Moko, what kind of image appears when moko is mentioned, a native man in a far away country with a full facial tattoo, but how do we really see this form of decoration? And what does it mean to those who wear it?
The art of moko (Ta Moko, the art of Maori Tattooing) has been in the Maori culture for over a thousand years, and was to the Maori the first form of carving, it preceded wood carving, and the first wood carving designs were taken from moko patterns, the first documentation of moko was when Captain Cook landed in New Zealand, and great observations and studies were made of this unusual body decoration.
The art of moko today is appreciated, feared, and displayed in ways never before seen, it is a true tribal art form, a very spiritual experience and more, the Maori have always seen moko as their cultural identity, and are very adament about keeping the art alive, the tribal elders are encouraging the resurgence of the art.
First I will try and explain what it means for a person to have a moko done, and what type of moko is appropriate, and later in this article I will explain more about the histories of moko, and it's cultural significance.
The resurgence of moko in the 90's has bought with it a lot of misconceptions, the most common being that moko is done primarily on the face, and to the extent that any particular design can be done on any part of the body, moko patterns used in specific areas of the body, and depending on use with other patterns can and do represent different meanings, and were originally used as identification, rank, geneaology (whakapapa) and tribal history, the full facial feature tattoos were only intended for males (but not always full facial designs), and women were only permitted to have the lips lower chin, and on occasion the nostrils, (the design represents life, or the first breath taken by a new born baby), other parts of the body were tattooed but only in certain tribes, the legs were often tattooed with puhoro (meaning agility or speed) and women were also tattooed in the pubic area.
The significance of moko is astounding, to the maori, it is and always has been their cultural heritage, and taboo for any other person outside of the tribe to bear the markings of moko, the moko from each tribe had certain significance, and although there are similarities, no two are alike, and no moko can ever be duplicated for another persons use, each descendancy tattoo was based on the original design with alterations made, usually this was done with female moko (wahine moko or whakatehe, the chin designs) this design was almost always an adaption of the wearers descendant's tattoo, their parents, and small changes made to signify wether the person is of the third or second generation etc, and other changes were made to signify eligibility to marry and her position in the whanau (tribal family).
In todays culure, the maori are rediscovering their heritage, with the support of their whanau, and a need to find themselves and their identity, and in some cases, a need for spiritual fulfillment, and in these cases, many are turning towards the art of moko.
When a person decides to have a moko done, (not a decision made lightly) they will discuss their thoughts with the elders, their parents, and the tohunga, discussions will be made as to whether the person has earnt the right to wear moko, do they understand what is involved in wearing moko? And do they realise that the experience will change the way they see life, and the way that life sees them, and most importantly, are they committed to wearing their tribal identity on their body for the rest of their lives?
With much discussion, (anywhere up to 5-6 months or more) the design process starts, most important is the tribal history, as the design has to be approved by the Kaumatua (elders), the design has to represent the tribal history, the persons identity, and their position in the tribe, so a lot of work is involved in the design process, and not all designs are approved, many carry improper significance.
Once the design is approved, the preparation begins, the tattooee usually fasts and spends the day before with their family and friends singing karakias (prayers), the tattooing process is usually carried out either in a marae (tribal land) or the person's home, so all the family can be present to support, sing karakia, and retain a spirtual feeling and environment.
The tattooing process is almost always carried out in one session, with the person occasionally going into shock, but due to the spiritual experience, this can be perceived as part of the ritual to some.
The traditional form of moko was always applied with traditional tools, a rake like instrument, usually made of teeth or bone, and tap into the skin, then another flat edged blade used to tap in the dye, the dye was not applied directly with first strikes, as modern tattooing is done, the skin was first carved, then dye was forced into the cut flesh, creating not only a tattoo but a scarred chiseled effect as well, the tools used were uhi (flat blade) uhi matarau (comb chiseled blade) paatuketuke (wooden mallet) tae (dye), the modern tool of moko is understandably the tattoo machine, (mihini moko), this form of tattooing is widely accepted by the elders, as ta moko simply means to strike.
On to histories, and importantly mytholgoical beginnings, as the history of maori culture has never been lost, the keepers of information and history were women, mostly the story tellers, and the stories have been passed on from mother to daughter for centuries, and the beginnings of moko have a mythological beginning, as is true with most forms of cultural art.
Te Timatanga O Te Toi Moko, the myhology tells of the youngest sons of Rangi - Papatuanuku creating moko to memorialise the separation of his mother and father. The story progresses with Raumoko's grandson..Uetonga (the tohunga ta moko..expert tattooist of the Underworld) having a daughter...Niwareka, who desired to see the world of the men and women. While in the overworld she fell in love and married a man called Mataora.
It is he that we credit for bringing the art of moko to our world. When Mataora mistreated Niwareka, she returned to the underworld, filled with remorse, Mataora followed her, and came upon Uetonga before a ritual fire chiseling a moko on the face of a man. Mataora became ashamed of his painted moko when Uetonga wiped the painted pattern from his face, remarking that unlike the moko of the overworld, the moko of the underworld could not be removed.
Mataora asked Uetonga to forgive him of his treatment of his daughter and asked of he could receive a moko, Uetonga finally agreed and Niwareka, who was nearby, heard Mataora's song of lament as he sang of his love for her. The chisel cut deep into Mataora and although his face was covered in blood, Niwareka recognised him from his words. She forgave Mataora and after she cared for his wounds they returned to the land above.
As Aotearoa (land of the long white cloud...New Zealand) became inhabited by white settlers (pakeha) an almost unimaginable upsurge in moko began, traders wanting to take severed maori heads with moko back to foreign lands for display as the 'Primitive Markings' unfortunately, many chieftains, and war chiefs were beheaded, some wise maoris (those who valued their heads) managed to make deals with the traders for severed tattooed heads, they would tattoo the heads of slaves, and almost immediately decapitate them, what the traders did not realise is that the designs used for tattooing slaves were of no significance or meaning to the maori, for two reasons, slaves were not of a high enough rank in the tribe to wear moko, and it was considered taboo to cut off the head of a tattooed man, so unfortunately there are many severed tattooed heads with absolutely no meaning to the designs, the traders just took it for granted that the maori were so scared that they would sacrifice their own just to save themselves, a misconception never revealed at the time, the maori weren't a primtive race. In fact they were and still are a very productive race with a well organised society structure, and the fact that something as powerful as a tattoo was used for so many meanings in a great part of their culture is testament to the strength and spiritual unity of their society past and present.
In all moko will always be a great part of the maori heritage and culture, the new generations are learning about their roots, and about respecting their culture, ensuring it's survival, and with a person feeling the spirituality that was never realised before in their lives, moko will carry them into any challenge, any task, and into a life fulfilled with a culture all their own.
With thanks to Sharon Wills for her input and help with this article.