Tā moko - traditional Māori tattoo

“What’s special about tā moko is that they're not simply an image or design out of a book, but reflective of an individual's story,” says New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute (NZMACI) artist and tumu (head) of schools Arekatera Maihi.



The art form of tā moko – traditional Māori tattooing, has experienced a resurgence in recent decades among Māori and non-Māori, with more and more people wearing moko to tell their story.


"When you wear the moko, you wear the story,” says Arekatera.


"It is a record of a time in your life you want to acknowledge, a reference to the people you love, of events that have happened. It must mean something to the wearer.”


Tā moko was brought by Māori from their eastern Polynesian homeland. The implements and methods used are similar to those found in other parts of Polynesia.


Traditional tā moko is distinct from the tattoo because the skin is carved using uhi or chisels rather than punctured with needles, leaving the skin with grooves rather than a smooth surface.


The design of each moko is selected through korero (conversations) with the moko artist. Every symbol used has a meaning, representing an aspect of that person’s integrity, Māori identity and prestige, as well as a reflection of whakapapa (genealogy) and history.


“Moko is a visual language,” says Arekatera


"The hardest job for the moko artist isn't doing the work, for us it is winning someone over. We draw directly on the skin from our conversations, so they don't see a design first."


While tā moko, especially facial tā moko, sometimes attracted negative attention, Arekatera says there is now far more awareness and appreciation of the culture and meaning behind it.


"Growing up I saw maybe three people with facial moko, that was all. I think moko is safe now. I want to see it on the faces of our people, and I think the more we normalise it, the more comfortable non-Maori will be with our facial ta moko," he said.


"I think people have woken up to the fact that having a culture is awesome. Even for non-Māori that get moko, they have done their research and love the fact that moko means something."


Tā moko at NZMACI

A dedicated tā moko studio will open alongside the new Wānanga Precinct in April 2018. The new precinct will enrich the manuhiri (visitor) experience, enabling manuhiri to gain a more in-depth understanding of Māori material culture and the important role it plays in New Zealand.