Ta-moko is the art of (primarily) facial tattooing as practised by the Maori tribes of New Zealand. It is belived to have originated in Polynesia and to have migrated to the island, where its use was elevated from merely being used primarily for denotation of communal and family rank, to a fine art. Each persons moko is so distinctive that they were used in place of a seal by some non-literate tribal chiefs and, although all westerners claimed they all looked the same, other Maori chiefs instantly recognized these "signatures" and acknowledged them as authentic.

Tattooing amongst the Maori tribes was most predominantly a male activity. All tattooing was done in total silence, by male specialists, (tobungata-moko). Before beginning the ta moko process, the specialist would consider the recipients bone structure, and other facial attributes. Unique differences in some individuals' features would be incorporated in the design. Since these specialists were not bound by a single village, tribe, or even localized by region, styles are more bound by cultural areas, or pre-historic regions

Although normally restricted to the face, some Maori had moko on their bodies, usually between the waist and knees. These tattoos sometimes used red and blue inks as well as the tradiational black. Male body moko was generally completed while the person was still a youth. In both sexes the body moko was used as a marking of the achievement of puberty as well as to commemorate other rites of passage and personal achievements. This practice did apply across genders, although less common amongst women.

The Maori body tattoo on both men and women were closely paralleled to what is commonly referred to as ‘Rafter Painting.' The body moko involved both swirling spirals on the buttocks and oblique and angular designs on the thighs and upper legs. This design is reminiscent of tattooing designs of other South Seas Island cultures, however the double spiral is most commonly associated with traditional Maori designs. Rafter designs are found on the rafters of meeting houses, as well as other items, such as gourds and canoe paddles.

In contrast to the puncture technique used in body moko, the facial moko used an entirely different tool. Resembling the carving of curvilinear designs into wood, the facial moko was carved with a different type of chisel. A finely honed bone chisel with a sharp cutting edge was used after the design was drawn onto the face using charcoal. This chisel incised textural lines into the face then a serrated type of this instrument was used to apply the pigment, which was produced by burning vegetable caterpillars, the bark or resins of the kapara tree to create an indigo blue-black, or greenish black colour.

The mythic origins of moko are related in the tale of the young human being Mataora, whose name translates to "Face of Vitality." In his youth Mataora fell in love with princess Niwareka, whose father Uetonga ruled the underworld. Mataora had a foul temper and was prone to beating his spouse. After one such beating episode she decided to run away and return to her family in the underworld. Repenting, Mataora followed her to the underworld in an attempt to get her to forgive him, and return home with him. It was a long and difficult journey, and Mataora took many wrong trails before finally finding the correct one. When he finally arrived at the home of Niwarekas family his face paint was all spoiled, which caused his in-laws to laugh at him, and mock him. Finally he persuaded the family to let him meet Uetonga, whose face was engraved with a myriad of curving finely chiseled lines. Eventually Niwareka gave in to his begging for forgiveness, and agreed to return with him. Before they departed the underworld Uetonga offered to tattoo Mataora, and teach him how to place the tattoos on others. While Mataora mastered the skills of tattooing, Niwareka acquired the skills of taniko, or weaving. She eventually became so proficient at this that she was able to weave beautiful multi colored cloak borders. Together the pair returned to the world of humankind, each bringing back these newly acquired skills. That is the legend of how the Maori acquired the treasures of ta moko and taniko.

The importance of ta-moko to Maoris can be shown by the following quote :

"You may be robbed of all your most-prized possessions; but of your moko you cannot be deprived"

The legend section of this w/u was taken from the Maori Tattooing article on http://www.waycool.on.ca/news/MOKO.htm

Ta-moko (or sometimes just Moko) is the name for the facial tattooing practiced by the Maoris (aboriginal New Zealanders).

On the wane for most of the 20th century, the practice has recently enjoyed something of a revival, partly due to a tribal reawakening, and (inter-related), a movie called Once Were Warriors (1995). The designs are marked into the skin by using traditional tools (a small hammer and sharpened combs), or (today more usual) electric tattoo machine to tap in an ink or dye.

The moko can cover just the chin, or the whole face. The designs have been handed down over centuries - there are designs specific to gender, they also indicate tribal affiliations and status within the tribe.

Unfortunately, 'tribal' tattooing has been triggering 'kewl alarms' in the West, and some wannabes have ended up with (a) wildly inappropriate mokos they can't get rid of (short of laser treatment), and (b) ire from genuine Maoris who resent seeing their cultural heritage ripped off.

Just a reminder, (and I'll shout it out loud) - TATTOOS ARE PERMANENT! Yes, they're great; no, they don't wash off.

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