Maori man with full moko tattoo
Maori man with full moko tattoo
Role of Tattoo
Tattoo Stories

Skin Stories: The Art and Culture of Polynesian Tattoo

Maori Chief Patara Te Tuhi.

Carving with Gunpowder: Moko in New Zealand

You may be robbed of all that you cherish. But of your moko, you cannot be deprived, except by death. It will be your ornament and your companion until your final day.

Netena Whakaari of Waimana, 1921
Polynesian settlers pulled their canoes onto the shores of New Zealand sometime before 1000 AD and settled into the rich lowlands of the North Island. They named their new home Aotearoa, Land of the Long White Cloud, to honor the snow-covered peaks that towered over them. By the 18th and 19th centuries, the Maori of New Zealand had created one of the most impressive cultures of all Polynesia. Their tattoo, called moko, reflected their refined artistry, ties to their land and their rank among their peers.

The first known contact between the Maori and Europeans in December 1642 ended in violence with the Dutch explorer Able Tasman losing four men in a skirmish. But when Captain James Cook sailed around the islands in October of 1769, the tumultuous relationship between Europeans and the Maori began in earnest. Some tribes made powerful alliances with the new settlers, acquired muskets from them, and by 1820s were staging bloody raids against each other. The price of one musket from the Europeans was four Maori heads, which were prized for their unique moko.

The Maori were master carvers, and the moko was often created by literally carving the skin with a chisel.
The full-face moko was a mark of distinction for Maori men, which communicated their status, lines of descent and tribal affiliations. It recalled their wearer's exploits in war and other great events of their life. The Maori chief Te Pehi Kupe said during a visit to England in 1826, "Europee man write with pen his name — Te Pehi's is here," pointing to his tattooed face.

The moko was often created by literally carving the skin with a chisel. The Maori were master carvers, creating fantastic and ornate carvings that graced their buildings, war implements, totems, and jewelry. Over time, they became moko artists, using their woodcarving skills to carve skin.

Traditional Maori puhoro.
Traditional Maori puhoro.

In addition to full-face moko, Maori men also wore puhoro, an intricate tattoo extending from mid-torso to the knees, which featured the characteristic design of a spiral on the buttock. Carving these spiral designs on the face took almost a year of painful and dangerous work. Natural pigments were added to the skin to accentuate the patterns. After the arrival of Europeans, gunpowder was widely used as pigment, and imported iron chisels allowed carvers to make more detailed but less traditional moko.

By the 1850s, the moko suffered under attacks from missionaries, who described it as "the Devil's art". The practice revived briefly during the 1860s Maori Wars as a statement of defiance against British colonization. The art of full-face moko for men continued to fade out of fashion through the following decades. But more women began to wear moko, usually under their mouths on their chin, to mark their passage into adulthood, commemorate a special occasion, and to beautify themselves. Needles replaced chisels, making the process less risky. By the 1920s, the last of the tattooed men had died, but many women continue to wear moko until the middle of the century.

Moko for women.
Moko for women.

Maori, along with other Polynesian peoples, believe that a person's mana, their spiritual power or life force, is displayed through their tattoo. The recent re-emergence of traditional Maori tattoo art is a mark that the Maori people have not lost their ties to their ancient past despite the dominance of European culture and values in New Zealand for the past two centuries. Their mana is again on display for all to see in their moko.