For thousands of years, Maori tattoo designs have entranced us with their simultaneous simplicity and complexity. By layering simple shapes and solid lines together, the body becomes a canvas for a huge portrait of life. Each tiny shape and design has meaning, and when put together, they form a story. We’re not talking about tribal arm bands here. We’re talking about the real deal—traditional Maori tattoo meanings.
Before going into depth about specific meanings, let’s take a look at the history behind these Maori tattoo designs. They are also referred to as or included with Polynesian tattoos, and we have covered their history in depth in one of our other articles. Basically, they represent a rite of passage for the courageous and wealthy. Getting a traditional Maori tattoo is a risky process that involves infection more often than not. Sailors visiting the area would often take a smaller version—the famous tribal arm band—home with them as a souvenir. But these tattoos are normally far more elaborate and take on complex meanings.
When you are picking a tattoo, you should think long and hard about what kind of meaning you want to give it. Maori tattoo meanings focus quite a lot on spirituality and strength. By inscribing your skin with symbols, you gain the power of those symbols. It’s very ritualistic, if you haven’t already noticed. Maori tattoos are part of the reason that tattoos are banned—along with Egyptian tattoos and Celtic tattoos, they performed a sort of religious duty that Christians weren’t happy with a few centuries ago. As such, Christianity banned the practice of tattooing.
But—regardless of whether you are getting a tattoo to instill strength or luck, or just getting one because it looks cool—these tattoos have a beautiful charm. Without further ado, here are some common Maori tattoo meanings that you will probably encounter in your life more than once:
- Spears: This symbol is probably the most common motif in Maori tattoo meanings. It represents courageousness and strength. Although they are called spears, they can also refer to a pattern of armor called Pakati. Both symbols have the same meaning, so no need to sweat the details on this one.
- Sun: Everything gets its energy from the sun. That being said, it’s no surprise that the sun is a common symbol. It represents boldness, wealth, and leadership. Someone graced by the sun would find no shortage of resources for themselves or their family.
- Ocean: In an island nation, the ocean is a force to be reckoned with. The ocean represents power, death, and mystery. It represents the unknown. While it might seem strange to tattoo yourself with something dark like that, it is arguably stranger not to pay your respects to something that could easily kill you without conscious remorse. Anyone living close to the sea knows to pay their respects to the ocean.
- Gecko: Geckos symbolize the gods incarnate. They can speak to other gods while watching the mortal world in action. The gecko wards off disease and illness. It also keeps its ward safe in battle, and keeps them from acquiring bad luck. They spiritual guardians that reward the actions of those who do good. Traditional gecko tattoos look less like a gecko and more like an octopus. This is because it is related to the Enata symbol, which we’ll talk about in a second.
- Spiral: A simple spiral represents the start of something new. Its shape is inspired not by a whirlpool or gust of wind, but by the shape of a new leaf that has yet to unfurl.
- Twisted Loop: These loops look a little like an infinity symbol that is heavier on one side. They have the same meaning, as well—the infinite path of life. If the loop has more than one twist, it takes on a different meaning. It represents the cooperation of two or more parties unifying for life. This can represent marriage, friendship, or an alliance between families.
- Turtle: Turtles—especially their shells—represent eternity, health, harmony, and family. A common phrase is that turtles can’t die—they can only be killed. As long as they aren’t eaten by sharks, hit by boats, tangled in plastic, or struck by poison, they can literally live forever. There are some recordings of turtles living for centuries. So, they live even longer than humans! It’s no wonder that they represent eternal life and health.
- Teeth: Used as a kind of filler or border, rows of sharp triangles represent shark teeth. If the triangles are tiny compared to the size of the bar, then it represents whale teeth instead. They represent strength, courage, and wisdom.
- Scales: Instead of using teeth, some artists will use fish scales instead. Scales represent prosperity, wealth, and health. As with teeth, there are many different designs that have different scale shapes. They all have similar meanings.
- Enata: The Enata represents humans and gods. It is often used to represent the self. Combining it with other tattoos, such as twisted loops, creates a story about the subject. A reversed enata represents an adversary or enemy. Sometimes, people only get half of the Enata tattooed. This rainbow-like design represents the sky and gods protecting their children.
- Marquesas Cross: This tattoo represents balance. Originally pulled from a turtle shell, some people use it as an alternative cross design for the Christian cross. It’s a little ironic, considering the tattoo’s true origin. It looks incredibly similar to some traditional lizard designs—the only way to distinguish them is to check and see if the cross has a head and tail somewhere! It remains a popular Maori tattoo thanks to its original meaning—balance, harmony, and equilibrium.
As you can see, you can layer tattoos to have your own cover take on many different meanings or tell a story. It’s common for Maori tattoos to cover many large parts of the body, so picking out one specific meaning isn’t a priority. If you’re looking for a tattoo design for yourself, go ahead and pick out one that resonates with you the most. You can expand on it later. If you’re looking at the tattoo designs of others, go ahead and enjoy the rest of the articles at InkDoneRight! We have tons of stories about the history of tattoos and galleries of tattoo designs with all sorts of themes.
As always, thanks for reading!
Cover Model: Melissa Koller