Resilience and Revival: The Tale of Tā Moko, the Ancient Maori Art of Tattooing

In the dimly lit corners of history, where time weaves intricate tales, lie photographs that capture a poignant slice of Maori culture. These late-19th and early-20th century images reveal some of the last Maori women adorned with the traditional Tā moko face markings, just before the shadows of British colonialism cast their long reach over New Zealand.

Two Maori girls with chin mokos in an ancient greeting, circa 1900.

Tā moko, an art form unique to the Maori, spoke the silent stories of its bearers – tales of family, ancestral tribes, and their esteemed place within these hallowed groups. These intricate tattoos were not mere embellishments; they were tokens of mana, symbols of high social status. Yet, in the complex web of Maori traditions, some individuals were deemed too tapu, too sacred, to don the moko. It was also considered unsuitable for certain tohunga, spiritual leaders, to engage in the practice.

Receiving the mark of Tā moko represented a pivotal rite of passage, the bridge between childhood and adulthood, accompanied by a labyrinth of rites and rituals. Beyond signifying rank and social standing, Tā moko had another role in traditional times – it rendered its bearers more alluring to the opposite sex.

Men, as a rule, adorned their faces, buttocks (known as raperape), and thighs (puhoro) with moko. Women, on the other hand, typically wore the ink on their lips (kauwae) and chins. The canvas of the body was vast, with women’s foreheads, buttocks, thighs, necks, and backs, and men’s backs, stomachs, and calves also known to bear the sacred ink.

An unidentified Maori woman with a chin moko, feathers in her hair, and European clothing, taken around 1895.

While the precise origins of Tā moko remain veiled in time, it traces its lineage to Eastern Polynesian culture. In an era before the introduction of needles, Tā moko artists wielded uhi chisels crafted from bone, etching directly onto the skin, leaving behind intricate grooves. The Tā moko process was not for the faint-hearted; it was arduous and agonizing, with a single piece sometimes taking up to a year to complete. The pigment, wai ngārahu, consisted of charcoal blended with oil or liquid from plants and was stored in special containers.

Remarkably, women continued to receive Tā moko well into the early 20th century. In the early 1970s, historian Michael King embarked on a journey, interviewing over 70 elderly women who had borne the sacred marks prior to the 1907 Tohunga Suppression Act. These women’s stories serve as a testament to the enduring spirit of the Maori traditions.

However, the arrival of British colonialism altered the course of Tā moko. The Tohunga Suppression Act of 1907 cast a shadow over Māori medical practices, which were deeply intertwined with their spiritual and cultural heritage. This marked the beginning of a decline in Tā moko as a cultural expression, and the Maori people saw their vibrant culture wither, reduced to what was sadly referred to as a “lost race.” The Act’s oppressive grasp persisted until its repeal in 1962.

An unknown Maori woman with a chin moko, circa 1890s.

Yet, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the art of Tā moko experienced a resurgence since the 1990s. It became a powerful symbol of cultural identity for both Maori men and women, rekindling the flame of their heritage. In the ink and grooves of Tā moko, the Maori found a way to reconnect with their past, to proudly declare, “We are here, and our culture lives on.”

As the ancient markings grace the faces and bodies of a new generation, they are a testament to the indomitable spirit of the Maori people, their resilience in the face of adversity, and their determination to ensure that the stories etched in Tā moko continue to resonate through the ages.

(Photo credit: News Dog Media / NZ Archives / Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons).

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