Tā moko – the Māori art of tattooing

Tā moko is the art of marking the face and body permanently. It is similar to tattooing, but whereas with a tattoo the skin is punctured with a needle, with Tā moko the skin is carved by chisels. Having a body a face covered in Tā moko was seen as a sign of status. It was also used to make people more attractive to the opposite sex.

640px-David_Ramirez_from_San_Mateo,_CA,_USAA Māori tattoo artist it called a tohunga tā moko. Each moko is unique to the wearer and contains ancestral tribe messages that tell of the wearer’s family, tribe, and place in the social structure, as well as their genealogy, knowledge, and social standing. For the Māori, a facial moko is the ultimate statement of their identity. As the head is seen as the most sacred part of the body, displaying a moko on your face is seen a declaration of who you are.

Both men and women get moko, but not the same design and not in the same places.

Wai ngārahu

This is the name for the pigment used. The pigment was derived from charcoal from resinous trees in the area. Other names for this pigment are kauri kāpia and ahi tā moko, māpara, kāpara or awe kāpara, or ruangārehu.


This is the traditional name for the chisels the Māori use. They are primarily made from the bones of seabirds and are finely crafted. The flat-bladed chisels used to carve into the skin were called Uhi kōhiti and the serrated chisels used to add the pigment were called uhi matarau.


By World War I, the Māori were using needles instead of chisels to apply the moko. Using needles meant the whole process was quicker, was less painful, and led to quicker healing. Some traditionalists despise this technique, but it remained popular. These days moko are even applied using a tattoo machine.

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