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Tā moko – Māori tattooing

by Rawinia Higgins

The tattooing practised across Polynesia developed unique forms in New Zealand, with deeply grooved scars and spiral motifs. While facial moko became less common after European settlement, from the late 20th century there was a renaissance of both the full-face moko worn by men and the moko kauae (chin tattoos) of women.

Origins of tā moko

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).

Tā moko technology

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.

Tohunga tā moko

The process of tā moko was a highly skilled operation. Its association with blood commanded a high level of respect for the recipient and, more importantly, for the tohunga tā moko (tattooing expert).

Commissioning a tattoo artist

If a hapū (sub-tribe) had no tohunga tā moko among its members, invitations were sent out to a tohunga to come and practise their art. The hapū would commission the tohunga with taonga (treasures) such as weapons, cloaks and greenstone, and payments of food. Like European master artists, expert tohunga tā moko could gain fame from their work and demand a high commission. Their individual styles and designs became well known and recognised as unique to them.


The process of tā moko was very ritualised, and both the tohunga tā moko and the client were considered to be in ‘te ahi tā moko’ (the fire or oven of tattooing). This association with fire shows that the process was conducted within a very dangerous state of tapu (sacredness). The tohunga tā moko worked in a space kept apart from communal areas. In most instances the hapū would construct a temporary structure to house a visiting tohunga tā moko and the recipient. Its temporary nature meant this house could be burnt to the ground after use to whakanoa (spiritually cleanse) the area.

To indicate that the process was tapu, before beginning the operation the tohunga tā moko would strike his chisel (with or without ink) into the left shoulder of the recipient. Special funnels were also an essential part of the process. These elaborately carved vessels were used to feed the recipients of tā moko, whose mouths would be swollen as a result of the process.

Tame Poata

The most prominent of all the tohunga tā moko in the 1930s revival of the art form was Tame Poata, who travelled extensively around the country. He had begun by using chisels but found them difficult to manipulate, and preferred to use needles attached to a piece of wood about the size of a pencil. At first Poata used some half-dozen needles, but by the later 1930s refined his technique and only used two. He dipped his needle instrument into the ink so that the liquid soaked the cotton lashings on the handle. Using a quick wrist action, he applied the needles so that the ink ran into the punctured skin. His moko took two hours at most, and the skin would heal within about three days.

Moko and status

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.

Contemporary moko

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).


External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Rawinia Higgins, 'Tā moko – Māori tattooing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 May 2024)

Story by Rawinia Higgins, published 5 September 2013