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Maori Culture


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Ta moko - traditional Māori tattoo art

In recent years New Zealand has seen a resurgence in the traditional practice of ta moko - the permanent body and face marking of the indigenous Māori people.

This unique tattoo form is being embraced by Māori men and women, as a sign of their cultural identity and a reflection of the revival of the Māori language and culture.

Unique tattoo style
Traditional ta moko is distinct from tattoo because the skin is carved using uhi or chisels rather than punctured with needles, leaving the skin with grooves rather than a smooth surface.

The resurgence of ta moko has seen both a revival in the use of uhi and an increasing number of practitioners, including women, learning the art.

Concern amongst Māori about the practice of ta moko by non-Māori has seen the establishment of Te Uhi a Mataora, a group that deals with issues surrounding the art form.

Early moko history
Ta moko was brought by Māori from their eastern Polynesian homeland. The implements and methods used are similar to those found in other parts of Polynesia.

In pre-European Māori culture, many if not most high-ranking persons received moko. Those who went without moko 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 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 (ngutu) and chins (kauae). Moko was sometimes applied to other parts of the body, including the forehead, neck, back, stomach and calves.

Tattoo instruments
Originally tohunga-ta-moko (moko specialists) used a range of uhi made from albatross bone which were grafted onto a handle, and struck with a mallet.

Pigments were made from the awheto (vegetable caterpillar) for the body colour, and ngarehu (burnt timbers) for the black face colour.

Soot from burnt kauri gum was mixed with fat to make pigment which was stored in ornate vessels named oko, often buried when not in use. Oko were handed on to successive generations.

Changes evolved in the late 19th century when needles came to replace uhi as the main tools. This was a quicker less risky method, but changed the feel of the moko from traditional raised markings to smooth lines.

Moko specialists
Men were predominantly moko specialists, although a number of women during the early 20th century took up the practice. There is an account of a woman prisoner-of-war in the 1830s who was seen putting moko on the back of a chief’s wife.

Women continued receiving moko through the 20th century, but moko on men stopped around the 1860s in line with changing fashion and acceptance by Pākehā (white New Zealanders).

More information:

Significance of ta moko

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Related Links
Other Sites
•  Maori Arts - Toi Maori Aotearoa website


Carved figure with Moko - click for more.
In Maori society, facial tattoos represent the wearer's ancestral and tribal affiliations.


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