Unfortunately, the Maori did not keep written history, so what historians know of the moko in early times comes from archeology, from the accounts of the first Europeans to encounter the Maori and from the oral histories of the Maori themselves. Michael King asserts in Moko: Maori Tattooing in the 20th Century (1972) that Maori legend attributes Mataroa with introducing the art of moko. He visited the underworld with his face painted in charcoal and returned with it permanently etched on his skin.
G. H. Robley in Maori Tattooing (originally published in 1896) states that Abel Tasman and his men, the first Europeans to reach New Zealand, did not describe the Maori they encountered as having tattoos. Robley considers this to be evidence that the Maori developed the art form later, during the 125 years before Captain Cook’s arrival.
According to Maori mythology, tattooing commenced with a love affair between a young man by the name of Mataora (which means Face of Vitality) and a young princess of the underworld by the name of Niwareka. One day however, Mataora beat Niwareka, and she left Mataroa, running back to her father’s realm which was named “Uetonga”.
Mataora, filled with guilt and heartbreak followed after his princess Niwareka. After many trials, and after overcoming numerous obstacles, Mataora eventually arrived at the realm of “Uetonga”, but with his face paint messed and dirty after his voyage. Niwareka’s family taunted and mocked Mataora for his bedraggled appearance.
In his very humbled state, Mataora begged Niwareka for forgiveness, which she eventually accepted. Niwareka’s father then offered to teach Mataora the art of tattooing, and at the same time Mataora also leant the art of Taniko – the plaiting of cloak borders in many colours. Mataora and Niwareka thus returned together to the human world, bringing with them the arts of ta moko and taniko.
Maori Tattoos Post Colonization:
While today, the terms moko and tattoo are used interchangeably (and in fact, the term moko is usually used today to describe only female chin tattoos), originally the Maori moko was created using a chisel which cut into the flesh, leaving a distinctive deep grove. Early European visitors to New Zealand seemed fascinated by the moko, and Robley noted that it was quickly realized that the older and more distinguished the person, the more tattoos they were likely to have.
Due to the individuality of Maori moko, they were used as a signature for deals such as land sales, with the signer carefully copying out either a part, or his whole facial pattern onto the contract. Robley also describes taking ‘tracings’ of the tattoos, something that was only possibly because of their deep grooves.
A curious trade sprang up, due to the Maori custom of drying the heads of their enemies or their dearest loved ones after they died as a sign of prestige and honor. European museums wanted these heads, particularly the tattooed ones, to display, and were willing to pay for them. Often the heads they received had been tattooed after death, as the Maori quickly realized how to exploit this fascination with heads they didn’t themselves hold in high esteem.
Eventually, as colonization continued, the custom of moko began to die out. First the chisels became metal, replacing traditional materials. Then, the process of needle tattooing, with its obvious advantages in hygiene and lessened trauma were adapted. King considers both the decline of organized warfare and the trade in dried heads as factors that devalued the moko. The traditional ways of tattooing completely died out by the 1950s.
For many years, traditional Maori moko survived only in gang tattoos and gang culture such as those shown in the 1994 film Once Were Warriors and among noble elderly women who held fast to the traditions of the past. Te Ruki says they wore moko as a sign of protest, a reminder to New Zealand that its original inhabitants hadn’t gone away, despite the impoverishment of the Maori people and their culture.
But in the 1990s, agreement began between the New Zealand government and the Maori over financial compensation for the land and sea taken from the Maori, covered by the Treaty of Waitangi. This was a major turnaround for the Maori people, and interest in all traditional art forms came alive as a result. Ta moko is the crowning glory of that resurgence, says Te Ruki.
The renewal of interest in ta moko is today expanding from individuals to families to sub-tribes and then up to big chiefs. People usually go through a lengthy process of asking their extended family for support, according to ta moko artist Te Rangitu Netana. This is because each tribe has its own patterns, designs, stories and history. Wearing moko helps people connect to their heritage and to a larger group, he says. It’s also popular with expatriate Maori who want to reconnect with their roots.