Maori tattoo is an important aspect of native society, linked with ancestry and a sense of “Maori” pride. The practice of tattooing by the Maori people is actually ancient. The tattoo instrument was a bone uhi (chisel) with an extremely sharp straight edge which caused deep cuts into the skin. Once finished, the skin had grooves. Ta moko was painful and long process, during the procedure flute music and chant poems were performed to help soothe the pain; while marking the body there were some prohibitions, and for the facial tattoo in particular sexual intimacy and the eating of solid foods were forbidden. Liquid food and water was drained into a pipe made of wood to ensure that no dirty thing came into contact with the swollen skin. This was the only way the tattooed person could eat until the wounds healed. The full faced tattoo was very time consuming and a good tattoo craftsman would carefully study a person’s bone structure before the ta moko procedure.
History & Meaning of Maori tattoo
Moko is similar to an identity card, or passport. For men, moko showed their rank and those who went without them were seen as persons of lower social status.
The male facial tattoo is generally divided into eight sections:
1. Uirere (hapu rank) – the eyes and nose area
2. Taitoto (birth status) – the jaw
3. Ngakaipikirau (rank) – the center forehead area
4. Raurau (signature) – the area under the nose
5. Wairua (mana) – the chin
6. Ngunga (position) – around the brows
7. Taiohou (work) – the cheek area
8. Uma (first or second marriage) – the temples
Ancestry was indicated on each side of the face. The left side was mainly (but not always, depending on the tribe) the father’s side and the right was mother’s one. The women were not as fully tattooed as the men. Their upper lips were outlined, usually in dark blue. The nostrils were also incised. The chin moko was always the most popular in women.
According to Maori mythology, tattooing began with a love affair between a young man by the name of Mataora and a young princess of the underworld and daughter of a tohunga ta moko by the name of Niwareka. She wanted to explore the world above where she met Mataora. Niwareka fell in love with him and soon they married. Ta moko didn’t exist in the world where Mataora lived so he wore designs painted on his body.
One day he mistreated Niwareka and she left him running back to her father. Mataora filled with guilt and began to seek his princess. When he finally found her, the paint on his face was messed and dirty. The people of underworld, who had permanent paints on their bodies, laughed at him. Ashamed Mataoroa asked his father-in-law to teach him the art of ta moko. Niwareka eventually forgave him and finally they returned together to the human world, bringing with them the knowledge of ta moko.