Ta Moko: More than just a Tattoo from New Zealand

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It is a permanent body and face marking by Maori, the indigeneous people of New Zealand.  It is distinct from tattoo and tatau in that the skin was carved by uhi (chisels) rather than punctured.  This left the skin with grooves, rather than a smooth surface.  It is mostly about family history story-telling pattern into the skin of a Maori descendant.  It is not limited to facial tattoos, as many mistakenly assume, although it certainly can include partial or full facial patterns.

Ta Moko is the tapu (sacred) form of family and personal identification among those of Maori whakapapa (genealogy).  Genealogy is so important to the Maori people that they know their family history back 2000 years. 

Brought by Maori from their Eastern Polynesian homeland, and the implements and methods employed were similar to those used in other parts of Polynesia.  In pre-European Maori 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 (kauae) and chins.  Other parts of the body known to have moko on it include the foreheads, buttocks, thighs, neck and backs of women, and the backs, stomachs and calves of men.

In the making…

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Originally tohunga-ta-moko (moko specialists) used a range of uhi (chisels) made from albatross bone which were hafted onto a handle and struck with a mallet.  The pigments were made from the awheto for the body colour and ngarehu (burnt timbers) for the backer face color.

In the late 19th century, 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 moko changed to smooth.  Women continued receiving moko through 20th century, but moko on men stopped around 1860s in line with changing fashion and acceptance by Pakeha (white New Zealanders).  Women were traditionally only allowed to be tattoed on their lips, around the chin, and sometimes the nostrils. 

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During the last three decades tattooing has experienced a cultural renaissance throughout New Zealand society.  Artistically, the country’s tattooing is so influenced by the patterns and traditions of the Maori moko past that it constitutes its own genre.

Maori designs are also one of the primary sources of the tribal tattoing that has become so popular in the United States and other countries in the last twenty years.

More references on Ta Moko and its heritage can be found in the following books:

Maori Tattooing by H.G. Robley; Ta Moko by D.R. Simmons; Polynesian and Oceanian Designs by Gregory Mirow.

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