of security, of power, of ferocity.

Tatouage dents de requin
Tattoo shark teeth

The lizard

Lizards are are considered representatives of Gods. They protect evil spirits and sickness.

Tatouage lezard Maori
Maori lezard tattoo

Spikes of Lances

Spear points in Polynesia symbolize courage and fighting spirit.

The man “Enata”

Used in combination, “Enata” is a typical symbol used in Polynesian tattoos to represent gods and humans.

The Manta Ray

Symbol of humility and wisdom, it also symbolizes freedom.

Tatouage raie manta maori
Maori manta ray tattoo

The dolphin

The dolphin tattoo represents freedom, In Polynesian mythology the dolphin directed the Maori to the promised land while protecting them from shark attacks.

Tatouage Dauphin Maori
Maori dolphin tattoo


For the Polynesians the fish symbolizes prosperity, wealth, fertility.


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