Maori tattoo art is different from traditional tattooing in that sense that the Maori tattoo was carved into the skin with a chisel, instead of punctured.
Traditional Maori tattoos are known in the Maori language as ta moko:
- Ta moko: literally the words ta moko translate as to strike or to tap. The term refers to the process of tattooing in the Maori traditions.
- Moko: the tattoo design itself – the finished product.
The Maori tattoo consists of bold spiral designs covering the face, the buttocks and the legs of the Maori men.
Maori women were usually tattooed on the lips and chin and in some cases on the neck and the back.
Tattooing has a sacred significance – the Maori tattoo design itself, and the long and painful process of acquiring the tattoo (Maori tribe tattooing was done with bone chisels).
Maori Tattoos: The Legend
The precise history of the Maori tattoo is rather vague, but we do know the legendary source. According to legend, ta moko came from the underworld:
Te Puni Maori Chief
When Mataora, a young warrior, fell in love with Niwareka, the princess of the underworld, she agreed to come aboveground to marry him. When he mistreated her, however, Niwareka went back to her father’s kingdom.
Eventually, sick with guilt and with his face paint smudged, Mataora made his way down to the underworld to try to win her back. He succeeded, and Niwareka’s father taught him the art of Maori tribe tattooing as well! Mataora brought ta moko – Maori tattoos - as well as other skills he had picked up in the underworld, back with him, and the ideas caught on.
Maori Tattoo Equipment
Instead of needles, the Maori people used knives and chisels (uhi), either smooth or serrated, and the ink was applied by means of incisions. The uhi was made from an albatross bone.
Two kinds of tattoo ink were used:
- The tattoo ink for the body color was made from an organism that is half vegetable, half caterpillar (the caterpillar is infected by a certain kind of fungus that starts growing out of its head, killing the caterpillar).
- The darker, black tattoo ink used for the face was made of burned wood.
By the end of the 19th century, other tattoo equipment like tattoo needles began to set in.
Maori Tattooing: The Ritual
Maori tattooing would usually start at adolescence, and was used to celebrate important events throughout life. The first tattoo marks the transition from childhood to adulthood and was done during a series of rites and rituals. Tattoo art was an important part of the Maori culture – in fact, people without tattoos were considered to be without status or worth.
Needless to say, tattooing by making incisions with a chisel was a painful process, but traditional Maori tattoos were meant to be more than decorative – they were a show of strength, courage and status. Both men and women were tattooed, though women substantially less (maybe because there was less of a need for them to show courage) and on other places (usually the lips and chin).
The process of Maori tattooing was a ritual, with music, chant and fasting – in fact, fasting was more or less a necessity, because the face would swell up from the wounds caused by the tattooing process!
The tattoo specialists in the Maori culture were usually men, although there are some women who also were tohunga ta moko (moko specialists).
Maori Tattoos Today
Modern Tribal Maori Tattoo
The Maori traditions such a tattooing lost much of its significance after the coming of European settlers. Ta moko for men stopped being popular somewhere in the middle of the 19th century. Moko for women continued throughout the 20th century.
Since the 1990s the Maori culture and traditions are having a revival and the traditional Maori tribe tattooing is all but extinct, Maori tattoos have made a comeback and are popular again, including the old tattoo equipment like chisels.
In the west, Maori-inspired tattoos are in vogue as well. Many of us appreciate the bold statement that Maori tattoo designs make, and this style of tribal tattooing is growing in popularity.
Modern Maori tattoos are usually found on the body rather than the face, and usually (but not always) modern tattoo equipment and ink are used – but the traditional ta moko inspired designs have a universal and timeless appeal.
Maori Tattoos and Non-Maoris
By using a moko pattern for your own tattoo design, you may be insulting the Maori people. It is never ok for a non-maori to wear a Maori tattoo pattern, even if it is done with respect.
Maori tattoo patterns and symbols are a way of personal identification for the Maori people. By copying their designs you steal a part of their identity, what the Maori see as an insult.