Tā moko – the art of Māori tattoo – is a unique expression of cultural heritage and identity.

In Māori culture, 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.

Māori tattoo designs: Tā moko for men and women

Traditionally men received moko on their faces, buttocks and thighs. Māori face tattoos are the ultimate expression of Māori identity. Māori believe the head is the most sacred part of the body, so facial tattoos have special significance. 

Women usually wore moko on their lips and chins, or sometimes on the throat.

Moko was sometimes applied to other parts of the body, including the forehead, neck, back, stomach and calves.

Tā moko could also be applied to the bottom. Aesthetically, the bottom is a very sensual area to look at, and the spirals accentuate the roundness of the buttocks. Traditionally, it links the back design to the designs on the backs of the legs. 

The meanings behind Māori symbols and designs

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 so emphasise the expressions.

The main lines in a Māori tattoo are called manawa, which is the Māori word for heart. These lines represent your life journey.

Common tattoo designs can include the koru, which literally represents an unfurling silver fern, and symbolically represents a new life or the unfolding of someone's life path. When used in Māori tattoos, the koru usually stands for a loved one or family member. 

The history of tā moko

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.

Tā moko today

Traditional tā moko artists used a chisel to scar and mark the skin. 

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.

Do only Māori get moko?

As moko is a Māori tradition, and a symbol of integrity, Māori identity and prestige, only tattoos that are done by and on Māori are considered to be moko.

Today, moko is experiencing resurgence, both in traditional and modern forms. Where Māori tattoo designs are used for aesthetic reasons, without the traditional significance, this is referred to as kirituhi or skin art.

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