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Traditional Māori tattoos, known as tā moko, carry a lot of spiritual and mythical meaning. Discover the history and meaning of tā moko, and find out why the lines of a moko carved in skin represent much more than a tattoo.

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History of Maori Tattoos 

Actually, the practice of tattooing originated in prehistoric times, when people often paint on stone walls and trees. This technique was not much different from what we have in modern times: they used to stab or tear the skin with the help of a sharp object embedded in oil or permanent ink, made from plants, different powder or ash.

Why do they do that? Yes, like us, for cosmetic and decorative reasons, but also for more practical purposes such as distinguishing between the different ranks of members in a tribe.

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The word "tattoo" came as a lend word into English, the Polynesian word “tatau”, which was derived into “tattow” by colonizer Captain James Cook, after the naturalist Joseph Banks set out for the first time.

Actually, these two men marked the beginning of tattoos as an art form for the new world, when they discovered the designs of the Maori tribe people who brought their art to New Zealand. 

According to Maori myth, tattooing began with a love affair between a young man by the name of Mataora and a young princess of the underworld and daughter of a tohunga ta moko by the name of Niwareka. She wanted to discover the world above where she met Mataora. Niwareka fell in love with him and soon they married. Ta moko didn't exist in the world where Mataora lived so he wore designs painted on his body.

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One day he mistreated Niwareka and she left him running back to her father. Mataora filled with guilt and began to ransack his princess. When he finally found her, the paint on his face was messed and dirty. The people of the underworld, who had permanent paints on their bodies, laughed at him. Ashamed Mataoroa asked his father-in-law to teach him the art of ta moko. Niwareka eventually forgave him and finally, they returned together to the human world, bringing with them the knowledge of ta moko.

Meanings behind the motifs 

The significance and meaning of these design motifs seem to be a complex interference between high aesthetics and a visual language that emphasizes artistic excellence, identity, and role.

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Many design motifs are universal, especially the spiral elements that are applied to the nose, cheeks, and lower jaw, and the curved rays on the forehead and from the nose to the mouth. The remaining elements have been carefully selected to highlight and enhance individual features, giving meaning to Mataora expression, living face.

Moko can also point out the social status, the role, and expressions of identity though genealogy, but this remains unclear.

Reclaiming moko

The decreasing generation of kuia mokokuia moko tattooed, older female/women elders inspired a young group of artists and carvers following the 1970s protest movement to reclaim moko as a Unique expression of Māori identity.

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Combined with the interest of academics Michael King and the ongoing popularity of published works by Gottfried Lindauer and Charles Frederick Goldie, and colonial artists like George French Angas, it helped arouse the interest of a new generation in this unique and respectable art form.

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The 1980s saw the reincarnation of moko, but it wasn't until 1990, it really began to gain any real currency as an authentic art form and contemporary cultural practice.

But it really made progress in the 2000s. In the course of a single generation, a dedicated group of determined and courageous tohunga tā moko and tattoo practitioners reclaimed and revitalized the cultural practice of tā moko. The growing demand from young Māori and not-so-young Māori has ensured that moko is now an increasingly visible and accepted part of the New Zealand mainstream.

See more: 

The Best Maori Tattoo Collection  

How to Experience Maori Culture

Māori – One Of the Most Captivating Cultures In the World!

New Zealand article


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