History in Ink

By Shandara Beener

The body is our life’s suitcase, tattoos our the stickers we decorate it with, to represent various things, experiences, art forms we find inspiring, and our stories, these are the things we want to be with us forever so we never can forget them. Culturally tattoos also have meanings to people of different ethnic groups and backgrounds. The Maori of New Zealand are an example of a cultural group that has applied meanings and symbolism to their methods of tattooing, Maori tattooing history extends beyond the eighteenth century, went through a decline as an art form, and has started to reappear as a cultural element in the twentieth century. Though this tattooing process is being culturally revived by Maori tattoo artists, the cultural meaning behind them is lost; they are being overlooked as having a cultural meaning.

The origin of Maori tattooing comes from an oral tradition about a legend of lovers. A love affair between a man by the name of Mataora, which means the “Face of vitality” and a young princess of the underworld whose name was Niwareka. She met Mataora, fell in love, and married him. One-day Mataora out of rage comes to strike Niwareka, causing her to return the underworld, feeling guilty Mataora follows her seeking forgiveness. Mataora asks his father in-law to teach him the art of the ta moko, the chiseled tattoos that those of the underworld bore. Undergoing the chiseling and tattooing process himself, Niwareka sees his commitment and forgives her husband for the mistreatment; Mataora and Niwareka return to the world above with the knowledge of the process of the sacred ta moko. [1]

Traditionally ta moko was a core component to the Maori culture, it was a way that the people of the Maori culture could find out various things about the wearer of ta moko.  The designs of ta moko told things such as status, bloodline, and tribal affiliation. Maori believe that a person’s spiritual power or life force can be displayed through the wearing of the ta moko.[2] Along with having spiritual meaning the ta moko being carved into the face with chisels then having the ink placed in the scar became the wearer’s signature, something in which tribal leaders could use to sign important documents, an example of ta moko being used as a signature was well recognized by Chief Te Rauparah who used a drawing of his ta moko as his signature on various legal documents.2 Along with being a signature form, ta moko though most commonly worn on the face expanded to other parts of the body to become a way in which trials and memories could be represented as an art form. [3]

 Being that every ta moko is unique to the wearer, the general categories of what each ta moko means will not necessarily cover every meaning behind the tattoo.  Some wearers have specific meanings behind the ta moko, for what it personally means to them. For members of the Maori culture such as Netena Whakaari ta moko is something in which when going through assimilation cannot be taken from him. Ta moko being a tattoo is something that no matter how others assimilated the Maori, it gave them a sense of empowerment that not everything could be taken from them. “You may be robbed of all you cherish. But of your Moko, you cannot be deprived, except by death. It will be your ornament and your companion until your final day.” [4]

Though ta moko has such a deep spiritual meaning to the Maori, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries brought about a decline of the art of ta moko and nearly extinguished this cultural symbol entirely. The Europeans had created a market in which they were trading the tattooed faces in which mostly belonged to those of the Maori culture, in response to this newly found market for their heads the Maori slowed their cultural practice to a near halt in order to preserve their numbers.2 Though they slowed their cultural practice, the demand for the tattooed heads was high enough for the Maori to take extra precautions in which did not follow their cultural practices. The Maori in attempt to save the lives of their people started to tattoo the faces of their slaves and placing their slaves heads on the market rather than their own peoples. The tattooed faces of the Maori slaves did not follow ta moko in which were a spiritual practice so they came about to have their own name as the mokamakai. Though they did not follow ta moko, the mokamakai were still desired by collectors and museums around the world.

A movement occurred in the nineteen eighties, led by the musician Dalvanius Prime in which restored the heads of the Maori and the mokamakai to the Maori so that they could be back to their rightful owners. This movement brought about a revival to the practice of ta moko. Though technology has changed and many artists are using modern tattooing process for ta moko, there are still a small handful of artists who are practicing the art of ta moko with the traditional form of chisels. Though ta moko was revived as an art form, the meaning behind the modern ta mokos have evolved in a mysterious way. Rather than being a spiritual representation and an identification of status and family, the modern ta moko has became a symbol of hardship in their lives.[5] Along with the loss in spiritual meaning towards the ta moko, the exclusivity of the ta moko to the Maori has been lifted, so that anyone can get the traditional tattoos done with the chisel. This being proven when singer Rihanna received a ta moko in 2013[6], though the tattoo was in a traditional prayer, the ta moko has left the exclusivity of the Maori cultural group. 

Overall, ta moka is making a resurface to the Maori culture. Though the older methods of this tattooing process are being revived from the decline that occurred in the twentieth century. The deeper spitritual meaning that once laid behind these symbolic tattoos has been lost, leaving ta moka to be overlooked as something that has a deep cultural meaning.



[1]“The Maori-Tattoo.” New Zealand in History. Accessed November 6, 2014. http://history-nz.org/maori3.html

[2]“Skin Stories: The Art and Culture of Polynesian Tattoo.” PBS. May 4, 2003. Accessed November 6, 2014.

[3] Higgins, Rawinia. “Story: Ta Moka- Maori Tattooing.” The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. August 13, 2013. Accessed November 6, 2014.

[4] “Skin Stories: The Art and Culture of Polynesian Tattoo.” PBS. May 4, 2003. Accessed November 6, 2014. 

[5] “Ta Moka.” 2007. Film Accessed http://www.nzonscreen.com/title/ta-moko-2007

[6] “Rihanna’s Maori Tattoo Helps Her Overcome past Pain.” The New Zealand Herald. October 11, 2013. Accessed November 28, 2014. http://www.nzherald.comnz/entertainment/news/article.cfm?c_id=150119&objectid=11138633