Tā moko

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Sketch of a Maori chief by Sydney Parkinson (1784) MaoriChief1784.jpg
Sketch of a Māori chief by Sydney Parkinson (1784)
"Portrait of a young Maori woman with moko
", by Louis John Steele (1891) Louis John Steele - Portrait of a young Maori woman with moko - Google Art Project.jpg
"Portrait of a young Maori woman with moko", by Louis John Steele (1891)
Portrait of Tamati Waka Nene by Gottfried Lindauer (1890) Gottfried Lindauer - Tamati Waka Nene - Google Art Project.jpg
Portrait of Tāmati Wāka Nene by Gottfried Lindauer (1890)

Tā moko is the permanent marking or "tattoo" as traditionally practised by Māori, the indigenous people of New Zealand.


Captain James Cook wrote in 1769:

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. [1] [2]

Tohunga-tā-moko (tattooists) were considered tapu , or inviolable and sacred. [3]


Tattoo arts are common in the Eastern Polynesian homeland of the Māori people, and the traditional implements and methods employed were similar to those used in other parts of Polynesia. [4] In pre-European Māori culture, many if not most high-ranking persons received moko, and those who went without them were seen as persons of lower social status. Receiving moko constituted an important milestone between childhood and adulthood, and was accompanied by many rites and rituals. Apart from signalling status and rank, another reason for the practice in traditional times was to make a person more attractive to the opposite sex. Men generally received moko on their faces, buttocks (raperape) and thighs (puhoro). Women usually wore moko on their lips (kauwae) and chins. Other parts of the body known to have moko include women's foreheads, buttocks, thighs, necks and backs and men's backs, stomachs, and calves.

Historically, moko was distinct from tattooing, in that the skin was carved by uhi [5] (chisels), not punctured. This left the skin with grooves rather than a smooth surface.

A collection of korere
(feeding funnels) Korere 11.jpg
A collection of korere (feeding funnels)

Instruments used

Originally tohunga-tā-moko (moko specialists) used a range of uhi (chisels) made from albatross bone which were hafted onto a handle, and struck with a mallet. [6] The pigments were made from the awheto for the body colour, and ngarehu (burnt timbers) for the blacker face colour. The soot from burnt kauri gum was also mixed with fat to make pigment. [7] The pigment was stored in ornate vessels named oko, which were often buried when not in use. The oko were handed on to successive generations. A kōrere (feeding funnel) is believed to have been used to feed men whose mouths had become swollen from receiving tā moko. [8]

Men were predominantly the tā moko specialists, although King records a number of women during the early 20th century who also took up the practice. There is also a remarkable account of a woman prisoner-of-war in the 1830s who was seen putting moko on the entire back of the wife of a chief.[ citation needed ]


The pākehā practice of collecting and trading mokomokai (tattooed heads) changed the dynamic of tā moko in the early colonial period. King (see below) talks about changes which evolved in the late 19th century when needles came to replace the uhi as the main tools. This was a quicker method, less prone to possible health risks, but the feel of the tā moko changed to smooth. Tā moko on men stopped around the 1860s in line with changing fashion and acceptance by Pākehā.

Women continued receiving moko through the early 20th century, [9] and the historian Michael King in the early 1970s interviewing over 70 elderly women who would have been given the moko before the 1907 Tohunga Suppression Act. [10] [11] Women were traditionally only tattooed on their lips, around the chin, and sometimes the nostrils. [12] [13]

Tā moko today

Since 1990 there has been a resurgence in the practice of tā moko for both men and women, as a sign of cultural identity and a reflection of the general revival of the language and culture. Most tā moko applied today is done using a tattoo machine, but there has also been a revival of the use of uhi (chisels). [14] Women too have become more involved as practitioners, such as Christine Harvey of the Chathams, Henriata Nicholas in Rotorua and Julie Kipa in Whakatane.

Te Uhi a Mataora was established in 2000 "to preserve, enhance, and develop tā moko as a living art form". [15]

A large proportion of New Zealanders now have tattoos of some sort, [16] and there is "growing acceptance ...as a means of cultural and individual expression." [17]

Use by non-Māori

Europeans were aware of tā moko from at the time of the first voyage of James Cook, and early Māori visitors to Europe, such as Moehanga in 1805, [18] then Hongi Hika in 1820 and Te Pēhi Kupe in 1826, [19] all had full-face moko, as did several "Pākehā Māori" such as Barnet Burns. However, until relatively recently the art had little global impact.

Wearing of tā moko by non-Māori can be deemed cultural appropriation, [20] and high-profile uses of Māori designs by Robbie Williams, Ben Harper and a 2007 Jean-Paul Gaultier fashion show were controversial. [21] [22] [23] [24]

To reconcile the demand for Māori designs in a culturally sensitive way, the Te Uhi a Mataora group promotes the use of the term kirituhi, [25] which has now gained wide acceptance: [26] [27] [28] [29]

...Kirituhi translates literally to mean—"drawn skin." As opposed to Moko which requires a process of consents, genealogy and historical information, Kirituhi is merely a design with a Maori flavour that can be applied anywhere, for any reason and on anyone... [25]

See also

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