Story: Tā moko – Māori tattooing

Page 1. Origins of tā moko

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Uniqueness of Māori tattooing

Tattooing is common throughout the Pacific Islands. However, the techniques practised by Māori differed significantly from those of their Polynesian counterparts. Tatau (Tahiti and Samoa), tatatau (Cook Islands) and kakau (Hawaii) used combs of varying sizes that punctured the skin, leaving the pigment just under its surface. Māori developed combs and chisels to cut deeper into the skin, producing deeply grooved scars. This technique is unique to Māori society. The distinctive spiral motifs in Māori tattooing and carving also differed from the designs of other Polynesians.

Early forms of moko

Although ‘moko’ is the most common term for all forms of Māori tattooing, specific terms describe moko applied to different parts of the body. Early forms of moko evolved during the period of mourning for deceased relatives, where women would haehae (lacerate) themselves using obsidian or shells and place soot in the wounds. Haehae was a common expression of grief, and adding pigment to the wounds served as a reminder of the death of a loved one.

Moko meaning

The term moko traditionally applied to male facial tattooing, while kauae referred to moko on the chins of women. There were other specific terms for tattooing on other parts of the body. Eventually ‘moko’ came to be used for Māori tattooing in general.

Development of moko

The first European observers noted Māori wearing moko kuri – a pattern of three lines vertically and horizontally forming a lattice pattern across the face. This pattern disappeared in facial moko but appears to have been relocated to the thigh area. Pūhoro (thigh tattoo) in moko kuri patterns were recorded by British explorer James Cook’s artist Sydney Parkinson in 1769. As with many other art forms, moko may have developed from an ‘archaic’ (moko kuri) to an ‘experimental’ (pūhoro) and then to a ‘classical’ (moko) period.

Mythological origins

Like other Māori rituals, those pertaining to tā moko derive from the mythological world of the atua (gods). The word ‘moko’ is thought by some to refer to Rūaumoko, the unborn child of Ranginui and Papatūānuku. Rūaumoko is commonly associated with earthquakes and volcanic activity and has been translated as ‘the trembling current that scars the earth’.

Mataora and Niwareka

According to legend, Mataora, a rangatira who lived in Te Ao Tūroa (the natural world), married a tūrehu (spirit) named Niwareka, from Rarohenga (the underworld). One day he struck Niwareka across the face in a rage. She fled back to her homeland, as domestic violence was unheard of in Rarohenga. Mataora, overcome by guilt and love, set off to find her.

In Rarohenga he met Niwareka’s father, Uetonga, a rangatira descended from Rūaumoko, and a specialist in tā moko. Mataora was intrigued, for in his world moko was a temporary application of designs on the face. This form of adornment was termed ‘whakairo tuhi’ or ‘hopara makaurangi’, and used soot, blue clay or red ochre. Uetonga wiped his son-in-law's face to show the worthlessness of a temporary tattoo.

Mataora asked if Uetonga would apply moko to his face. The pain of the process was almost unbearable and as a consequence Mataora began to chant to Niwareka.

Lasting moko

Niwareka was summoned by her sister, but Mataora, blinded by the swelling caused by the tattoo, was unrecognisable to her. However, she identified the cloak she had woven for her husband, pitied him for his suffering and greeted him with tears.

When his moko healed, Mataora asked Niwareka to return with him to Te Ao Tūroa. He promised Uetonga that he would not harm his daughter again as the moko he was now wearing would not rub off. As a parting gift, Mataora was presented with the knowledge of tā moko.

Developing tā moko

Mataora is said to have developed tā moko by establishing Po-ririta, a whare-tuahi (house for teaching arts). His first attempt at tā moko, on a man named Tū-tangata, was not successful and the recipient became known as Tū-tangata-kino (ugly Tū-tangata).

However, Mataora persevered, and fame for his artwork spread. The designs that he executed were those taught to him in Rarohenga. These included the pōngiangia (design on the nostrils), pīhere (by the mouth), ngū (on the upper part of the nose) and tīwhana (lines of tattooing on the eyebrows). Further tā moko designs were developed through whakairo (wood carving).

How to cite this page:

Rawinia Higgins, 'Tā moko – Māori tattooing - Origins of tā moko', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 April 2024)

Story by Rawinia Higgins, published 5 Sep 2013