Ta Moko: The Mark of the Māori

Ta Moko: The Mark of the Māori

Mar 28, 2014|Cultural| by administrator


The Māori people of New Zealand have a distinct way of identifying themselves with outsiders and among each other: with tattoos. Tattooing, or ta moko, has been a large part of Māori culture for centuries. While its exact origins are unknown, the art of ta moko came from Eastern Polynesian culture. Before the needle was introduced, ta moko instruments consisted of uhi chisels made of bone that would carve directly into the skin, leaving grooves rather than smooth skin. As such, the ta moko process was long and painful, taking as long as a year for a piece to be completed. Various tattoos and their placement  have specific meanings. Because the Māori believe the head is the most sacred part of the body, here are some of the most common face moko among Māori men:

1. Ngakaipikirau: This tattoo is placed in the center of the forehead and signifies a man's rank.

2. Ngunga: Etched around the brows, this tattoo represents one's position in society passed down from the first or second line of descent.

3. Uirere: This one is carved onto the center of the face, around the eyes and nose area. Uirere inidcates one's hapu rank, meaning the subtribe or clan, which includes extended family.

4. Uma: Displaying one's rank by first or second marriage, uma is normally tattooed on the temples of the head.

5. Raurau: Covering the area under the nose, this tattoo represents a person's signature, political standing, and personal rank through birth, war, or oratory.

6. Taiohou: Symbolizing one's occupation or work, the tattoo is found in the middle of the cheek and upper jaw.

7. Wairua: This chin tattoo identifies personal mana. Mana refers to the demonstration of authority over a piece of land or group of people.

8. Taitoto: Finally, the jaw is inked as a symbol of birth status or succession of rank.

Women may also practice ta moko, but it's mainly limited to the area of the chin, lips, and above the lips. Occasionally, some women obtained moko between their eyes, buttocks, genitals, back, and legs. Because these marking hold such personal significance about an individual, when people who are not Māori get moko designs tattooed on themselves, it is actually offensive and considered identity theft. Celebrities like Robbie Williams, Ben Harper, and even Rihanna have experienced backlash because of their Māori-inspired tattoos. While ta moko is not practiced as often as it once was, there has been a resurgence of it as a sign of cultural identity among Māori descendents. And although the needle is now the preferred choice for tattooing, many people opt for the more traditional form with an uhi, and more women are participating in tattooing as well.