Maori Tattoos

Ta moko – traditional tattoos of the Maori people

There has been a huge revival of traditional Maori tattoos, ta moko and other Maori cultural traditions. Since the cultural revival ta moko tattoo designs are becoming more and more what can be considered mainstream. A lot of non-Maori people are getting moko designs tattooed on their faces as well as other parts of their body, many of which have improper significance. Robbie Williams and Mike tyson have gotten Maori tattoos much to the annoyance of many Maoris.

Maori tattoos have been practiced for over a thousand years, and have not only withstood time and but also colonization by Europeans. Maoris are the original inhabitants of New Zealand, known to them as Aotearoa or the land of the long white cloud. Ta moko (literally meaning to strike or tap) was used as a form of identification, rank, genealogy, tribal history, eligibility to marry, and marks of beauty or ferocity.

Ta moko weren’t merely tattooed upon their wearers; they were finely chiseled into the skin. The art preceded wood carvings, so accordingly the first of these wood carvings copied moko designs. Ta moko are most recognizably done on the face, although other parts of the body are also tattooed.

Maori tattoo by tattoo artist Inia from Moko Ink
Tattoo by Inia of Moko Ink © Tao of Tattoos

Women were traditionally only allowed to be tattooed on their lips, around the chin, and sometimes the nostrils. A woman with full blue lips was seen as the “epitome of Maori female beauty.” Men, on the other hand, were allowed to have a full facial moko. Those of higher rank, like chiefs and warriors, were usually the only ones who could afford it, but at the same time were the only ones who held a position that made them worthy of getting a moko in the first place.

The choosing of the design was not, however, an easy process. Unlike getting a mundane tattoo now, Maori tattoos took months of approval and planning on the part of the elders and other family members. First the elders decided whether one was worthy of receiving a moko. One of the questions they need answered with an unwavering yes was: “are they committed to wearing their tribal identity on their body for the rest of their life?” Then the design process would begin by taking into account the tribal history, which was the most important component of the moko.


Tim Hunt’s Pacific Tattoo

However, the majority of people who are using Moko inspired designs didn’t take the time to learn anything about its origins or significance. It is understandable why some Maori are offended by the use of bits and pieces of their culture. Wouldn’t you be upset too if someone copied something uniquely yours without your permission, didn’t know anything about its origin, and didn’t use it in the appropriate manner?

Zealand Tattoo has studios in Christchurch and Queenstown to get a Maori Tattoo.

Hopefully, the Maori people will continue their efforts to keep this beautiful and interesting cultural art alive, the rest of the world can come to respect this sacred cultural ritual, and the two can come to an agreement about its use in today’s society.

Gilbert, Steve. Tattoo History: A Source Book.
Giles, Brad. “Ta Moko” Body Modification E-zine .
Ward, Paul. “Moko” New Zealand Edge.

Traditional Maori tattoos by Inia of Moko Ink
Tattoo by Inia of Moko Ink © Tao of Tattoos

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