Ta moko, also known as Maori tattoo, is the process of marking the body & face and moko is the product of the marking. Most of the written records describing Maori facial tattoos date back only to the late 18th through the 20th centuries, but archeologists found out that the practice existed long before the arrival of Europeans. The appearance of a fully tattooed face was strikingly unusual for people of Western traditions.
Ta Moko in the 19th
After the establishment of New Zealand as a British colony, male facial tattooing began to decline. It resurged during the wars against the Europeans, when the second Maori King encouraged young warriors to take the moko. Lack of war, religious and social atmosphere which didn’t help continuation of the old ways, should have led to the absolute abandonment of tattooing. This was the case for male moko. Yet, female moko actually increased in importance, even as male moko declined. The male moko was the key in emphasizing the social importance in the tribe; once they put away their weapons, women began to mark “the genealogical or social importance of family” by getting facial tattoos. The moko contained information about a person’s lineage, occupation, tribe, rank and exploits. They were unique to each individual and told about their life and history.
Tohungas, or tattoo artists were specialists and high status persons. The word “tohunga” refers to a “expert and learned man.” The act of shedding blood from the head required the skill and status of an expert tohunga. The facial tattoo involved chiseling a design into the skin. The instrument used to “carve” into the face was called an Uhi, made out of bone, shark’s tooth, or later metal, which was attached to the piece of carved wood. Designs were tapped into the skin by striking the uhi with a mallet. The pain of the operation, which often lasted many hours, was agonizing. The worst pain occurred in the following days of the procedure, during which the entire face was swollen, in some cases the vision was lost for some period of time. The loss of blood and risk of infection was high. Death was a significant danger. In addition, no medical treatments existed to offer relief from the pain of the operation. Due to the extreme pain, risk of infection, and loss of blood, facial tattoos were done over a long period of time. Interesting fact is that tattooing was a strictly tabooed ritual. The operation of the moko would be held in a space that was kept apart from common area. Blood was believed to be very sacred as the head was the most blessed part of the body. The tattooed person, as well as the tohunga, was not allowed to touch their face or any food, nor communicate with anyone who was not in the restricted state. Special instruments were used for eating and drinking. After the procedure was finished, the person who got tattoo abstained from sex and washing for several days until the tattoo began to heal. At the end of the ceremony a collective ritual – feast was held. Today most ta moko is done using a modern tattoo machine, but there has also been a revival of the chisel usage.