Story: Tā moko – Māori tattooing

Page 5. Contemporary moko

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Mokomōkai and toi moko

In the early years of European colonisation, a lucrative market emerged for preserved tattooed heads as souvenirs and collectors’ items. The trade in tattooed heads meant that Māori with moko were liable to be killed for their heads. This danger resulted in a steep decline in the practice of tā moko. To compensate for this shortfall in supply, Māori killed their slaves and posthumously tattooed them for trade. These preserved heads were referred to as mokomōkai (tattooed slaves), and museums worldwide once competed to acquire them.

From the 1980s a movement, led especially by the musician Dalvanius Prime, undertook to repatriate mokomōkai from overseas collections. At the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, a dedicated repatriation team has negotiated the return of these preserved heads. They are referred to as toi moko (tattooed works of art), in order to restore some of their mana.

Moko kauae

Tā moko was driven by a new awareness of Māori as a threatened minority group. Māori actively encouraged women to acquire moko kauae as a means of asserting their identity and the mana of their people.

Some women tattooed with moko kauae in the 1920s and 1930s survived into the 1980s. Their knowledge, accounts and memories of the process of tā moko have been recorded and provide a sound understanding of this art form.

Hostility to moko

Attitudes to moko are sometimes negative. In 2007 Tunahau Kohu was told to leave a Christchurch bar because of his full-face moko. The bar manager later apologised. Waikato University professor Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, author of a book on tā moko, says she has had negative responses to her moko kauae. ‘Many people are alarmed or anxious by the appearance of a tattooed face in the lift or the supermarket … Even though I’m a professional, I’m of a particular generation and I dress reasonably well, I still have adverse reactions and that can be interesting.’1

Moko renaissance

In the 1970s and 1980s many Māori gang members adopted moko as part of their gang insignia. Less than a decade later, political activists such as Tame Iti developed another platform for the rebirth of full facial moko, as a political statement.

This increased awareness and acceptance encouraged a new generation of Māori to acquire facial moko as an expression of their identity as Māori, not necessarily in relation to any political or social group. Some Māori also acquired non-facial tattoos as an expression of Māori or tribal identity, and contemporary tā moko artists emerged.

These expressions and assertions of identity are reclaiming the mana of tā moko by Māori as a people, and specifically as tangata whenua (people of the land).

  1. ‘People “should respect moko”.’ Fairfax NZ News, 23 October 2011, (last accessed 30 April 2013). Back
How to cite this page:

Rawinia Higgins, 'Tā moko – Māori tattooing - Contemporary moko', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 April 2024)

Story by Rawinia Higgins, published 5 Sep 2013