Tā Moko Traditional Māori Tattoos

Taia o moko, hai hoa matenga mou. Of 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 carry tā moko before the cultural revival of the Māori

Unlike European tattoos, which heavily borrow from Asian, American, New Zealand's and Australian native art, traditional tattoos of the aboriginal cultures have their own symbolism. The Māori (indigenous people of New Zealand) are well known for their famous tā moko or moko - facial and body tattoos that unmistakably distinguish them from other indigenous peoples. Originally, the term tā moko was used for the process and the term moko for the product, but with the vanishing of the Māori art both terms 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 mentioned. According to Captain Cook, the first Māori settlers marked their faces with charcoal for battle. In order to avoid the trouble of constant painting, they made their facial decorations permanent. According to the Reverend Richard Taylor, whose works have cast light upon many aspects of the Māori tradition, moko was to distinguish the chiefs from the slaves, who often fought side by side in battles. Tā moko has double function: as a facial tattoo that distinguishes the person who wears 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) moko was used as vendors' signature in the document.

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

Moko is also applied to women. There are certain distinctions between men's and women's moko, which will be considered in separate chapters.

Appliance of moko

Moko is applied by the instrument called Uhi. Uhi is similar to a small chisel with sharp edges or teeth. It was made from birds' bones (usually albatross'), stones, shark teeth or wood. Metal Uhis were introduced later. 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 tā moko is very complex. Sometimes it takes weeks and even months, if entire body is being tattooed. It's not to be wondered at: moko has profound symbolism and strict rules need be respected. Also, the pain is often unbearable, and there are records of some cases that ended tragically.

Men's moko

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

Originally, 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 the 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 literally means “plain face” and is a term of reproach.

Women's moko

Originally, women with red lips were deemed disfigured; therefore the greatest attention was given to applying moko to women's lips. The Māori considered full and blue lips the height of feminine beauty. Horizontal lines were applied to the lips, same as with men. According to Captain Cook:

“Of the women, their lips were in general stained of a blue color, and several of them were scratched all over their faces as if it had been done with needles or pins.”

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

Another symbolic function of moko is connected to the fact that women are always the chief mourners at funerals. According to the Māori customs, in 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:

  1. Te kawe: four lines on each side of the chin;
  2. Te pukawae: six lines on the chin;
  3. Nga rere hupe: six lines below the nostrils;
  4. Nga kokiri: a curved line on the cheek bone;
  5. Nga koroaha: lines between the cheek bone and ear;
  6. Nga wakarakau: lines below the former;
  7. Nga pongiangia: the lines on each side of the lower extremity of the nose;
  8. Nga pae tarewa: the lines on the cheek bone;
  9. Nga rerepi and Nga ngatarewa: lines on the bridge of the nose;
  10. Nga tircana: four lines on the forehead;
  11. Nga rewha: three lines below the eyebrows;
  12. Nga titi: lines on the centre of the forehead;
  13. Ipu rangi: lines above the former;
  14. Te tono kai: the general name for the lines on the forehead;
  15. IIe ngutu pu rua: both lips tattooed;
  16. Te rape: the higher part of the thighs;
  17. Te paki paki: the tattooing on the seat;
  18. Te paki turi: the lower thigh;
  19. Nga tata: the adjoining part.

Female moko patterns include:

  1. Taki taki: lines from the breast to the navel;
  2. Hope hope: the lines on the thighs;
  3. Waka te he: the lines on the chin.

(Reverend Richard Taylor –“Te Ika a Maui or New Zealand and its inhabitants”)

Moko the dying art

When the missionaries first came to New Zealand, they started discouraging moko as an act of savage performance. The art of moko is now almost extinguished, since modern Māori don’t hold to the tradition any longer. One of the last moko specimens was King Tawhiao who died in 1894. A short-lived Māori cultural revival in the 20th century brought back some of the moko tradition, although the symbolism of tattooed spirals, which distinguished each personality from another, is lost to contemporary Māori, since 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.