Tā moko - Māori tattooing

Tā moko is traditional Māori tattooing, often on the face, and its purpose and applications are sacred.

Tā moko is closely identified with carving and used to be practised by tohunga tā moko (priestly experts) but today is practised by tā moko artists.
 
Tā moko is a taonga (treasure) to Māori, therefore each moko design is considered intellectual property.
 
Every moko contains ancestral/tribal messages specific to the wearer and tells the story of the wearer’s family and tribal affiliations and their placing within these social structures. Therefore, the moko is much more than an art form - it is an historical record.
 
Recently, the art of tā moko began experiencing a resurgence in Aotearoa and has also attracted international interest.
 
Part of the process of a proper moko is understanding its significance, the designs and shapes, and then having the support of family and elders in the decision.
 
The moko process can take months of quite painful work. It is a deeply personal action to take and not for the faint-hearted.
 

Unique tattoo style 

Traditional ta moko is distinct from tattoo because the skin is carved using uhi or chisels rather than punctured with needles, leaving the skin with grooves rather than a smooth surface. 
 
Originally tohunga-ta-moko (moko specialists) used a range of uhi made from albatross bone which were grafted onto a handle, and struck with a mallet.
 
The resurgence of ta moko has seen both a revival in the use of uhi and an increasing number of practitioners, including women, learning the art. 
 

Early moko history 

Ta moko was brought by Māori from their eastern Polynesian homeland. The implements and methods used are similar to those found in other parts of Polynesia. 
 
In pre-European Māori culture, many if not most high-ranking persons received moko. Those who went without moko were seen as persons of lower social status. 
 
Receiving moko constituted an important milestone between childhood and adulthood, and was accompanied by many rites and rituals. Apart from signalling status and rank, another reason for the practice was to make a person more attractive to the opposite sex. 
 
Men generally received moko on their faces, buttocks (raperape) and thighs (puhoro). Women usually wore moko on their lips (ngutu) and chins (kauae). 
 
Men were predominantly moko specialists, although a number of women during the early 20th century took up the practice.
 

More information

Ta moko - significance of Māori tattoos

Aotearoa - New Zealand's unique Maori culture

Introduction to Māori culture

Māori and tourism

Māoritanga - Māori culture explained

The haka: New Zealand icon

Māori connection to land and sea

The Māori marae

A new era: the Māori renaissance

The Treaty of Waitangi

New Zealand icon: Silver fern