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Maori Ta Moko – A Ritual of Passage (A Study of Tattoing)

February 21, 2012

In the Maori society of New Zealand, there is a more than two-thousand year old custom called Ta Moko.  Ta Moko is the process of what we would traditionally call tattooing (tattoo being a derivative of the Samoan word ‘tatau’, which described the sound of the tattooing process), and was a signature part of the Maori culture.  Everyone, men and women alike, had some sort of Moko and each had great significance within the culture.

The roots of the Moko are in Maori mythology, where the son of the Earth and Sky took on a Moko to mark the separation of his mother and father at the creation of the world.

Originally, it is said that a less permanent version of Moko was used in battle and that eventually the permanent version came in to alleviate the trouble of reapplying it with each battle.  Each design was completely unique and no Moko was done twice.  The Moko spoke of many different things about a Maori man or woman.  It signified rank, social status, work, skills, special achievements, eligibility to be a warrior, chief or priest, eligibility to marry and bear children, and the virtues of courage, strength and power.  Through the Moko you could know everything about a person, and each Moko was designed specifically towards that end.  For example, each division within each tribe had a specific Moko.  As you ascended to head of the tribe there was a Moko there.  Different generations of the same tribe had slightly different Mokos.  The Moko also came to be used to sign documents.  A person would write down his entire design as his mark.  A person without Moko was called a ‘papatea’, meaning ‘plain-face’.  These people were outcasts.

As a rite of passage, the Maori used Ta Moko for both male and female initiation.  For males it was a sign of readiness for adult duties, marriage, reproduction and fighting.  It also showed his attractiveness, and in a song sung during the ceremony there is talk of how females will want to do things to serve him after receiving his Moko.  For females, it was mostly a sign of strength, fertility and beauty.  However, within the tribe, the female Moko also designated speaking rights.  The ceremony was overseen by a ritual Elder, the Tohunga Ta Moko.  This was always a male and he most always worked with an assistant/apprentice.  The whole ceremony and preparation was ’tapu’, or sacred.  Before a person could get a Moko, he had to be approved by parents, tribe, and elders.  This deliberation would last for months.  It was necessary to determine whether the initiate understood the Moko’s significance, how it would change their status in the tribe, how it would change their views of the world and of the tribe’s views of them, the permanence and the spiritual value.  Every time there was a new design desired, it had to be approved by all, since it spoke very specifically about the individual and his relation to the tribe.  To prepare for the ceremony there is fasting and time spent with the family singing prayers, called ’karakias’.  The Moko is done on ceremonial land or in the person’s house.  All of the family would be there to support and keep a spiritual air in the environment through the karakias.

The Tohunga had a very elaborate setup for the ritual.  It was usually to be carried out in one sitting, but could take longer.  The Tohunga was the shaman of the tribe.  He had a very high rank and was often given special living quarters and offered many gifts.  He was the master of the craft and he was also a healer.  He had special knowledge of all designs and is often the one who would decide what Moko should be done given the circumstance and who is ready.  Because of the high demand of his work, his great rewards and his elevated status within the culture, it was often expect that he remain unmarried and freed from any permanent relationships.  The Tohunga was under many restrictions to stay spiritually eligible for his duties.

During the ceremony, there were many tools used by the Tohunga.  Foremost was the ‘uhi’, which was a chisel usually made from a piece of albatross bone.  There was also a mallet made of maire wood and a carved pumice or wooden pot to hold the ‘awe kapara’, or pigment.  These pots were treasured heirlooms.  Also used and highly prized were the ‘korere’.  These were funnel shaped feeding tubes for broth and water.  These were decorated and ornamented and were used primarily to avoid contact with the Tohunga.  Great lengths were taken to assure all parts of the ceremony remained untainted.  No food could be taken by the Tohunga, and food was only given to the initiate at appropriate times by others.  The healing process was very important.  Pure spring water, ‘wai Maori’, was considered the essential cleaning agent.  There was also the karaka leaf, which is used today for wounds and infections in the Maori tribes.  After the process was completed, care was taken not to taint the Moko through intimate contact until it was completely healed.  Also, it was said that the person should not look at his reflection.

After receiving his Moko, a man could then act in accordance with what it signified.  He could become a  husband, leader, warrior or start other work.  If a boy were to become a chief it was required that he not cry out or show other signs of pain during the ritual.  As stated earlier, this was not a one-time process.  Ta Moko continued throughout a person’s life.  The Maori had Moko over their entire bodies and each area had special significance.  This practice was lost during colonialization in the mid-1800’s and was resurrected during the Maori resurgence of the late 1980’s.  Today, the methods used for Moko are more similar to how we tattoo today and the meaning is not nearly as strong.  Sadly, as is all too often the case, much of the knowledge has been lost.  Today, many are working to preserve what is left to the greatest degree possible and pass it on to future generations.


University of Pennsylvania museum of archaeology and anthropology.  Retrieved May, 2004 from


Maori and their tattoos.  Retrieved from


Pbs Skin Stories (2003).  Retrieved from


Kopua, Mark (2001).  Retrieved from


Tattoo Archive (2003).  Maori Moko.  Retrieved from

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