Ta moko, often referred to as Maori tattoo, is the traditional permanent marking of the body and face by Maori. But ta moko is distinct from tattoo in that the skin is carved by uhi (chisels) instead of being punctured with needles. This leaves the skin with textured grooves, rather than the smooth surface of a normal tattoo.
Ta moko is a core component of Maori culture and an outward expression of commitment and respect. In the past two decades there has been a significant resurgence in the practice of ta moko as a sign of cultural identity. It is customary for men to wear moko on their faces, buttocks, thighs and arms, whereas women usually wear a moko on the chin and lips.
Ta moko is performed by a tohunga ta moko (tattoo expert) and the practice is considered a tapu (sacred) ritual. The design of each moko is unique to the wearer and conveys information about the wearer, such as their genealogy, tribal affiliations, status, and achievements. It is important to distinguish moko from kiri tuhi, tattoos that are not regarded as having the cultural significance attributed to moko.
Below are some historical images of moko:
Ta moko was traditionally performed using chisels made from materials such as Albatross bone. An assortment of chisels was used, some with a straight edge, others with a serrated edge.
Today most moko are performed using modern tattoo machines (and therefore leave the skin smooth), however in keeping with the traditional practice of ta moko, there has been a resurgent increase in the use of chisels.
The history of ta moko revolves around a love affair between a young man, Mataoroa, and Niwareka, a princess of the underworld and daughter of a tohunga ta moko. Niwareka wanted to explore the world above and while she was there she met Mataoroa. Niwareka fell in love with Mataoroa and they were married. Knowledge of ta moko did not exist in the world above, therefore Mataoroa simply wore designs painted on his body, rather than being chiselled.
One day Mataoroa mistreated Niwareka, so she returned to her father in the underworld. Seeking her forgiveness, Mataoroa pursued his wife into the underworld, enduring many trials and obstacles to reach her. But when he finally found her, the paint on his face was smeared from the sweat of his exertion. Upon seeing this, Niwareka’s people, who had chiselled faces and permanent designs, laughed at him.
Ashamed of his appearance, Mataoroa asked his father-in-law to teach him the art of ta moko. Impressed with his commitment to ta moko, Niwareka eventually forgave her husband, and they both returned to the world above, with Mataoroa taking with him the knowledge of ta moko.