Story: Tā moko – Māori tattooing

Page 2. Tā moko technology

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Wai ngārahu – pigment

The environment of New Zealand, with its many varieties of trees unknown elsewhere in Polynesia, undoubtedly influenced the emergence of new moko designs and new tā moko technology. The pigments used in tā moko were manufactured using a sophisticated process to produce charcoal from resinous trees. Wai ngārahu was a common name for this pigment, as was māpara, kāpara or awe kāpara, kauri kāpia and ahi tā moko or ruangārehu.

Gunpowder and Indian ink

The introduction of guns by Europeans allowed Māori to use gunpowder to make pigments, and this gave a blue tinge to tattooed skin. Eventually Indian ink became available, and some tohunga tā moko combined this ink with traditional materials.

The production process included a specially designed furnace with coverings made of flax and toetoe to ensure that none of the ash was lost. These ashes were collected and carefully mixed with oil or liquid made from hīnau, māhoe, tī (cabbage tree), kāretu or poroporo plants, to form a solid mass. This process was called whakataerangi, and the material was covered by the skins of rats or birds to prevent it from drying out . Wai ngārahu was stored in special containers made of pumice or wood, often elaborately carved.

Other ingredients used in the production of wai ngārahu were the āwheto or āwheto hōtete (vegetable caterpillar). The āwheto was burnt in a similar manner to the resinous woods, and pigment was manufactured using the same liquids. It could be mixed with māhoe if it was not dark enough for tā moko.

Uhi – chisels

The traditional instruments used to apply the moko were uhi (chisels). Uhi produced the deep grooved lines that made Māori moko unique. These designs were literally carved into the face as if it were a piece of wood.

Tattooing chisels were finely crafted instruments, primarily made from the bones of seabirds. They were usually termed Te Uhi a Mataora (the chisels of Mataora). In some areas they were termed Te Uhi a Toroa (the chisels of Toroa), in reference to the albatross bone from which they were commonly made. Like their Polynesian counterparts, Māori had comb-like instruments to place pigment into the skin. These serrated chisels were called uhi matarau. Uhi kōhiti were flat-bladed chisels.

Applying designs

According to ethnologist Elsdon Best, the proposed moko design was first drawn onto the face with charcoal and water. When the tohunga (expert) began to apply the moko, he would dip his uhi into the pigment, and make the incisions by tapping it with a small mallet or fern stalk. The mallet was sometimes termed ‘he māhoe’, and had a surface that could be used for wiping away the blood. Another means to wipe away blood was with dressed flax tow or pith, wrapped around the finger of the tohunga.

There are variations in the method used to apply the pigment. Horatio Robley reported that the prepared pigment was applied into the incisions made by the uhi using muka (prepared flax) that had been dipped in the dye. James Cowan described the use of a stick dipped in pigment and subsequently drawn on the lines that had been chiselled out.

Nails, knives and corsets

The first metal chisels were made from highly sought-after square spike nails or hoop iron. Anaru Makiwhara, a noted tohunga tā moko from the Mangatāwhiri (Mercer) district, made his uhi from knives and the metal in women's corsets.

Metal chisels

Māori society passed through a transitional period after first contact with Europeans, as certain traditional techniques were maintained despite the introduction of newer technologies. For the art form of tattooing, this included different means of attaching chisels to the handles of uhi, and widespread use of metal chisels without serrated edges.

Metal chisels enabled a more defined design of moko which, along with similar developments in whakairo (wood carving), brought about an increased popularity in these Māori arts. Metal chisels allowed for deeper and more defined designs, but also produced vast amounts of blood, and sometimes led to infection.


By the First World War, darning needles had replaced chisels as the preferred tools for applying moko. Needles increased the speed of application, were less painful and resulted in quicker healing. They contributed to a renaissance in moko, especially during the 1930s, although some traditionalists despised the needle technique as inauthentic. This view seems to have arisen from descendants of those who had received the chisel moko, regardless of whether the chisels were of metal or traditional materials.

Needles have remained the most popular means of applying ink into skin, more recently through the use of a tattoo machine. This has become the preferred instrument of the tohunga tā moko who have revived the art form from the later 20th century.

How to cite this page:

Rawinia Higgins, 'Tā moko – Māori tattooing - Tā moko technology', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 June 2024)

Story by Rawinia Higgins, published 5 Sep 2013