Te ao Māori

Ta moko - origins and first European encounters

It is unknown when moko first became a prominent part of Māori cultural life. Tattooing instruments found in archaeological digs may date back as far as the 11th century, and it is likely the tradition came to New Zealand with the earliest migrations.

The first European visitor to New Zealand, Abel Tasman, did not record any observations of moko, though his visit was short and bloody, and time for detailed observation was limited. The practise was widespread at the time of Captain James Cook's visit in 1769, though he noted it was more common in some parts of the country than others. Cook recorded the following description:

“The marks in general are spirals drawn with great nicety and even elegance. One side corresponds with the other. The marks in the body resemble the foliage in old chased ornaments, convolutions of filigree work, but in these they have such a luxury of forms that of a hundred which at first appeared exactly the same no two were formed alike on close examination.”

The close of the 19th century saw the gradual decline and eventual end to the male moko. Woman however continued the tradition well into the 1950s.

The modern Māori cultural renaissance, which began in the 1970s, has seen the revival of the moko. While it is still not an everyday occurrence, it is no longer uncommon to see the distinctive tattoo style, whether on arms and legs, or the face.

Legend of Mataora 

One day chief Mataora was visited by some young people from Rarohenga (the underworld). With them was the daughter of Uetonga,  the ruler of the underworld. Her name was Niwareka and Mataora fell in love with her. They lived happily together until one day Mataora became jealous of her and was angry enough to hit her.

Niwareka left, running back to her fathers realm. Mataora, filled with guilt and heartbreak, followed her.

In the underworld he encountered Uetonga, who was tattooing a man. Seeing his daughter's husband standing before him, Uetonga reached up and wiped Mataora's tattoos from his face, and said:

“Painted patterns are fit only for the rafters of a house. In Rarohenga, we carve patterns on men’s faces and buttocks, so that the beautiful design cannot be destroyed.” He insisted that Niwareka could only return to the world if Mataora allowed his face to be tattooed.

While Uetonga was chiselling the moko, Matatora began chanting his love for Niwareka.

When she heard his words she forgave him. When the moko was completed Mataora, with his new skills, returned with Niwareka to humankind. Mataora then shared his skills of Ta moko with the rest of the world.

The development and change of moko instruments

The instruments used to carve moko have changed and developed with time. The earliest example found, a bone chisel with a serrated blade about 4.4cm wide, bears close resemblance to tattooing instruments used in Samoa and the Marquesas.

As time progressed the blade of the chisel became narrower, and sometimes the serrated teeth of the blade disappeared altogether. This gave the resulting tattoo the look of a grooved scar, distinguishing the moko from other tattoo traditions.

With the arrival of Europeans, the instruments changed from bone to metal, allowing for even finer work. Eventually the chisel was replaced by the needle and then the electric needle, the instrument used today.

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