Locums for a Small World Blog

Ta moko: Don't take this tattoo art at face value

Posted by Saralynn White

"You may lose your house, your wife and other treasures; but of your moko, you cannot be deprived except by death. It will be your ornament and companion until your last day." - Māori Netana Whakaari of Waimana

maori tongue face new zealand 123rfThe ancient art of tā moko, which seemed destined for oblivion, is again a declaration of native Māori identity and dignity—and these intricate facial tattoos are much more than decoration.

Once a sign of distinction reserved for those who were the most noble and accomplished, moko actually served maori arm thinkstockas an individual’s legal identity: During the 1800's, whenever one tribal chief named Te Pehi Kupe (also known as Tupai Cupa) was required to sign his name to a European document, he painstakingly drew his entire facial design. (Note this drawn-from-life portrait of the chief and a copy of one of his "signatures" from the 1820s.) Beyond identification and decoration, tā moko told a rich history of a person’s accomplishments and ancestry.

The twists, turns and spirals of the inked designs have both fascinated and frightened outsiders. It’s said that curiosity seekers during the 19th century traded gunpowder with the Māori for the tattooed heads of their dead warriors. The designs also brought scorn from foreigners who viewed them as primitive. 

new zealand maori arm 123rfToday, the sacred swirls and curvilinear designs adorn foreign celebrities like British pop star Robbie Williams and boxer Mike Tyson, and Māori are vigorously defending their claim over motifs they feel are being exploited.
Dr. Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, a Professor of Psychology at Waikato University, says: "Tā moko today is much more than a fashion statement - a passing fad - for Māori. It is about who we are, and whom we come from. It is about where we are going, and how we choose to get there. And it is about for always, forever."

Traditional tā moko is distinct from tattoo in that the skin is carved using uhi or chisels rather than punctured needles, leaving the skin with grooves rather than a smooth surface; whereas kirituhi, or “writing on skin” are markings that are simply inspired by Māori design.

Beyond celebrities adorning themselves with kirituhi, misrepresentation of the art form is only too common among international media and popular culture. The stereotypical “fierce” Māori face is repeatedly portrayed without any context. Facial moko is unfairly seen as intimidating, regardless of the wearer’s intentions.

Enter Kiwi artist Serena Giovanna Stevenson and her traveling exhibition called Face Value. Promoting a better understanding of this traditional art form was one of the many reasons Stevenson started this project in 2000. Today, Face Value conveys the universal intimacy of Māori facial moko through six personal stories - expressed through photography and film.

According to the exhibit’s website, the scenes in Face Value are of real people in their homes, familiar spaces, both indoors and outdoors. We experience the sincerity, human impulse and gaze of understanding passing through the eyes of one generation to the next – from grandfather to grandchild, daughter to mother and on and on. The images highlight the strength of human-to-human connection and how the exchange of facial moko is not possible without this deeply personal contact. It’s also about how unity in the world is impossible if we do not celebrate who we are and if we’re confined to judging each other by face value alone. The exhibition compels us to be drawn into the everyday space and profound moments before, during, and after the intensely personal process of tā moko. 

The resurgence of the art among Māori has also seen a revival of the use of uhi and an increasing number of practitioners, including women, who are learning the art. But fearing the ancient art could be doomed by the onslaught of Western culture, and concern about the practice of tā moko by non-Māori has also seen the establishment of Te Uhi a Mataora, a group that deals with issues surrounding the art form. If the process is followed properly, moko continues to mean what it has always meant. It is a symbol of Māori integrity, identity and prestige — as well as a reflection of their whakapapa (genealogy) and history.

If you want to learn more about this beautiful and meaningful art form don't miss our previous article: Tā moko: A right of passage for any New Zealand locum tenens, or visit the Māori website for culture, business and tourism. We also recommend the book, Maori Tattooing by H G Robley.

When you get to The Land of the Long White Cloud for your locum assignment, you’ll recognize the moko on the face of any Māori you meet for what it is: an undeniable declaration of who he/she is.


Topics: Maori Tattoo Art, Face Value Exhibition, Serena Giovanna Stevenson, Maori Tattoing, H G Robley, Ta Moko

Ta moko: A rite of passage for any New Zealand locum tenens

Posted by Saralynn White

Tattoos have been gaining in popularity nearly worldwide for a number of years now. In fact, the word “tattoo” - in all its iterations and translations - has been among the #1 searched beauty terms on the Internet since 2003.

Little did Captain James Cook know when he coined the word “tattow” in 1769 (the same year he discovered New Zealand), that the tattoo would become all the rage. We say the Māori tribes have always known that “skin is in.”

According to Māori mythology, tattooing (“tā moko”) commenced in the underworld, and their tattoos (“Moko”) are as unique to the wearer as their own fingerprints.

new zealand maori carving head thinkstockFor the Māori people, the moko was much more than decoration; it was a symbol of rank, status, genealogy,
tribal history, and eligibility to marry - not to mention strength, virility, and courage. You think those guys with full sleeves these days are macho? The needle method is child’s play compared to this. 

Tā Moko is carved into the skin, making incisions
(deep grooves) with a range of chisels ("uhi") made from bone (usually albatross), which are attached to a handle, then struck with a mallet (check out the video of Ta Mako below).

The “ink” is actually pigment made from the soot of vegetation like Kauri Gum, ngarehu (burnt timbers) or awheto - a caterpillar that mutates into a vegetable found on the floor of most native forests.

Tā moko generally started at puberty. The first moko marked a boy’s transition from childhood to adulthood, and was accompanied by a series of rites and rituals. Moko marked other milestone events in a Māori’s life, but it was also a way to immediately identify a Māori’s position of power and authority. All high-ranking Māori were tattooed, and those who went without tattoos were considered to be without status or worth.

new zealand maori statues 123rfDespite the painful application, moko art is beautiful and incredibly unique. Based on curved shapes and spirals, the designs are curvilinear, with intricate and distinct patterns. The warrior’s face was the most prevalent place for tā moko (the Māori considered the head to be the most sacred part of the body), though they generally also covered the legs and buttocks. Moko craftsmen carefully studied a person's bone structure before commencing his or her art, and full-face tattoos were very time consuming. In fact, a single piece could take months or even years to complete. Fasting was also part of the process - mostly because the face was so swollen they couldn’t eat!

Although moko was also intended to make a warrior more attractive to women, females were also tattooed - though usually only on the lips and chin. And while it’s no surprise that others have come to admire the beauty of tā moko, copying a pattern is very insulting to the Māori culture. Even if it’s done with respect, the Māoris believe copying is nothing short of identity theft

Tā moko (including the chisel) and many other Māori traditions are now experiencing a revival in New Zealand. While you locum Down Under, don’t miss Rotorua. This heartland of Māori culture is a must-see experience where you can be an eyewitness to the deeply moving expressions of all-things Māori; see legends brought to life through music, art, and dance (like the famous haka); and even witness a little Moko in the making. We don’t expect you’ll come away with a Māori tattoo of your own, but who knows, some people don’t leave their home-away-from home without one…

Watch tā moko in progress in this video:



Topics: Ta Moko, Rotorua, Maori, Tattoo, Haka

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Twice a month, our inquisitive locum tenens community asks us to tackle topics ranging from cuisine and culture to recreation and entertainment. We also include great storytelling from our doctors. Have a topic you’d like to read about? Let us know.

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