The History Student Guide: The Art of Ta Moko; Tools and Process

With a distinctive grooved pattern in their skin, Whakairo Tangata, the art of carving people, resembled that of whakairo rakau, the art of carving wood.

Ta Moko relates to a cultural tattoo design on the body. Mataora refers specifically to a facial tattoo although Matakiore, a term used mostly by Northern Tribes, refers to a facial design from the eyes down. Moko Kauae is the term used for a female moko.

There is a set of knowledge that any student of art and history needs to know. However, defines that there are some facts that are not required, but they can bring you particular profit when you are doing research on a particular topic.

Traditional Tools Used for Ta Moko

The word Ta Moko translated means to ‘tap’, an apt description for the process which required two main tools; the UHI (chisel) and he mahoe (mallet). The UHI was struck repeatedly with the mahoe, literally chiseling the design into the skin and then the staining pigment, Ngarahu, was applied either using Muka (from flax) or directly through the UHI itself.

Traditionally the UHI was made from one of the following natural materials:

  • Seabirds wing bone
  • Whalebone
  • Sharks teeth
  • Sharp stones
  • Hardwood

There were several different types of uhi used which depended upon the detail required. The seabird Toroa (Albatross) wing bone was often chosen as the ideal UHI as the bone was strong and most importantly porous. The porous surface allowed the bone to hold more ink. The whalebone was also utilized for this purpose.

A Mokomokai (preserved head) displaying Mataora (facial tattoo) shows the skill of a true artist. From a distance, multiple strands of lines might be mistaken for a single thick line. It is not until you get close enough that you can observe the degree of detail that cannot be replicated with the same skill in modern times.

When the Europeans settled in NZ they brought new materials, which the Maori were quick to apply to their own needs such as iron. The iron uhi was able to deliver a much cleaner cut which translated into a much smoother pattern. However, this was not necessarily received well as the distinct grooves that lined the skin was lost.

The pigment itself came from several sources which included:

  • The burnt and powdered resin of native trees (Kauri, Kahikatea, and Koromiko)
  • Burnt Aweto Hotete also known as the vegetable caterpillar
  • Charcoal
  • Gun powder

The traditional pigment was thicker than the modern ink used today for tattooing and the best stain was always blue-black.

Whakairo Tangata – Carving the People

To chisel, a design directly into a person’s skin required cutting the skin open and staining the wound. When your skin is cut the body heals itself by scarring. Scarring tends to be an outward raised lump on the skin depending on the severity.

The artist required not only the skill to carve these intricate designs into the skin but a working knowledge of the body to ensure that outward scarring did not interfere with the pattern. Instead, there were deeply carved canals in the skin.

This painful procedure was not able to be undertaken on a single sitting. The skin would bleed profusely once cut and the possibility of infection was ever-present. According to reports the swelling that occurred a few days after the process was the worst stage.

State of Tapu

The word tapu is generally accepted to mean ‘prohibited’ or ‘restricted’ and if broken then something bad would follow. The Maori were deeply spiritual and much of what they did was determined by these beliefs.

A person undergoing Ta Moko was considered to be in a state of tapu. With this came several restrictions on the individual undergoing this painful procedure. An example of the restrictions relating to a person undergoing the process included:

  • No communication with anyone who was not undergoing the same process.
  • They were unable to use their own hands to feed themselves.
  • They were unable to eat fish unless the fish were held up to see the Ta Moko.

Naturally, there were differences across the many different tribes across New Zealand however the earliest information gathered did not differentiate the differences.

Tohunga-Ta-Moko, Experts of Tattoo

Every skilled artist needs to start somewhere and often the artists practiced on those who could not afford a skilled tohunga. But those that could were well rewarded with gifts and payment, while the individual was rewarded with an enviable design. A skilled man in the art of Ta Moko was highly respected.

Rangi was a lowly slave who through his skillful ministrations managed to raise his status and his wealth. The fact that his name has been preserved through multiple recordings from multiple sources speaks of his skill. And it was this skill that led men of power, importance, and mana to seek his expertise.

A skilled artist captured a person’s story beautifully and intricately that was admired by even those who were unable to appreciate the design for more than just art.

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