Ta Moko or the facial tattoo has been practiced for over a thousand years by Maori people. It was used as a form of identification, rank, genealogy, tribal history, eligibility to marry, marks of beauty and much more. Both men and women could be marked with ta moko, which were different in shapes and meanings.
The tattoos on a male face were divided into eight fields, each of them had its own name and contained information about the wearer. The face was divided into equal halves. In general, designs on the right-hand side of the male face marked the father’s tribal membership, rank and position. On the left-hand side of the face contained information about the mother’s rank and position.
These are the eight fields of the male face moko:
This area was above the centre of the eyebrows and composed of two triangular areas on the forehead.
It indicated the direct lines of descent from the Gods and of individual rank.
This division identified position or status in life passed through the first or the second line of descent.
The central lines on the chin hold signs of those who taught their knowledge.
Situated on the centre of the face, including eyes and nose.
It identified hapu of each parent, the eldest or the youngest son; inheritance of the tribal mana and hereditary rank.
This division referred to each parents line of descent and specific rank by first or second marriage,
authority within a tribal area and where his region lied (North, East, South or West), and knowledge such as medicine etc.
This part includes the identifying signature of a person, their political standing, position personal rank due to war, birth or oratory;
a rise in rank by marriage, the nature of rank and signs of supreme mana.
Situated on the middle of the cheek and the upper jaw; this part informed about the occupation, e.g.
Master Gardener, Warrior, Village or Fighting Chief, Carver, Healer etc.
The lines of Wairua identified personal mana and if the rank reflected this;
or if the rank and mana descended to the next generation; a village chief; responsibility of a tribal area.
Succession of rank, rise in rank identified a man who became a tribal Chief before the age of 25.
Maori women also went through the process of obtaining moko, although they were limited to the area of the chin, lips, above the upper lip, and occasionally between the eyes, buttocks genitals, back and legs. Female moko mainly demonstrated rank. Women also used facial tattoo to denote a special status. A woman who was such high status that no mate would be found to equal her lineage would never marry or have children, and was marked by a partial face tattoo like those found on men. A woman who was set aside for a political marriage had a spiral tattoo on the buttock. Tattoos on the back or legs marked the tribal identity of a woman and were used for those marrying into other tribes. Finally, a tattoo on the genitals marked a woman as able to have children in her first marriage, but any children from later marriages would be denied this status.