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Ta Moko - The Art of Maori Tattoos

The art of moko or Maori tattooing was one of the few features of exter­nal Maori culture to persist from pre ­- European times well into the 20th century.

Other forms of traditional dress and personal ornamentation changed radically during the period of social unrest and cultural trauma which accompanied the establishment of European pre-eminence in New Zealand. 

The practice of moko not only survived this upheaval, it actually grew in prestige and popularity, partly as a result of incorporating useful features of European technology.

 In the early years of this century it was probably as widespread among women as it had been at any other time. 

A few old women with the distinc­tive chin tattoo survive in places as populous as Wellington and as re­mote as Ruatahuna in the Urewera. Most are very old (some over 100 years), but in almost every case their moko was the work of 20th century artists.

Why then, did the recognised authorities on ethnology speak of the moko as something extinct? Major General Horatio Robley wrote in 1896 that the moko was "done for". 

Recommended Maori Tattoo Book

Mau Moko: The World of Maori Tattoo Mau Moko: The World of Maori Tattoo
In the traditional Maori world, the moko, or facial or body tattoo, was a sign of great mana and status. Male warriors wore elaborate tattoos on their faces and bodies; women took more delicate chin tattoos. After almost dying out in the twentieth century, Maori tattooing is now experiencing a powerful revival, with many young Maori wearing the moko as a spectacular gesture of racial pride.


Later in their standard works on Maori culture, Elsdon Best and Sir Peter Buck also described the practice in the past tense when it was still very much alive in rural areas of the North Island., They could not have been unaware of this fact.

Either they regarded moko as a contemporary custom too tapu to write about, or they believed the changes in ritual and method had devalued it in tradi­tional Maori terms.

Robley, Best and Buck were cor­rect when they spoke of male tattoo­ing as a thing of the past. There is no evidence that men were tattooed on the face with traditional moko pat­terns after the fighting between Maori and Pakeha ceased in the latter part of the 19th century.

Continuing Tradition: 

The facial tattooing of women, how­ever, continued into the early 1950s. New instruments were used, cere­monials changed and there was a relaxation of conventions about who was allowed to give the moko and who was entitled to wear it.

But to those who had some association with the custom, it was as authentic and sacred as it had ever been, in spite of adaptations in recent years.

The first change in method became apparent before the turn of the cen­tury. At this time, the tattooing of women was being done in the tradi­tional manner: dyes were still made from a ground charcoal base (kauri, rimu and kapara were among the trees which provided this material); bone chisels ("uhi" or "uwhi", de­pending on dialect) were used to apply this pigment to the face.

The chisels surviving from this period vary in length from four to six cm. and have cutting edges from 0.4 to 0.8 cm. wide.

There are two kinds: those with serrated blades ("uhi matarau") which pricked the pigment under the skin; and those with a straight edge, which broke the surface of the skin and left color­ation and a grooved scar.

Both types were attached to a small handle, dip­ped in dye and tapped into the face with a small mallet. In some cases the incision was made without the pigment, which was dabbed into the wound with a cloth.

By 1900, several Tohunga ta moko were also using metal chisels, often filed down from knife blades, which cut a straighter, cleaner moko.

The most prolific of these men was Anaru Makiwhara of Waiariki Pa, near Mercer in the Waikato.

The last tohunga to perform chisel tattooing in other districts (mainly with bone) included Herewini (East Coast) , Hokotahi and Taiwera (Urewera) and Te Tuhi (King Country and Taranaki).

After World War I the practice changed even more radically as the old tohungas died or stopped tattoo­ing because of unsteady hands. Their successors were unhappy about the clumsiness of the chisel method, the time it took to complete (often several days), the pain it caused, the quantity of blood it released and the health hazards incurred.

The last was the source of most concern - the depth of the scars and the weeks they took to heal presented an obvious risk of infection. There are stories of some women dying within weeks of receiv­ing the moko, probably from blood poisoning.

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