The English word “tattoo” is a modification of the Tahitian “Tatu”. Tattooing as a cultural statement is believed to have originated in Polynesia.

Fashions come and go but the allure of native designs has endured and has now spread around the world with celebrities in the entertainment and sporting worlds having their bodies adorned with Maori and Polynesian motifs.

From a discreet little butterfly on an ankle to a full face, New Zealander’s are the most tattooed people in the world. * A 2009 poll by UMR Research reported one in five Kiwis wear ink with Kiwis under the age of 30 more likely to have a tattoo than any other age group. It may come as a surprise to many people that the report also discovered 22% of women were tattooed compared to 17% of men.  This is due to the popularity of wearing a tattoo among Maori and Pacific Island females.

tattoo21Chin Moko (


An amazing diversity of styles from the original Maori moko to a profusion of European forms are displayed on Kiwi bodies. Shoulders, chest and arms are the most popular areas to sport the graceful swirls and thick lines ending in a club or point, that differentiate the traditional Maori designs from other Polynesian designs. The repetition of motifs are also a feature of Maori tattoos.

I am not sure if non-Maori really understand the symbolism of the lines and circles they wear. I suggest they are only attracted to the overall design as a fashion statement. Polynesian design is different from traditional European tattoos which tend to be illustrations, opposed to telling a story as is the case with complex Polynesian tattoos.

Singers Robbie Williams and Rihanna, along with sports stars Dwayne Johnson and Mike Tyson all display Maori inspired motifs on their bodies. Grammy award winning singer, songwriter, Ben Harper has gone even further and sports a torso load of Maori tattoos.

Ben says he understands the cultural significance of the designs he wears and insists he is proud to have them on his body and he treats them with respect. He would love to get a moko tattooed on his face but told a journalist when last in New Zealand that he has decided it would not be the correct thing to do. “Face moko is reserved for Maori statesmen and elders. I will leave it to them. I would be overstepping. That’s where I’d draw the line.”

Rihanna had her right hand tattooed while in New Zealand on her November 2008 tour. She wanted the same design that her ex-boyfriend Chris Brown has tattooed on the same hand. Her tattoo was done in the traditional Maori style with her skin raised and rough, rather than smooth.

Robbie Williams is proud of his Maori styled inking on his upper left arm and claims it represents a Maori prayer of protection. I wasn’t able to discover if it was or not but it does have the swirls and thick lines that differentiates it from other Polynesian designs.

Mike Tyson’s tattoo didn’t go down well with his fans as they considered it spoilt his looks. I understand all tattoos are personal statements and may not necessarily appeal to friends and families. A tattooist who works with Polynesian body art told me Tyson’s inking has absolutely nothing to do with the real thing. The work around his eye is what he called “white boy’s tribal”. In other words, it was executed by a tattooist who had no understanding or experience applying the lines and swirls that represent genuine Polynesian markings.

Actor, wrestler Dwayne Johnson’s impressive tattoo spreads across his shoulder and chest. It is the real thing tracing his family’s story and took 60 hours to apply. Being part Samoan, he has a deep connection to his tattoo. Like many Polynesian tribal tattoos, his one represents family values and the warrior spirit. As his life changes, he has had his tattoo adjusted to represent these changes. Dwayne explains the significance of his tattoo in this short clip:


In 1769, British explorer James Cook discovered New Zealand and claimed it for Britain. He was fascinated by the tattoos the natives displayed on their naked bodies and recorded this in his diary: “The marks in general are spirals drawn with great nicety and even elegance. One side corresponds with the other. The marks on the body resemble foliage in old chased ornaments, convolutions of filigree work, but in these they have such a luxury of forms that of a hundred which at first appeared exactly the same no two were formed alike on close examination.”

The Moko is the traditional Maori tattoo and is often found on the chin of a woman as seen in the first image in this blog.  The chin moko is applied to enhance a woman’s beauty by drawing attention to her eyes and facial bone structure. Traditionally with Maori men, the black swirling curves of the moko are found on shoulders, thighs, lower back, arms and upper feet, as well as on the butt and back of the legs as these reinforce sensual male power. A full head moko is of special significance because the head is regarded as sacred. To have this done is a sign of great pride in being a Maori. However, a full face moko can be intimidating and frighten children so a man must take careful consideration before undertaking such a radical alteration to his face because this inking can’t be hidden with clothing and is there for life.

Each moko contains ancestral information specific to the wearer and illustrates the story of the wearer’s family, along with their genealogy, knowledge and social standing within the tribe. It also represents targets reached, children born, places visited, and in recent times, memories of friends who have died.

Interest in Maori tattooing died during the middle of the 20th century but in the last decade, there has been a renewed interest and more young Maoris are having their skin inked with traditional designs.

I have witnessed the traditional Maori way to tattoo and I have to say, it’s not for the squeamish. The process is painfully slow, pardon the pun, and the guy getting the tattoo was biting his lip and wincing as the blade cut into his skin with sharp taps. This process is designed to leave a slight groove on the skin as opposed to the smooth surface left after conventional application.  If you watch the last minute of this 4 minute video you will see what I mean. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!


A tattoo convention has been held in Auckland since 1999. This year, a total of 60 tattooists from England, Germany, Malaysia, Japan and the USA joined Polynesian artists from Tahiti, Samoa, Tonga and New Zealand to share their experiences and discuss new trends. During the conference, the 60 delegates demonstrated their art to the public. Fashions change with Celtic designs popular in the 1990s. Japanese designs followed and currently, American old sailor style, and portraits are popular. Once a tattoo is applied, it is there for life because current removal processes are not totally successful, so a tattoo can somewhat date the wearer but this doesn’t happen with Polynesian designs as being based on cultural concepts, they are timeless so will not date in the same way western designs do.


Chinese regard tattoos as a Western tradition and historically they have been rejected by the general population. This is because in China, tattoos have been associated with criminals and crime. However in the past decade, self adornment has been taken up by young Chinese men who have thrown away the stigma as they embrace a new culture and move away from the old traditions their parents had grown up with. It is now the trendy thing to do but it remains to be seen if the Chinese embrace Polynesian designs. If so, I hope they understand the distinctive designs are more than fashion statements and must be treated with respect.


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