Tā Moko: Traditional Māori tattoo

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Tā moko is a unique expression of cultural heritage and identity through tattoo.

Tā moko for men and women

Traditionally, men received Mataora on their face - as a symbol of nobility. As māori believe the head is the most sacred part of the body, facial tattoos have special significance. 

Moko kauae - are received by women on their lips and chin. A moko kauae represents a woman’s whānau and leadership within her community, recognising her whakapapa, status, and abilities. It is a traditional taonga passed down over many generations from the ancestress Niwareka.

Tā moko are also applied to other parts of the body, including the forehead, neck, back, stomach and calves.

Māori symbols and designs

Tā moko reflects an individual's whakapapa (ancestry) and personal history. In earlier times, it was an important signifier of social rank, knowledge, skill and eligibility to marry.

Many of the designs are universal. In particular, the spirals that swirl across the nose, cheek and lower jaw. The lines of a moko accentuate the lines of the face to emphasise the expressions.

The main lines in a Māori tattoo are called manawa (heart). These lines represent your life journey.

Common tattoo designs can include the koru, which represents an unfurling silver fern, and symbolically represents a new life or the unfolding of someone's life path. When used in tā moko, the koru normally represents a loved one or family member. 

The history of Tā Moko

Before the arrival of European settlers, the complex designs of tā moko were carved into the skin. This method of tattooing is based on the use of broad toothed combs of varying widths called uhi (chisel blades), dipped in dark pigment, and struck into the skin with small mallets known as tā. The pigment used was soot obtained from burning kahikatea, or white pine, sometimes mixed with kauri gum or soot from the oily koromiko (hebe) shrub.

Tā moko today

Tā moko has had significant changes since the art was disrupted through colonisation. 

The modern tool of tā moko is now done with a needle, although some tā moko artists alternate between traditional and modern methods. While the needle is faster and more precise, hand tools bring the ritual more in line with how it was done traditionally.


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