by Sarah Corbett
Ta Moko is the practice in New Zealand by the indigenous Maori people of adorning the face with black spiralled designs.
These designs were traditionally chiselled into the skin with tools called ‘Uhi’. This left grooves in the skin rather than the smooth surface one would find after tattooing.
The designs of Ta Moko are called ‘Whakapapa’, meaning genealogy, and indeed the lineage of the wearer can be understood through the designs of the Ta Moko.
Ta Moko is worn by men and women, the designs and styles are distinct for each sex. Men would have the whole face adorned,and women just the area around the chin and nostrils. The specific name for the female Ta Moko is ‘Kauae’.
The tradition of Ta Moko has its roots within the practice of women to cut themselves with shells during the period of Mourning and to apply pigment to the wounds.
The mythological origins pertain to the world of the Atua gods. The word moko is believed to refer to Ruaumoko, the unborn child of Ranginui and Papatuanuku. Ruaumoko is commonly associated with earthquakes and volcanic activity, and has been translated as ‘the trembling current which scars the Earth’.
The pigment used to Ta Moko is derived from charcoal from specifically resinous trees, which is mixed with oil. The pigment was stored in a special container of Wood or Pumice stone, and covered with bird or rat skin.
The design is first applied to the face with charcoal and water, and then chiselled out . Pigment is then applied using a stick wrapped in flax.
The Ta Moko process was a part of an elaborate ritual, the Tohunga (Artist) who was considered to be sacred, would be commissioned with treasures ( weapons, cloaks, green-stone and Food). A temporary house would be constructed and the Artist and client would be said to be in ‘Te ahi ta moko’ ( the fire/oven of tattooing) . The house would be burned to the ground after the Moko had been applied to spiritually cleanse the area.
By the 1930’s needles and ink were used rather than chisels to apply Ta Moko. This led to a drop in the number of infections, and was quicker and less painful.
Moko has been widely understood in the West to denote high status, however those of the very highest social status were considered too Tapu ( sacred) to undergo the adornment. These were members of the tribes who were considered to be the platform between the people and the gods.
During the early years of European colonisation , preserved tattooed heads of Maori were a popular souvenir, often leading to the horrific possibility of being killed as a trophy. This led to a sharp decline in the practice of Moko. During this time Maori would allegedly kill slaves and tattoo them after death to fed the lucrative trade for tattooed heads.
Ta Moko has again become popular in recent decades, as in increased awareness has led a new generation of Maori to embrace the adornment as an expression of their identity.