20 Mar

World Cultures: Tā moko















By Thomas Jang

Tā moko is a tapu (sacred) tradition of Maori, who live on Aotearoa (the Maori name for New Zealand). 700 years prior to the British colonization of the island, tattoos were worn as distinctive representations of the wearers’ iwi (tribe), mana (status), and leadership in one’s community. Utmost respect is given to its wearers and tohunga tā moko (experts). 

The earliest traditions of Tā moko came from East Polynesian culture and were worn for mourning rituals, as well as to distinguish between Maori and foreigners. Maori tradition tells the story of the chief Mataora, who journeyed to Rarohenga (the underworld) and was taught the techniques by Uetonga, the god of tattooing.











Tā moko is one of several Polynesian styles of tattoos, the others including Samoan, Hawaiian and Marquesan. It is different from contemporary tattooing, where the skin is left smooth when drawn on; instead, grooved scars are left behind using uhi (chisels) and tā (mallets). The pigment used is called wai ngārahu, made of burned kahikatea and white pine, kauri gum, and koromiko shrub soot. The process of illustrating moko can take up to one year, but nowadays can last several hours using modern tattooing machines. 

Due to their knowledge in moko, tohunga tā moko are revered and offered gifts including weapons, pounamu (greenstone), and kākahu (cloaks). 

Likewise, different meanings are attached to Tā moko and where they are placed. The head is regarded to be the most tapu by Maori. The placement of Tā moko varies between men and women. Men receive them on their faces, raperape (buttocks), puhuro (thighs), tuarā (backs) and puku (stomachs). Women receive Tā moko to mark their transition from girlhood to adulthood, wearing them on their kauae (chins), ngutu (lips), rae (foreheads), and kakī (necks).













Moko kauae represent the women’s community leadership, whānau, status, abilities, and whakapapa (Maori genealogy and links to land and tribe). 

Since the 1840’s, Maori culture and Tā moko have transformed. Metal chisels and needles gradually replaced uhi after the British arrival and World War I. As Maori were displaced and lands stolen by settlers following the Treaty of Waitangi—which established the settler state of New Zealand and an agreement with the British Crown—Maori who wore moko were targeted. Their heads, called mokomōkai, were stolen and sold as souvenirs and items for museums abroad. 

But beginning in the 1980’s, their remains were brought back to Aotearoa. Tā moko also declined, to the point where only several female elders wore them. Fortunately, a renaissance has flourished to revitalize and strengthen Maori language and culture. Tā moko has persisted to highlight the resilience of Maori and presence in their own politics and society.