Maori Tattoos-Traditional Ta Moko

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Maori Tattoos

Maori Tattoos Taia o moko, hai hoa matenga your moko, you cannot be deprived, except by death. It will be your ornament, and your companion, until your last day.

Netana Rakuraku, the last of the Elders to wear moko before the cultural revival of the Maori


Unlike European tattoos, which heavily borrow from Asian, American, New Zealand's and Australian native art, traditional tattoos of the aboriginal cultures have their symbolism. The Maori (indigenous people of New Zealand) are known for their famous ta moko or moko - facial and body tattoos that unmistakably distinguish them from other indigenous peoples. Initially, the term ta moko was used for the process and the term moko for the product, but with the vanishing of the Maori art, both names are now used to describe moko - the tattoo.

There are two theories, not necessarily in contradiction, explaining the origins of moko. Back in 1769, Captain James Cook visited New Zealand. That was the first time that moko was seen. According to Captain Cook, the early Maori settlers marked their faces with charcoal for battle. To avoid the trouble of constant painting, they made their facial decorations permanent. Reverend Richard Taylor (whose works cast light upon many aspects of the tradition at the time) noted that the purpose of moko was to distinguish the chiefs from the slaves, who often fought side by side in battles.
Moko had a double function: as a facial tattoo that distinguished the person who wore it and as a signature. Some records show the latter. E.g., when the missionary Samuel Marsden bought land near the Bay of Islands (1815), a moko was used as vendors' signature in the document.<

Maori Tattoos Distinctive Features

Ta moko consists of black-blue spiral lines; the skin is completely covered (eyelids included). The process of tattooing is excruciating, but showing any signs of suffering is considered unmanly. Initially, every man who wanted a moko had to give up his beard. In Maori tradition, the beard was considered the sign of old age. A person wearing a beard was called e weki, meaning "old man." However, that tradition was later dropped.

Moko is also done to women. There are certain distinctions between men's and women's moko, discussed in separate chapters below.

Maori Tattoos Appliance of Moko

Moko is made with an apparatus called Uhi. Uhi is similar to a small chisel with sharp edges or teeth. It's made of birds' bones (usually albatross'), stones, shark teeth or wood. Metal This was later seen later in history. Sizes and shapes vary, depending on the parts of the flesh where moko is applied. The sharp part of Uhi is applied to the surface of the skin and then driven by the small mallet called He Mahoe. The process leaves deep cuts in the flesh.

The process of ta moko is very complicated. Sometimes it takes weeks and even months if the entire body is being tattooed. It's not to be wondered at: moko has a profound symbolism, and strict rules need be respected. Also, the pain is often unbearable, and there are records of some cases that ended tragically.

Maori Tattoos Men's Moko

Although origins of ta moko are unclear, some factors are certain. First of all, men tended to be frightful in battle. Similar to Samurai masks worn infighting, the Maori wore moko instead of helmets. Furthermore, moko was considered very manly - men wearing it were more attractive to the female sex.

Initially, moko was applied to the body to help identify fallen warriors who were beheaded. As for the facial moko, it showed the man's personality and rank. Different social positions called for different personal ornamentations and hierarchy was strictly respected. For example, only great tribal leaders were allowed moko on the upper lip, chin, and forehead. Tohungas or priests had only a small moko over the right eye. Thus moko was also to distinguish different classes in the tribal society. Men not wearing moko were called papatea, which means "plain face" and is a term of reproach.

Maori Tattoos Women's Moko

Initially, women with red lips were seen as disfigurement. Therefore, the most significant attention was given to applying moko to women's lips. The Maori considered full and blue lips the height of feminine beauty. Horizontal lines were used to the lips, same as with men. According to Captain Cook.

"Of the females, their lips were in general stained of a blue color, and many of them were scratched across their faces and appear to have come from needles or pins.

Moko could also be placed on the chin. The custom permitted only a small moko on the woman's face but didn't forbid its appliance to breasts, thighs and other parts of the body. Depending on the woman's rank, moko was sometimes placed in the space between the eyes up to the forehead and on the back part of the leg.

Another symbolic function of moko lies in the fact that women were always the chief mourners at funerals. According to the Maori customs, during the pauses between the wailings, women would gash their faces, arms, and necks with sharp shells. Moko-dye (narahu) was sometimes applied to the wounds - to mark their grief.

Moko Patterns

According to the Reverend Richard Taylor, there are nineteen parts of male moko patterns. These are:

  • Te kawe: four lines on each side of the chin;
  • Te pukawae: six lines on the chin;
  • Nga rere hupe: six lines below the nostrils;
  • Nga kokiri: a curved line on the cheekbone;
  • Nga koroaha: lines between the cheekbone and ear;
  • Nga wakarakau: lines below the former;
  • Nga pongiangia:  lines on each side of the lower extremity of the nose;
  • Nga page tarewa: the lines on the cheekbone;
  • Nga rerepi & Nga ngatarewa: lines on the bridge of the nose;
  • Nga tircana: four lines on the forehead;
  • Nga rewha: three lines below the eyebrows;
  • Nga titi: lines in the center of the forehead;
  • Ipu rangi: lines above the former;
  • Te tono kai: a general name for the lines on the forehead;
  • IIe ngutu pu rua: both lips tattooed;
  • Te rape: the top part of the thighs;
  • Te paki paki: the tattooing on the seat;
  • Te paki turi: the lower leg;
  • Nga tata: the adjoining part.

Female moko patterns include:

  • Taki taki: lines from the navel to the breast;
  • Hope hope: the lines on the thighs;
  • Waka te he:  lines on the chin.
Maori Tattoos Moko - The Dying Art

When the first missionaries came to New Zealand, they started discouraging moko as an act of savage behavior. The art of moko is now almost extinguished since modern Maori don't hold to the tradition any longer. One of the last moko specimens was King Tawhiao who died in 1894. A short-lived Maori cultural revival in the 20th century brought back some of the moko traditions, although the symbolism of tattooed spirals, which distinguished one person from another, is lost to contemporary ori. Namely, all elder generations who kept to the old ways are now long dead. Soon all that is left of the moko symbolism will be dried heads (mokomokai) preserved in museums and private collections. Meanwhile, we can only wish for a new revival. Many contemporary moko artists offer their services to interested parties. What is left of the ancient ta moko art may still be glimpsed in their tattoo parlors?