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Browse the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



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It is now many years since the death of the last man tattooed in the ancient Maori manner, but women with tattooed chins may still be seen in many districts. Maori tattoo was called moko. It differed from other Polynesian tattoo in that the lines of the patterns were actually cut into the flesh instead of being merely pricked in. We are concerned here, however, with the designs, rather than the other aspects of the craft. Although the practice may be repulsive to some people, an objective student is impressed with the fact that Maori tattoo designs were truly a form of art in the way the various lines were applied to that somewhat difficult subject, the human face.

From illustrations dating from Cook's time it is apparent that the facial tattoo designs had become fixed only by the early nineteenth century. A portrait by Sydney Parkinson, a careful artist, shows a style that was unknown a generation or two later. On a background of stippled parallel lines running vertically from the jaw to the cheek-bone there was a simple design of connected koru, much like the designs used in rafter painting. This type of pattern was called puhoro, and was usually used on the thighs.

The classical tattoo designs which were in vogue at the time of European settlement have been studied in detail by Robley in his monumental work Moko. The principal elements on a man's face were the pu-kauwae, spiral designs on the chin; the rerepehi, a series of parallel curved lines from the chin to the side of the nose; the paepae, two large multiple spirals on the cheek; rerepi and pongiangia, spirals on the nose; and tiwhana, a series of rays curving from the inner end of the eyebrow, above the brows, and sweeping downwards above the ear. A fully tattooed man also had a puhoro type of pattern, called ipurangi, on the upper part of the forehead, a small motif, called titi, on the lower part of the forehead, and a puhoro design, called pu-taringa, between the ear and the spirals on the cheek. Men frequently had large spirals (rape) tattooed on the buttocks and puhoro designs on the thighs. Occasionally other parts of the body, such as the chest and the backs of the hands, were tattooed. Women were usually tattooed only on the lips and the chin, though sometimes a small mark was incised on the forehead. Some women were also tattooed on the waist and the thighs, but this was not particularly common.

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 tattooing chisel (uhi) was usually made from the wing bone of the albatross, or from human bone. It was mounted in a haft somewhat in the fashion of an adze, and was struck with a light mallet. The edge of the uhi was serrated.

Next Part: Textile Designs