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The Moko

b>Note: at the end of this article is a rebuttal

I saw an ad for Polaroid recently that consisted of a polaroid picture

of a guy with a full facial moko (as well as a bald head and what appears to be at least a 4 ga hoop through his earlobe). The copy is a dialogue between two parents about their daughter's new boyfriend, the picture of whom they were about to receive, and about how maybe they should invite him to Thanksgiving. Now, the implications of this ad are obvious; won't the parents be shocked and dismayed to see the boyfriend their freshman, previously football-player-dating daughter brings home.

Modern western society fears such body art for many reasons.  First,

it's in our tradition to fear that with which we are not familiar. We, as a society, aren't self-assured and confident enough to not fear that which made warriors fearsome for hundreds of years. Also, we associate this type of totally visible expression with an underlying destructive alternative lifestyle (sadomasochism, Satanism, ritual bloodletting, maybe a few cop-killings thrown in for good measure). People fear the "hate tribe" of modern primitives just as they automatically fear skinheads. It's easier to hate the implications of the unknown than to ask and find out that, unaccompanied by a swastika carved into the forehead, a skinhead is very likely to be a member of the completely nonviolent counterculture whose only real enemy is hair. And similarly, it's much easier to avoid a salesgirl with a spike coming out of her labret than to find out that the hate tribe is a group of people who are so directly and deeply offended by the state of ruination and complete absence of common decency in today's society (inclusive of all aspects; government on down to the local Cumberland Farms), that they intrusively and painfully decorate themselves in protest, as a visual representation of what most people choose not to even talk about. My point is, people fear the curious, and are just as inwardly self-destructive as the alternative are outwardly in their suppression of that fear, and consequent hatred.

But if we were to travel about five thousand miles, Polaroid in hand,

we'd soon come across a set of Maori parents, ecstatic at the virtues of this potential young suitor. For the Maori of New Zealand, the only eligible partner would be one with the moko. To have this form of facial tattooing was to hold status as a warrior, or even a chief. One without was a papatea, a plainface, a nobody. I'm going to speak of the methods used for the procedure, the genders respectively, and then the underlying cultural significance, in my discussion of the meaning behind the modification.

The moko profession is old and honorable.  The tattooer learned as an

apprentice, practicing on slaves and commoners. Once attaining expert status, their services were secured by gifts of guns, clothes, canoes, and slaves. Slaves practiced in the art would immediately be freed (it should be recognized here that slaves usually consisted of prisoners of inter-tribal entanglements, not of any concentrated "inferior" race). A renowned artist may be so highly regarded as to warrant value placed upon skin bearing his artwork. People would actually buy it and preserve it, much as a collector today would acquire art in various forms.

There were two kinds of instruments used for the procedure.  One was a

small, toothed bone, and the other was a sharp, single-pointed instrument. The blade here also was made of bone and attached to a wooden handle, in all reminiscent of a chisel. The pigment was made by burning several different kinds of wood, or sometimes the vegetable caterpillar, in a small kiln. The soot was collected and mixed with dog fat (an off-color note here, either the mixture was used as is, or it was fed to a dog and the resulting feces was kneaded and used). The pattern was traced on with charcoal and water, and the instrument was either dipped in the pigment, or the artist held some pigment between his thumb and forefinger. The blood is wiped away with a piece of flax, a wooden spatula, or the end of the instrument.

Women of the tribe are tattooed, in general, around the mouth and on

the chin. This sometime extends to include each side of the nose, the space between the eyes, and also, occasionally, body art such as between breast and navel, on the hands and arms, on the thigh, and the back of the legs, calf to heel (although some were tattooed the same as men). Full blue lips were considered the epitome of Maori female beauty. In general, however, women were decorated about the lips and chin only. They were decorated to be made desirable partners, since just about every tribal culture considers one of the primary functions of women to be marriage and, ultimately, reproduction. It was said that they retained their youth in this fashion, that "naked" faces appeared shriveled, old, and ugly. A recurring theme in just about every culture that practices some form of body modification is the judging of the suitability of a girl to give birth by her pain threshold during the ritual.

Women were tattooed according to standards of beauty and to better

their marriage prospects, and men were tattooed according to their rank. Slaves and commoners received only minor tattoos, if any. One reason for this is that these people couldn't afford to go through the pampering of the healing period when certain taboos (as well as pain) restricted them from feeding themselves, and necessitated a feeding tube for them to eat at all. Other taboos included the forbidding of all communication with people not involved in the process, and how the tattoo-ee could only be touched by the tattooer to the point where he wasn't permitted to touch his own tattooed head.

Chiefs, warriors, and free men who could afford the process and the

temporary sacrifices involved received full moko. As with the women, the realm of the art at times extended to include the upper trunk and from thigh to knee. The completed face is covered with spiral scrolls, circles, and curved lines, with the lines and curves following the directions of the natural lines and indentations in the face. The tattoo would extend from the throat to the roots of the hair, and all hair in the way was removed before the procedure (and the man kept clean-shaven afterwards). The forehead consisted of a series of bars radiating out from a v-shaped center. The nose was the central ornament as the most prominent feature on the face, and had spirals at the bridge and nostrils and at the tip. From the nose to the chin were three to four sets of lines passing around the corners of the mouth. On the upper lip were various patterns, all scrolled horizontally. The cheek and the jaw might be decorated with spirals, and the chin was left mostly up to the artist's discretion. One distinctive feature of moko is that no two designs were ever alike, so all possible variations on these common elements are utilized. What makes moko so impressive and awe-inspiring is the balance and symmetry of design, and the minute accuracy in detail. Also, the way that the spirals and curved lines echo the curvilinear shape of the human body is a wonderful design element. Some tribes had specific designs for things like wood and textile decoration, and others for tattoos, and it seems that this would be the reason.

The function of the tattoo for the warrior was not only an expression

of societal status, but also as a conspicuous and frightening warning to the enemy, possibly about what a man who could endure having his lips tattooed could endure in battle, and also as camouflage to provide an element of surprise in the attack. And should the moko fail as inspiring fear, then it served to guarantee fame after death. The untattooed and the slaves were discarded, but a head with an impressive moko would be cut off and preserved on a pole. In the wars of the mid-1800s, the process evolved of trading the preserved, decapitated heads to sailors for guns and supplies. The sailors who kept souvenirs like these heads were the same ones who adopted tattooing techniques and brought it to the western world. These heads were also negotiation pieces in post-war peace negotiations. It was an important tribute to have one's head embalmed after death. It was mostly the chiefs and great warriors who were so honored, and the heads were cured over a fire and kept as a memorial by the descendants.

It's interesting to note that above all, moko was associated primarily

with war. This reflects its origins in ritual face-painting for going into battle. Eventually, the people seemed to decide that a permanent marking was more effective, and then to glean other meaning and symbolism from the practice.

The moko retained an important function in the afterlife.  The Maori

have a tradition that actually is common in many traditions all over the world. They believe that after death, elaborate facial tattoos would be consumed by a death hag who stood over the threshold of death. If she found tattoos to eat, she would pass her hand over the eyes of the person, imbuing them with the vision to find their way to the next world, but if they had no tattoos, she would eat their eyeballs, blinding the soul for all eternity. Similarly, the Newar of Bhaktapur, India, would use their tattoos as currency in heaven, just as the Ekoi of Nigeria would use scars. The Dyak depended on their tattoos to light the long dark passage to find their ancestors in the Apo-Kesio (the afterlife). And to the Sioux, tattoos were their passports to the land of the dead. I mention these similarities because of the incredible geographic differences in these native, cultural beliefs. One is tempted to take a Jungian approach to this problem. Insofar as Jung discusses our archetypal need to create a savior figure for ourselves, it fits that he might say that we also as humans depend on myths for the afterlife, and things that we might do in life to insure safe passage.

Among all of its other functions, perhaps the most important (and

certainly the most useful in daily life) purpose the moko served was one of personal signature, or identity. Maoris believed that a moko imprinted one's personality upon his face. That's part of the reason that it was an act of reverence not only to keep the head of a deceased relative, but also to emulate his moko style. This brought onto that member of the newer generation traits like those honored in his ancestor. The moko was so closely associated with the personality of the bearer that chiefs used it as a signature, reproducing the design without aid of a mirror onto deeds and treaties, instead of resorting to the more typical "x" to cross the language barrier.

This idea of the moko as representative of the entire identity is

enhanced with consideration of the nature of the moko. To be tattooed is to subject oneself wholly to the person performing the operation. One who is adorned with any type of body art is aware of the invasive, penetrative violence to the body in this situation, especially in the extremely sensitive areas. This explains several things: why the artist is so respected, and his favor almost courted, why it is such an ultimate accomplishment, signifying maturity, bravery, and even sexuality, and why so many feel that their tattoos are sort of a mask of their face tattooed onto their face. To endure such a trial is to become one with the product. You might say that these men felt towards their moko like women felt towards their newborn children. Tattooing masks vulnerability of an untattooed body. For this reason, there were some people in the stratification who were above tattooing. Priests were allowed one small blotch under the right eye, but some higher beings of spirituality were completely above receiving tattoos, both because their true personality required no mask, and because it was below them and their situation, both from their standpoint and from the standpoint of those who honored them, to endure trials and have pride in this endurance.

The idea of the mask is important, and for that reason I'm going to

tell briefly of the great warrior chief, the Puketapu (Taranaki) chief Rawiri te Motutere who died in the 1860s. He had a beautiful, elaborate moko, and he also had an exceedingly light complexion for a Maori. To protect both of these, he traveled and attended special festive occasions wearing a mata-buna mask, made of thin, strong hue-gourd rind and decorated exactly like his moko. He wore the mask fastened in the back with flax cords, and with black and white feathers adorning the sides and top. This wearing of the mask of the moko illustrates the nature of the moko as a mask. In Tattoo, Torture, Mutilation, and Adornment, my point is emphasized (albeit in an overwhelmingly dark, negative fashion by working in assumed absolutes instead of norms) by this statement:

In its power to convert, denaturalize, and defamiliarize the body, this form of tattoo evokes horror at the body's instability, its ultimate inability to serve as a concrete ground of identity.

In other words, the moko is fearsome to the enemy aesthetically,

horrifically, but also on an individual level where it makes the enemy question himself and the endurance level and actual tolerance level of his own body. While tradition and sociology render a body quasi-invincible by a body modification, there are particular instances that make one question. An example of this is one culture I came across in my reading that, at the end of the tattooing ritual, calls for the plunging of a knife into the new tattoo. And, according to this source, the point of the knife snaps off every time. This source went on to say that, as with all talismans and charms and rites, nothing is a perfect guarantee, but that being in possession of something intended to ward off a specific event or conclusion rather tips the scales in your favor.

Even moko's origins in temporary war-paint proves my point further.

Moko is the logical conclusion to a tradition which made its warriors brave, fearsome, and possessing of a confidence which their moko could reinforce every time they saw their reflection. And, when a tradition has gone so far as to already signify male prowess, women are built into the picture with their own version in the female context.

To sum up, I quote from The Decorated Body:

Their tattooing was central to their whole aesthetic outlook and to their appreciation of the beautiful body. It was closely associated with their sexual attitudes and their relationship to the natural and supernatural world.



Brain, Robert. The Decorated Body. Harper & Row, Publishers, New York: 1979.

Eichler, Lillian. The Customs of Mankind. Nelson Doubleday, Inc., New York: 1924.

Edited by Mascia-Lees, Frances E., and Sharpe, Patricia. Tattoo, Torture, Mutilation, and Adornment: The Denaturalization of the Body in Culture and Text. State University of New York Press, Albany: 1992. Mead, Margaret. The Maoris and Their Arts. The American Museum of Natural History, New York: 1928.

Spradley, James P., and McCurdy, David W. Conformity and Conflict. Little, Brown and Company, Boston: 1971.

Web Sites:

Delio, Michelle. Voodoo Tattoo: The Magical Powers of Skin Art. originally published in Tattoo Savage.
http://ally.ios.com/~powmia19/vdutat2a.htm April, 1997.

Penfold, Meimeri. Te Kuia Moko. http://www.bmezine.com/culture/cc/cc022.html April, 1997.



From: Brad Giles <psykoart@ihug.co.nz> Organization: Custom Skin Body Art Subject: Moko Article


I have just read through the article about moko, and I was wondering who wrote the article and where the person got their information from. I found quite a few discrepencies and un-truths in the article, and I would like to clear these up, I'm not trying to be picky about mispronounciations or anything minor like that, it's just that being a New Zealander and a Tattoo Artist (and also with Maori heritage) I sorta feel upset when articles about our history aren't correct, I actually thought that the article would do moko injustice.

My main points are the stated facts, that moko was taught to apprentices who learned on slaves and traded for guns, etc, which is very un-true and demeaning, the art of moko has been with the Maori culture for well over a thousand years, and was the first form of carving, (moko patterns were originally used on wood carvings) and the moko artist was regarded almost as highly as a cheif and definitley wealthier, but the presentation of gifts such as greenstone, feather cloaks were used as payment, not guns (truth be known, Maori's were forbidden to have guns when they were introduced by european settlers and the Maori hardly ever used them in battle when they did have them, their most powerful weapon was the tai-aha, the spear).

It's hard for people to understand what moko actually means to the Maori, as it's a very spiritual experience to have it done, and not all moko was done on the face, (moko simply means 'To Tap') and for females (moko wahine) the design was a descendant pattern describing her lineage, position and her eligiblity to marry.

I hope that this can all be cleared up, as I would prefer to have people get all the right information about moko, and I would be glad to help with any research or information about moko that you may need, I have many friends who have and do moko work, and I am also in the process of studying to do ta moko with Ngai Tahu (My family's Marae).

With Regards, Brad Giles

Note: An article by Brad Giles will follow in the future.


submitted by: Anonymous
on: 10 Oct. 1997
in Ritual

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