You Think Getting a Tattoo is Painful? The Myth, Rituals and Symbolism of Maori’s Ta Moko

A Maori legend tells us about Niwareka, daughter of a tohunga ta moko (tatooist) as well as the princess of the underworld. Niwareka wanted to explore the world above and while she was there she met Mataoroa. Niwareka fell in love with Mataoroa and married him. As knowledge of ta moko did not exist in the world above, Mataoroa simply wore designs painted on his body, rather than being chiselled as a real ta moko supposed to be. Ta moko is different 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.

One day, Mataoroa mistreated Niwareka. Refusing to put up with this, the princess of the underworld 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 him, Niwareka’s people, who had actual chiselled faces and permanent designs, laughed at Mataora.

Ashamed of his appearance, Mataoroa asked his father-in-law to teach him the art of ta moko. Impressed with his commitment, Niwareka later forgave her husband, and they both returned to the world above, with Mataoroa taking with him the knowledge of ta moko. 

Image by michelle lagatule from Pixabay

Ta moko is a core component of the Maori culture and an outward expression of commitment and respect. It is customary for men to wear moko on their faces, buttocks, thighs and arms. The women usually wear ta moko on the chin and lips.

For the Maori people, ta moko was a rite of passage, which meant it was highly revered and ritualised. The actual tattooing would usually begin  during adolescence.

Having a Maori tattoo applied was a very painful experience. Deep cuts were incised into the skin. Then, the chisel was dipped into the pigment and tapped into the cuts. Another variation on this process involved dipping the chisel into the jar of pigment and inserting it into the skin by striking the end with a mallet. This manner of tattooing leaves the skin with grooves after healing, instead of the usual smooth surface left after needlepoint tattoos. Understandably, this was once a very long and labour intensive process. As  it was very painful, only a few parts of the body were tattooed at a time to allow healing.

Arthur James Iles - Maori woman, Rotorua, New Zealand - Google Art Project (432338).jpg

Subscribe to get access

Read more of this content when you subscribe today.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s