Story: Tā moko – Māori tattooing

Page 4. Moko and status

All images & media in this story

Mana and tapu

Moko represented a person’s mana (status), and their importance is shown by the commission given to tohungamoko for their services. This mana is also highlighted by the reproduction of chiefs’ moko as signatures when they signed the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. The correlation between the mana and tapu (sacredness) of moko indicates the status associated with the art form, and its significance for each recipient.

European understandings of moko

European fascination with full facial tattoos and moko kauae (women’s chin tattoos) led to an association between moko and the recipient’s social status. Pākehā saw Māori society as a warrior society, so they assumed that a highly tattooed man would be a powerful warrior. However, the extreme tapu of a person of the highest rank might mean that they would not be able to wear the moko.

Women of mana

Not all women of mana acquired moko kauae, as some were considered too tapu to be operated upon. Every aspect of these highly ranked people would be avoided by others, for fear that their mana and tapu would be violated. One woman deemed too tapu for a moko was Mihi Kōtukutuku, of Te Whānau-a-Apanui and Ngāti Porou descent. During her adolescent years some tohunga tā moko from Te Arawa arrived in Te Tairāwhiti (East Coast) to tattoo chosen girls with moko kauae. They refused to operate on Mihi Kōtukutuku due to the mana of her whakapapa, and therefore the degree of tapu that would be associated with her blood.

Tohunga without moko

Some tohunga were not tattooed due to their ritual function in Māori society and close association with the atua (gods). Some tohunga were considered the platform between people and the gods. Moko were often confined to those who were more distant from the atua.

How to cite this page:

Rawinia Higgins, 'Tā moko – Māori tattooing - Moko and status', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 June 2024)

Story by Rawinia Higgins, published 5 Sep 2013