Ta Moko

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“Ta Moko” means tattoo art in Maori. Often these tattoos covered the whole face and were a symbol of rank, social status, power and prestige for the Maori people. Ta Moko is a visual language which connects the person who has it to his “whakapapa”. Whakapapa is the family, it’s the genealogical tree, so there is nothing which links religion to Ta Moko. Ta Moko symbolises identification with their origins. It is considered to be beautiful but ferocious because they have to frighten their enemies. The Maori facial tattoo was used as a kind of “identification card”.

Photoportrait of a Maori man.

These tattooes look like animals or geometric shapes. The most popular tattoo is “the tortoise”. The technique of making tattooes leaves scars. Traditional tools to make Ta Moko are albatross bone chisels and black ink. A Maori tattoo takes a lot of time to do; generally the Maori people start tattooing themselves in adolescence and they finish in adulthood. They take years to be finished. But a real Ta Moko is very painful. The tattoo artist removes your skin by making wide cuts with a mallet and either a Turtle scale or an Albatross bone. So it takes a long time and you suffer a lot.

Picture of Tame Iti taken in Wellington shortly after the opening of Explosive Expression an art exhibition in Solidarity to raise awareness and funds for those arrested in the 'terror raids'.

Boys start to be tattooed around adolescence but we don’t know when women can start to be tattooed. Men’s tattooes can be found everywhere on their bodies; whereas women can only have tattooes on their foreheads, necks, lips, chins and backs. . It shows that women have less rights than men. The wife of a Maori chief can be tattooed on her buttocks.

Woman Maori at the turn of the century.

The number of tattooes they have depends on their age, what the people have done in their lives and the place of the person in the tribe. For Maoris these tattooes are like a diary because they are a written record of all the important events and places a man has experienced in his life.