Traditionally, Maori tattoos were carved into the skin using a small instrument made of albatross bone, and took months of careful, agonized planning. They were typically worn by men of high rank. Women who were tattooed were only allowed designs upon their lips, chin and nostrils. Today, however, the process of Ta Moko has become one of the most popular styles of ‘tribal’ tattooing. The designs associated with Maori tattoos have a definite aesthetic appeal, but to many people they mean a good deal more than that. They are often used as a symbol of cultural identity, and the designs used may represent things such as genealogy, history or even beauty (as full, blue hued lips have long been considered as the ‘ideal’ of female Maori beauty).
Modern Maori tattoos (especially in the west) have moved from the face to the body. Long, twining spiral designs that were once placed near the ears or cheeks are now placed along the arms or legs. However, many Maori people find exact replicas of their art insulting. For this reason, many people who are not affiliated with the Maoris prefer to use designs inspired, but not directly taken from, these traditional styles.
One way to separate the Maori tattoos, and what could possibly be an insulting western
rendition is to use the striking spirals to create other symbols. For instance, rather than
using the rounded and graceful spirals, you could make a squared off version, and create an
interesting puzzle-like pattern. You could also use heavy lines and create a scene of waves, clouds, billowing winds, or even fire. Many people like to include reds and dark shades of blue into their designs; they will occasionally use orange and yellow as well if their patterns include things such as the sun, moon or stars. Metallic colors are generally used to produce weapon designs such as intricate knives, swords, or even throwing stars. Burgundy and purple can be used for a variety of spiraling flower blossoms.
Given the beauty of these designs, it may be tempting to delve into this style of art, but it is important to remember that they have a significant meaning to the Maori people. Tattooing is considered a sacred act, and must — like any other cultural symbol — be respected.