Sketching out and adding the first shading to the Maori tattoo
Sketching out and adding the first shading to the Maori tattoo

Though European and Eurasian indigenous people had a long history of tattooing, it’s widely accepted that our sailors of the 1600s-1800s picked up the art and custom from visiting the South Seas, and this led to a wave to tattoo popularity throughout Europe and the Unites States, even in the highest society.

Tattoos are called Kakau in Hawaiian, Moku in New Zealand. Used for marking social status, ritual and meaningful transitions and accomplishments, and for decoration. Tattooing the body has a special significance for Polynesian peoples, and some symbols are either sacred or reserved for specific families or people. In the modern era, there has been a resurgence of traditional tattooing amongst the Maori as a statement of cultural pride.

Polynesian tattoos have a special graphic impact because of their strong black designs, elegant use of figure/ground shapes, and either flowing complex curves or strong geometrics. The aesthetic of Polynesian tattoos has become very popular worldwide. There has been some controversy over this being an exploitation of a native culture without benefit to the people who developed the designs and feel ownership of them.

Tiki O'Brien
Tiki O’Brien

Because of this issue, and to make sure we used the forms and ideas correctly, I approached Tiki O’Brien, a native artist and designer based in Hamilton, New Zealand, who makes a business of adapting Maori arts for custom uses overseas. After talking over the theme and intent of this art project, Tiki was able to create for us a large design meant to be used as a decoration on the ground, and even form beautiful curving paths for contemplating the symbols while walking. All the symbols are ok to use on the ground and for use by ordinary people. The whole design contains meanings of good luck, vision and spirit, and safe travel over the ocean.

Pacific Islands Dock Tattoo Design by Tiki O'Brien of New Zealand


Symbols listed by Maori Arts

Tiki O’brien writes this about the images contained in his tattoo design:

“The Polynesian people had a great affinity with the ocean, water symbols represented travel and journey.
Designs created in the style of Tangaroa (Guardian of the sea) are known throughout the Polynesian Pacific Rim; a respected Atua(God) source of power, and means safe travel over ocean seas. All who dwell in the ocean are the children of Tangaroa:”

He Ika (Fish): Food, wealth, abundance.

He Mako (Shark): Warrior symbol for strength and power.

He wheke (Octopus): Warrior symbol, mean tenacious nature, holding onto knowledge.

Hei Matau ( Fish hook): The fish hook represents strength and determination and is a Symbol for good luck and prosperity, has its origin in the ancient myths of Maori and Polynesia. Maui the demigod is said to have used a magical spell on his fish hook to perform supernatural acts. The fish hook symbol draws good luck and abundance to the wearer. It is also believed to bring safe journey across water for travelers.

Manaia (Bird head and beak): Symbol of vision and the spirit, known genuinely as the messenger from the heavens. Maori studied the migrations of different species of birds to help plot distance and navigate their direction to and from Islands.

Spiral (Koru): Represents the unfolding of the New Zealand native fern. It is symbol of new life, new beginning, personal growth and harmony. It is believed to bring hope, peace and tranquility.


Bird tattoo design at HarborArts, copyright, executed in concrete by Liz LaManchePassages Below reprinted from Skin Stories, PBS:

“New Zealand: Aotearoa, Land of the Long White Cloud, was settled by the Maori in about AD1000. The art of Moko reflected their refined artistry, ties to their land and their rank among their peers.”

“First contact with Europeans was with a Dutch vessel captained by Abel Tasman in 1642, which promptly fled after losing 4 men in a skirmish with the Maori. Over a hundred years later Captain Cook reached the islands, in 1769. There followed a bloody and difficult period as access to European firearms destabilized the balance of tribal politics on the islands.”

“The moko was often created by literally carving the skin with a chisel. The full-face moko was a mark of distinction for Maori men, which communicated their status, lines of descent and tribal affiliations. It recalled their wearer’s exploits in war and other great events of their life. Maori men also wore puhoro, an intricate tattoo extending from mid-torso to the knees, which featured the characteristic design of a spiral on the buttock.”

“By the 1850s, the moko suffered under attacks from missionaries, but revived briefly during the 1860s Maori Wars as a statement of defiance against British colonization, and more women began to get chin-and-neck tattoos with needles newly available, to mark their passage into adulthood, commemorate a special occasion, and to beautify themselves. By the 1920s, the last of the tattooed men had died, but many women continued to wear moko until the middle of the century.”

“Maori, along with other Polynesian peoples, believe that a person’s mana, their spiritual power or life force, is displayed through their tattoo. The recent re-emergence of traditional Maori tattoo art is a mark that the Maori people have not lost their ties to their ancient past.”

Maori Dock Tattoo copyright, curated and installed by Liz LaManche



Traditional Process of Ta Moko (video)

Moko Museum in Wellington, NZ

Rihanna article in the Daily Mail

PBS documentary Skin Stories

“Definitive Guide to Ta Moko” by Maori Tattoo

Maori (Tiki O’Brien’s site for custom artwork- Also has e-books on Maori art and design)

Tiki O’Brien‘s original customized tattoo design pages

Maori Symbols


Installation Crew:

Layout: Liz LaManche, Dan Alroy
Inking: Liz LaManche, Dan Alroy, Amanda Leigh Berberich, Joe R., Julia Jerome
Sealant Application: Liz LaManche, Dan Alroy, Amanda Leigh Berberich, Joe R.