Tā moko – the art of Māori tattoo – is a unique expression of cultural heritage and identity.
It reflects the individual's whakapapa (ancestry) and personal history. In earlier times it was an important signifier of social rank, knowledge, skill and eligibility to marry.
Traditionally men received moko on their faces, buttocks and thighs. Women usually wore moko on their lips and chins. Moko was sometimes applied to other parts of the body, including the forehead, neck, back, stomach and calves.
Today, moko is experiencing resurgence, both in traditional and modern forms. Where Māori designs are used for aesthetic reasons, without the traditional significance, this is referred to as kirituhi or skin art.
Before the arrival of European settlers, the complex designs of tā moko were literally carved into the skin. A rake-like instrument, usually made of teeth or bone, was used to break the skin; then a flat edged blade was used to tap in the dye, creating a tattoo with a scarred, chiselled appearance. 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.
The modern tool of tā moko is the tattoo machine, 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.
Tā moko is an elusive art form to observe, given that it exists on the living canvas of the human body. However, you’ll no doubt see examples of Māori moko if you book in a Māori cultural experience or marae visit. In these settings, your Māori hosts can explain to you what their tattoos represent.