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.

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The great thing about the ta moko is that no two tattoos are alike. The practice of ta moko is a tapu (sacred) ritual. The design of each moko is unique to the wearer and conveys information about the wearer, such as their genealogy, affilliations, status and achievements.

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. However, today most are performed using modern tattoo machines (and therefore leave the skin smooth). The inks that were used were made from all natural products. Burnt wood was used to create black pigments; while lighter pigments were derived from caterpillars infected with a certain type of fungus, or from burnt kauri gum mixed with animal fat. The pigments were then stored in ornate containers called oko, which became family heirlooms. The oko were often buried when not in use.

The black pigment that was made from burnt wood was reserved solely for facial tattoos; while those made from bugs or burnt gum was used for outlines and other less revered tattoos. Before the beginning the tohunga ta moko would study the persons facial structure to decide on the most appealing design.

All Maori design is made up of a number of essential design elements. Manawa Lines are the skin looking lines in the tattoo. Manawa is the Maori word for “heart” and represents your life, your journey and your time spent on earth. The main Korus coming off the Manawa Lines are used represent people and people groups. Korus are based off the tiny new growth shoots on the New Zealand Fern plant and represent new life and new beginnings. When you add a korus in your Manawa line, you can also be adding the important people in your life journey such as mothers, fathers, grandparents, children, siblings , friends and so on.

As the Maori people consider the head to be the most sacred part of the body, the most popular kind of ta moko was the facial tattoo, which was composed of curved shapes and spiral like patterns. Often this tattoo covered the whole face and was a symbol of rank, social status, power and prestige.

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Due to the sacred nature of ta moko, those who were undergoing the process, and those involved in the process, could not eat with their hands or talk to anyone aside from the other people being tattooed. Those who were receiving tattoos made it a point to not cry out in pain, because to do so was a sign of weakness. Being able to withstand the pain was very important in terms of pride.
There were other rules and regulations around being tattooed, particularly while undergoing a facial work. Many had to abstain from sexual intimacy while undergoing the rite, and had to avoid all solid foods. In order to meet these requirements, the person who recently got a facial tattoo had to be fed from a wooden funnel to prevent foodstuffs from contaminating the swollen skin. A person would be fed in this manner until the facial wounds had fully healed.
Because the face was often bleeding and very swollen, the leaves of the karaka tree were often used as a balm that was applied after the session had finished, to hasten the healing process. The tattooing was often accompanied by music, singing and chanting to help soothe the pain.

The focal point of Maori tattooing was generally the face. Men had full facial tattoos, while women only had their chin, lips and nostrils tattooed. Some Maori also had other parts of the body tattooed, such as their back and legs. Women were more often known to tattoo their arms, neck and thighs.

For men, their face tattoo showed their accomplishments, status, position, ancestry and marital status. It is considered highly insulting to be unable to recognise a person’s power and position by his moko.

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The male facial moko or tattoo is generally divided into different sections of the face: the ngakaipikirau (the centre of the forehead) designated a person’s general rank, ngunga (the area under the brows) designated his position, uirere (the area around his eyes and nose) designated his hapu, or sub-tribe rank, the uma (the area around the temples) served to detail his marital status, raurau (the area under the nose) displayed the man’s signature that was once memorised by tribal chiefs who used it when buying property, signing deeds and officiating orders, taiohou (the cheek area) showed the nature of the person’s work, wairua (the chin area) showed the person’s mana or prestige, and the taitoto (the jaw area) designated a person’s birth status

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It can also be noted that a person’s ancestry is indicated on each side of the face. The left side is generally the father’s side and the right side the mother’s. A noble or note-worthy descent was a primary requirement before a moko was undertaken as, if one side of a person’s ancestry was not of rank, the corresponding side of the face would not have any design tattooed on it. And if the person undertaking the moko has no rank, or is not heir to anything of note then the centre of the forehead would be left without design.

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