Ta Moko

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images/tik-mok1.gifTa Moko


Tattooing is an art form extremely common amongst Māori.


Māori belief has it that Mataora was responsible for bringing Moko (tattoo) to the world. It is held that Mataora journeyed to Rarohenga on a quest to win back the heart of his beloved wife, Niwareka, and in doing so received the Moko from his father in-law, Uetonga. 

As a result of that he also learnt how to apply Moko - or Ta-Moko. 

This story not only tells us that Mataora brought Moko back to us, but more importantly, it points us to the sacred or godly origins of Moko. That mantle of course, by virtue of genealogy, lies with Ruaumoko, the last unborn child of Rangi and Papa who, still dwelling within the belly of his mother, presides over earthquakes and volcanic activity. Hense his name - Ruaumoko or The Trembling Current That Scars The Earth.

By this account, we see that our ancestors, through the simple observation of the natural phenomena of earthquakes, albeit rather destructive, saw that this deified (made godly) ancestor, Ruaumoko, was responsible for the deep uneven grooves left within the surface terrain of their primal parent, Papa-tuanuku. In short, they witnessed, a natural form of Moko. Not only that but it gives a relative indicator as to the time frame of Moko origins. So much so that considering the time frame of Ruaumoko as somewhere near the time of earths creation, the optimist could theorise that Moko has been around and developing since then.

It is also interesting that early sources also say that upon the return of Mataora and Niwareka to Te Aoturoa, that Niwareka's moko included simply 2 markings on her forehead and her cheeks. In fact it states that it wasn't until some time later that the first actual Moko lips were applied upon a woman called Ruhiruhi, during either the period or the reign of Tiwhana-a-rangi. Additionally, it also states that it wasn't until well into the Māori occupancy of Aotearoa that the first "Pu-Kauwae" or chin Moko was applied. So this, if accepted, clearly refutes the post-European or modern opinion that chin Moko was the only woman's moko. It also clearly indicates that Moko, like the culture from which it is derived, was never static. It was dynamic and adapted to changes and progressions of the time.


Moko Messages

Every Moko, contain ancestral/tribal messages that pertain to the wearer. These messages narrate a wearer's family, sub-tribal and tribal affiliations and their placing within these social structures. In terms of the wearer's "placing", a message would basically contain the wearers "value" by way of their genealogy, perhaps their knowledge or expertise and their participation within each social level.

Inherit or Credit

 There is a main thread in Moko that details whether a person received status based upon purity of blood lines or quality of participation. This is either by virtue of inheritance or accreditation. For example; An ariki (chief) is an ariki, solely by virtue of aristocratic genealogy. This title is his/her birthright and cannot be removed from them. 

However, a rangatira (tribal leader) is made such by either the whānau, hapū or iwi, through the quality of their personal participation. The position is accredited so could be removed by the power of the whānau, hapū and iwi... or ariki. These markings of birthright or qualification are prominent throughout moko.


Many Māori were born into and lived within the hapū "small group/village" structure. The genealogical markings made broadcasts of that fact. This particular information was more important to these specific levels alone, and only relevant to any higher groups like Iwi, if the genealogical lines warranted such attention. 

So, in terms of participation, if a wearer, was to bear some authority over any such hapū matters, the markings would symbolize whether this was through bloodlines or through qualification. This was fundamental in the conceptual and practical rituals of encounter. As it is still recognised, the utmost respect was afforded to those with senior birthrights and so forth beneath them, so any diversion from that was regarded as insult and could easily end in fatalities or worse yet, generations of unresolved feuding. So Moko, for this practical sense, became a tool by which a hierarchical custom could be observed and maintained.


Māori oral history highlights the immense value that early Māori society placed on any form of higher learning or understanding because knowledge was a godly given gift, sought after by Tane-tiki-wananga. So traditional society saw this attained skill as warranting recognition by way of Moko markings. The pursuit of knowledge became a focal activity for many people of those times, therefore it was by virtue of skills and levels of knowledge attained that markings were placed within a Moko.

Again, as oral history tells, there was the knowledge of everyday matters as well as the understanding of matters beyond common grasp so these in themselves were separate institutions of learning. Again, recognition was afforded to such learning or qualification and in terms of participation, if a wearer, was to bear some authority over any such hapū orientated skills, as in being an authority to speak or to teach, the markings to symbolize their progression, growth and rankings were apparent.


Moko portrayed information pertaining to an individual wearer. Usually that information registered the type of participation that the wearer took within their respective groups. As mentioned previously, there were markings that symbolized whether an expert in knowledge of the occult, for example, was either an authority or perhaps a teacher on the matter. 

These markings showed the extent of their participation in hapū/iwi affairs. An example was an activity that became prevalent within Māori society, warfare. Moko portrayed the appropriate markings that relayed pertinent information relating to an individual's prowess in this area. 

What command the wearer reached. Were they simply bearers of weapons or were they commanders and leaders of battalions? All these had the markings in Moko. This was their individual participation within whānau, hapū or iwi activity.

images/tik-mok5.jpgHow To Read the Markings

The preceding information can be easily acquired from written resources, however, in most cases, the fact remains that it is difficult - if not near impossible - to actually read these markings!

The meaning of a single or common Moko symbol does not uniformly apply across all tribes or sub-tribes so it is difficult, from that perspective, to have a comprehensive understanding. 

It is said that in order to read a Moko, one needs to be looking with a holistic mind as opposed to two eyes. One needs to take in every single part of a Moko, like a face, in order to make a start in understand what the messages are. One needs even to not only look at what is there, but to also carefully look at what is not there.

This reinforces the common understanding that Moko is not purely art, but is primarily, when applied to the wearer, information about that person. Yet in these modern times, sadly the information about Moko symbolism, the directions, the instructions about how to read them is not great. Due to the passage of time, there is no longer an abundance of human resource with that particular knowledge and instruction. 

There is also the fact that Māori art and its symbolisms are largely suggestive, also very ambiguous to a degree and frought with many tribal and sub-tribal variations.

Moko Designs

Moko designs and symbolism, like the other art forms and the culture it was born from, was never static. It is a dynamic form of expression that evolved in constant development, adapting to the changes in lifestyle. Validating its existence. It should be noted that over the last 200 years, there are Māori designs that have withstood the colonial process, and the speed by which the culture has changed. 


One such design is the koru. However, when you closely inspect the developments of the last 60-100 years you will find too that the koru has undergone various changes. From those developments the koru grew an eye, a head, neck, body and tail. It was given by virtue of symbolism, human characteristics that, in turn, gave artists a license to design and use koru which could represent actual ancestral figures. You will note too that Koru is the single most used element in Moko. Even to the extent where what initially looks like a spiral, is actually double or triple grouped lines that spiral inward into a single koru. This grouping of spiraling lines, albeit of a circular nature, merely creates a spiral illusion, but is in fact, right in the centre, a koru. A Māori proverb says:

"Ka hinga atu he tete-kura - ka hara-mai he tete-kura"

Translated this means, "As one fern frond (person) dies - one is born to take it's place".

images/tik-koru1.jpgThis proverb explains that the primary meaning of the koru is "birth," "re-growth" and "re-generation." It is an analogy of what Koru can represent. Coupled with the human characteristics, as previously explained, we can see that as one supports the other, it is safe to assume that koru represents or personifies actual ancestors. With this in mind we can also assume that single Koru with secondary protrusions growing from it symbolises, by the above definition, the natural phenomena of parenthood, of whakapapa (ancestry/genealogy). 

It also symbolises sustainability. "Taonga Tuku Iho" (lit. treasures allowed down). The passing of life, information and resources from one generation to the next. Examples Earlier on, the concept of inheritance and accreditation was explained, and said to have a fundamental part within Moko symbolism. So it is without surprise that a koru with secondary protrusion, will represent an inheritance through a bloodline.

images/tik-koru3.jpgFor double headed Koru, known as Mango Pare, most Māori artists will tell you that this design pertains to the warrior. This double headed "analogy" takes its form from the Hammerhead Shark. A symbol of strength and ferocity that best fits the warrior and the attitude required to be successful in that occupation. It is no wonder that Koru, with such comprehensive and important meanings, should dominate Moko.

Haehae Lines

When you look at a facial Moko, whether the Mataora or Mata-kiore type, the one dominating component, other than koru, is the lines. These are prominent around the mouth, on the lips, up the forehead and on those deceiving cheek "spirals." Even the filling of positive areas comprises of lines, whether they be the hatch rec-linear or "ladder" type, the semi-curvlinear or "ray" type or even the more contemporary notched "chevron" type. Each line or group of lines is a component of a larger picture and a larger story. In this instance they have been known to refer to battles attended, perhaps chiefs slain or even wounds received. Which suggests that to a certain degree and even at certain instances, it is the actual number of lines that tells the story.

The filling on the body differ from those on the face. For instance the short "ladder" type is most prominent on the legs as opposed to the "ray" which dominates certain facial and body areas.

Positive & Negative Space

Another "common" element of single dimension Māori art is the positive and negative components. The positive and negative space. It is very prominent in Moko, with each component being as vital to the story as the other. This positive and negative characteristic has roots implanted within the belief and hierarchical systems of traditional Māori society. A Māori proverb says:

"Ma whero, ma pango - ka oti ai"

Translated this means, "By the unity of reds (chiefs) and blacks (villagers) will the work be done"

This proverb conveys the communal environment and concept that a person was born from and into. It communicates that their lives are dictated by that system. That the individual was part of a more powerful, more unified, more structured and more supportive social network. They were part of a team.


Placement too, is such an important part of the whole Moko picture, yet it often gets overlooked. With Moko being very much part and parcel of whakairo (carving), experienced carvers will tell anyone that placement in their discipline, of house or canoe building, is often a crucial element of the whole process. It is a fundamental element of the "Kaupapa", the theme or story telling that occurs in house or canoe building. So it is, in Moko.

With regard to placement of the woman's chin Moko. We know that it sits upon the lower part of the mouth. We also note that it was more customary for this Moko to be applied when the "child" reached puberty or there approximately. Amongst various other things this signified 2 main things:

bullet That the child/woman had reached womanhood or a stage in her life where she was ready to marry or more importantly, bear children.
bullet She now commanded certain speaking rights having naturally acquired a value of participation in her whānau and hapū.

Note that it is the placement around the mouth that gives indication of her "speaking rights."

Moko on other parts of the body were also relative to their placement, meaning that the full leg and buttock Moko, known commonly as "Puhoro" and/or "Taurapa", had messages relative to transport and movement. Take a look at their names:

bulletPuhoro = Quick, fast to move or abundant speed.
It is also the name for a scroll pattern adorning the rafers of a house and the bow of a canoe. In addition to this the origin of the design comes from the pattern that both, canoe paddles working through water leaves, as well as the wake pattern left by the canoe as it travels. 
So in a sense, there is a puhoro at the front, down the sides and at the back.
bulletTaurapa = The stern post of a canoe. 
If you see some definite links between both names and their respective explanations, it is no coincidence! It was made and thought of, that way.

Moko on the arms, known as "Tuhonohono" and "Tatahau" contained message relative to occupational activity. Tatahau have oral referals as having common ties with the puhoro pattern, so also has a relationship through the canoe history's and activities.

Moko Chisels


Tattoo enthusiasts will be familiar with the Samoan tattooing tool, the "auau." This tool is made from pig tusk and tortoise shell. The chisel end is serrated which when tapped pricks the skin carrying pigment into it.


The traditional Māori, pre-european, tattooing chisel, or "uhi" was similar but rather than pig tusks was made from either greenstone or various animal bones. The preferable bone material being from the albatross. Traditional Māori discovered that the albatross bone had a porous property which meant that it absorbed pigment, enabling the artist to work a longer line. Most tattooists, even today, have the same common desire to find a method by which they can achieve a longer line without having to re-load with pigment.


Some uhi were serrated and because of this were used primarily to carry pigment into the initial wound. These were the second chisels used in the process. However some of the finer uhi were straight edged, much like a "knife." This chisel was the first used in the Ta Moko application process that caused the deep grooves as if the skin had been gouged like wood.


Most uhi chisels, had a male dove-tail style end which was an insert into the end of a 10"-12" handle. They often had a hole drilled into it which was used for lashing so the chisel would be held firmly within the handle.

Once bound into place the chisel was dipped into pigment and with a second mallet type stick was tapped into the skin carrying with it the pigment. 


Pigment was made from various vegetation like Kauri Gum or Kapara and Mutara, a caterpillar which mutates into a vegetable found on the floor of most native forests. As well as vegetable based pigments there was also a pigment made from dog faeces.

As normal all natural materials were turned to carbon by way of firing, ground to a fine dust then mixed with a carrying agent which was normally water to a fine fluid.

Mokos Today

  It is not so surprising that people with any interest in bodyart hold a fascination with Moko. "Pakeha" (Non- Māori), in particular, have been fascinated in Moko and "tatau" since they first ventured into the wide open expanse of Te-Moana-nui-a-Kiwa, or the Pacific Ocean. Since those early journeys of the white man, of the Pakeha, they have held a desire to wear and know the beauty and mystery of Moko. So, their interest in Moko didn't just develop since the much publicised Moko of international pop star Robbie Williams (see above). No - that interest has been around since the mid 1700's.

Now, since the recent emergence of the modern Moko renaissance, since the Robbie Williams arm, many Pakeha have clearly shown that their interest, their fascination and desire has not gone away. In fact more and more, the Māori websites and Māori topic Message Boards are being bombarded with tides of enquiries and requests regarding Moko information. In summary, the most common, the most underlying question amongst the many has to be, "can I, as a Pakeha, get a Moko?" 

For many modern Pakeha, especially those resident in New Zealand, the overwhelming Māori response to that question has been - NO!!! Yet there are positive and negative arguments for and against that response which surprisingly exists equally on both the Pakeha and Māori sides of the debate.

To get a fairer picture of the situation lets first take a step back, consider the following statement in the section about Moko Messages, above: "... Moko contains ancestral/tribal messages that pertain to the wearer. These messages narrate a wearer's family, sub-tribal and tribal affiliations and their placing within these social structures ".

Yet, as already explained, Pakeha evidently wore Moko! In fact they didn't just wear armbands or small things, they wore full body and facial Moko. Why then, considering all this recorded evidence, is there still an overwhelmingly negative response, from Māori, when Pakeha enquire if they can wear Moko? Consider this:

bullet  Māori are weary of the possibility that some other unassociated person could be wearing what is through birthrights, not theirs to wear. Additionally, no individual wants to be threatened by some complete stranger purely because, unbeknownst to them, they are wearing someone else's markings. That same possibility exists for Pakeha, desirous to wear Moko. Especially with them not having any genealogical or affiliate ties to either the owners or the symbols. 
bullet On a similar note, Māori will generally question wearers of whether they are aware of the symbolic knowledge pertaining to their Moko. There is generally doubt as to whether this knowledge exists within the wearer so it is likely that this doubt would increase with regard to Pakeha wearers. 
bullet Another similar note and a very sensitive point is, Māori in general feel that Pakeha have already exploited too much of Māori symbols and indigenous rights. They see too much of this exploitation, for even now as you read, Māori intellectual property is being exploited. So because Māori are very clear that the demise and exploitation starts from Pakeha culture they are obviously very protective of what is left.

Yet as has already been stated, there is much for and against these reasons for pakeha not wearing moko.

"The Moko is by no means a fashion accessory."
Pouroto Ngaropo.

"You should be happy to have a tribute to your country and your people"
spokesperson for fashion designer Thierry Mugler.

From Once Were Warriors to once was in a boy band: 

bullet Robbie Williams has recently had a Māori design tattooed on his arm; 
bullet Hans Neleman’s photo-essay Moko – Māori Tattoo, documenting ta moko has been shown at the Holland Festival, received glowing reviews in graphic design-bible Graphis, and been spotlighted at "bookshop to the stars" Book Soup on Sunset Boulevard;
bullet soccer demi-god Eric Cantona appeared on the cover of British style mag GQ face-painted with a moko;
bullet Designer Thierry Mugler used masks inspired by moko to launch his spring/summer collection; 
bullet an ad for Poloroid cameras features an archetypal boyfriend-your-parents-were- afraid-of adorned with an imitation moko; 
bullet explored in National Geographic; 
bullet Discovery Channel features moko in its 'Human Canvas' special; 
bullet Paco Rabanne's Spring 1998 collection featured two models wearing metal outfits echoing the stylised moko of the film Once Were Warriors; 
bullet you might want to add the Adidas All Black haka commercial winning ad of the year in Italy; 
bullet the Spice Girls’ ill-advised attempt at performing a haka; and
bullet The Washington Post's and USA Today’s highlighting of the Māori Culture website in their recent web highlights section.


What this survey of the impact of ta moko and Māori culture on world media demonstrates is that Māori designs are hot; and that Māori culture is achieving strong currency beyond the shores of Aotearoa. For moko to be classified as ‘fashionable’ or ‘hot’ raises difficult and complex questions concerning racial politics, diplomacy, emotions and export. It concerns globalisation, postcolonialism, the history, and the future of an edge society.

The liberal view, a sort of a post-modern global village aesthetic, sees the exposure, when done sensitively, as positive - promoting a specifically Māori/New Zealand cultural and economic edge onto the world stage. Taking the Māori to the world. Māori traditionalists, on the other hand, concerned about ownership of intellectual property, are insulted at having their iconography plundered, especially topped off with lavish plummed headresses and incongruous haute couture in a show of unwearable catwalk silliness.

Former Te Tai Hauauru MP Tukoroirangi Morgan (ironically no stranger to high-fashion consumption himself) took offence at the inspiration French fashion designers have found in moko "The French are just rude and ignorant and they come as no surprise given the history of French and Polynesian people", he said, linking nuclear tests with "treading on our traditional ta moko". A spokesman for Thierry Mugler said the designer thinks Māori "should be happy to have a tribute to your country and your people". Victoria University Māori studies head Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, explains it as an offshoot of a mix and match consumer culture, postulating that bored people in the northern hemisphere were increasingly turning to indigenous symbols and cultural property to enhance their lives. "By taking our arts they claim to celebrate our genius. I assume we are supposed to feel flattered". Claiming that the appropriation of the designs displayed insensitivity and lack of understanding of Māori culture and the moko's significance, Tangata Records head and Māori MP, Willie Jackson: "Who is this dude Rabanne? I'm just getting tired of it. People with no understanding using bits of our culture as it suits them without having any knowledge of us".

However current Maori MP John Tamihere says the idea of European designers taking Maori culture to the world stage was wonderful and "not an insensitive act at all". In his maiden speech to parliament Tamihere urged Māori and New Zealand to take advantage of a cluttered global village and the knowledge revolution to stake our point of difference and assert the product marketing and branding strength of Māori culture. Tamihere locates Māori culture as an integral part of edge identity, asserting that Pacific design, definition and points of differentiation will ensure that Kiwi "... goods, services and products are highly priced, niche marketed, value added and highly sought after … this is all about releasing potential and we must acknowledge that the world-wide indigenous shares are sky rocketing. Take advantage of this as a nation." This is a vision with resonance, there is nothing like the diverse variety of colour, tradition, and sheer life of a Pacific edge New Zealand to build on the fleeting, but binding and intense pride evoked by the All Blacks' Haka.

There are instances of appropriation where edges are blurred: Robbie Williams’ tattoo was done by a Māori artist, Te Rangitu Netana; the All Blacks' Haka, in the adidas commercial (see above) is a performance that briefly infuses a nation with a bi-cultural buzz. Maybe Eric Cantona can be forgiven because he is … well, Eric Cantona, even if Eva Rickard didn’t feel she had earned the mana (respect and authority) to wear the genuine article until a year before her death. But other examples, such as the Spice Girls naïve performance of the Haka are more obviously insulting to Māori.

The current global profile surrounding ta moko is a by-product of a Māori cultural renaissance in general, embracing the arts, land rights and indigenous spirituality. Since the 1980s, the ancient art of ta moko, almost lost as Pakeha missionaries and colonial governments frowned upon the practice, has being undergoing a rebirth, using modern machines as well as the bone chisel. Today, preserved through oral history, historical research, the paintings of European artists such as Lindauer and Charles Goldie, the practice lives in its various forms on hundreds of people, men and women of all ages and walks of life, from corporates to high-school kids to grandmothers. For most it is a way of "demanding identity" and connecting them to tribal affiliations and family lines. A cultural and political statement: a way of wearing culture on your face in the same way as a members of different tribes wear a kilt or a hemp suit on their body. 

Pouroto Ngaropo explains his moko:

"Not everyone can wear one. I had to get permission from the elders in my clan. And I prayed to my ancestral spirits to grant me the strength to wear a Moko. Every moko is unique to the wearer. In my case every line tells a story. My moko reflects 480 years of my ancestral line. The four lines drawn from my nose symbolise the four canoes that came to Aotearoa. The two circles on the sides depict my father's and mother's family histories. The lines connect me with my clans, tribal dwellings, canoes and tribes, to the knowledge of nature and to the eternal significance of our culture."

The use of the designs raise questions of intellectual property and, as Tamihere is right to highlight, control over profit from the property. Perhaps an example of how the issues of ta moko can be handled in a sensitive manner is respected New York-based Dutch photographer Hans Neleman's photo-essay, Moko - Māori Tattoo. The book has received widespread exhibition and acclaim, including the Image Bank Award For Visual Excellence, and the project was internationally sponsored by Eastman Kodak; Duggal Labs, Hasselblad, Sinar, and Bron Elektronik AG in Switzerland, as well as a considerable amount of Neleman’s own resource. Neleman photographed 60 Māori with full-face moko, divided into three sections, gang-related tattoo, traditional ta moko, and the rastafarian interpretation of ta moko. The book recieved international attention - Design journal Graphis : "The book’s 72 portraits form a compelling, haunting, vulnerable, frightened, beautiful, defiant mix."

"I wanted to take pictures of proud people," says Neleman. "It was a conscious decision not to make trite images, not to create images that could in any way hurt them." Neleman had been intrigued by Inia Taylor's stylised facial tattoos in the film Once Were Warriors and after being invited to New Zealand to lecture, decided to try to photograph ta moko. After two years of research in close consultation with Pita Turei, and Tame Iti, among others, and through initial resistance, huis (meetings) and other difficulties, including travelling for two days to find one subject, he completed the project in 1999. 

Taylor explains a Māori point of view:

"Westerners come along with this attitude: ‘why don’t you want to show this to us? We can make a beautiful book!’ And we’re sitting back thinking: whoopdee-f**king-do, we don’t want to sit on anybody’s coffee table! We want to keep our culture to ourselves".

The book was dedicated to the repatriation (return to its home country) of mokomokai (the severed tattooed heads kept in museums such as New York’s Museum of Natural History) and Neleman decided that all profits from the book would be donated to benefit Māori ta moko.

"Ta moko exposes more than the revival of a tradition- it reveals the beauty of Māori past and the promise of Māori future."


Certainly, for whatever motivation, commercial or curious, exotic or empathetic, the world is interested in ta moko. Its profile raises complex cultural issues, about ta moko and the wider place of Māori culture ‘on the edge’. As Neleman demonstrates there are ways to negotiate these issues sensitively (though even Moko - Māori Tattoo has left a mixed aftertaste). As John Tamihere points out Māori culture constitutes a distinctive part of the New Zealand ‘edge’ identity. Tamihere takes the stance that it is the challenge of the Māori to:

"grab the tiller and fashion the good ship New Zealand and ride as we know our gene pool can do through the vagaries of the uncharted, unmapped and unknown global impacts. Let the good ship New Zealand be the ship that embraces change, that tolerates diversity, that defeats adversity."

Or instead Māori could agree with Inia Taylor, asserting their cultural privacy. What the leaking, taking, giving of the ta moko on the world stage signifies is an interest in an important part of edge culture. How the dialogue between the edge and centre is negotiated and the questions it evokes are important ones. Whether etched in place as symbol of mana or ephemerally painted on a model’s face on a catwalk, what becomes of the kaupapa/meaning of the moko is an edge challenge:

"No one has a monopoly on our unending story of nationhood;
no one has the manual for our nationhood."
John Tamihere.


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This page last updated 06/07/2003 02:11:44 AM


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