History & Meanings of “Mataora – Tā moko” Tattoos

History & Meanings of “Mataora – Tā moko” Tattoos

When it comes to skin art, face tattoos are about as bold a statement as they come. For those out there who are considering the plunge or who are simply curious, today we’re going to tell you about Mataora – Tā moko tattoos.

Said to have come from the underworld, these tattoos have a rich and interesting history behind them. It’s a curious tale that comes from the Maori people, so read on and we’ll tell you all about it!


What are the origins of tā moko?

While we don’t know exactly how old the custom is, we can say that tā moko came New Zealand somewhere between 1250 and 1300 A.D., brought by Polynesian settlers who arrived by canoe. The story behind these facial tattoos is definitely an interesting one and it starts with a warrior named Mataora.

Mataora had fallen in love with a princess who lived in the underworld and her name was Niwareka. When she moved to the world above to be with Mataora, however, treated her poorly once he has her aboveground, and she once again returned to the Underworld. Wracked by his guilt, he followed, and met with her family.

They laughed at his ragged appearance and how his face paint had smudged, and he accepted this and humbly apologized for both this and how he had treated his bride. This won Niwareka back and before he returned, her father taught Mataora the  tā moko and he brought the skills back to his people.

Unlike modern tattoos, tā moko were done with shark’s teeth, knives, chisels, or even sharpened bone, and the whirls and designs tell those who see the tattoo about the character and the ancestry of the one with the tā moko tattoo. It’s a painful process but quite the profound tattoo and the tā moko tradition continues to this very day.


What does Ta Moko mean in Maori?

The word itself is synonymous with ‘tattoo art’, but the word ‘ta’ means ‘to strike’ and was a reference to how the tattoo work was done. The sharpened blade, chisel, or bone would be coated in pigments made from various sources (such as wood ash and specific caterpillars, for instance) and struck against the flesh.

The underworld king who gave the secret of tā moko to Mataora was called Rūamoko, and he was the god of earthquakes and of volcanic activity, so this likely plays into the etymology as well.


Can anyone get a Ta Moko tattoo?

There is an understandable apprehension that getting a ta moko tattoo might be considered cultural appropriation, but Mataora – Tā moko tattoos are suitable for anyone who has Maori lineage or a special interest in the culture.

It is recommended that you speak with a Ta Moko artist if you have any worries and they can explain a little more about the significance of these tattoos in a little more detail. Tā moko tattoos aren’t simply a random combination of tribal-like designs, but rather speak to the owners career path, ancestry, and more.

As such, each is unique to the wearer and if someone knows these symbols, they will know quite a bit about you just by looking at your face. It’s not a tattoo for the faint of heart, needless to say, but it is one of the most powerful forms of skin art on the planet!


Is it disrespectful to have Māori tattoo?

Provided that it is something done respectfully, to honor the tradition of the Maori culture, then it is not disrespectful to have a Maori tattoo. That said, when you visit a Ta Moko artist it’s really going to be up to them to decide.

Unlike other tattoos, this is not a case of where multiple symbols from different cultures might be combined, but rather the designs are quite specific and traditional based on very old Maori symbols which are combined into a striking and very powerful whole.

As these tattoos have a rich tradition, there is no guarantee that the artist will do it but in most cases, if your heart is in the right place then the Ta Moko artist will design the tattoo to reflect traits about you and they will put it on you. It might well be summed up best by saying, ‘serious inquiries only’.

As long as you come with respect and good reason to ask for the Ta Moko, then the odds are in your favor – it’s only disrespectful, really, when it’s a decision that is taken lightly.


Who can wear a moko?

Both men and women traditionally wore moko tattoos, with the men having them on their faces, their buttocks, and their thighs, while the women traditionally has Ta moko tattoos on the lips and on their chins.

Aside from telling about your ancestry and career path, these were also marks of status among the Maori, telling each other at a glance the worth of the person behind the ink. These days, anyone can have one, but most will find a traditional Ta Moko artist and discuss at length the tattoo that they wish to have.

If you are looking to have the traditional designs placed in non-traditional locations, that is going to be something for you to discuss with the artist.

As these are cultural tattoos, deviation from tradition might well be frowned upon or even flatly refused, but as long as you ask respectfully then you’ll be sure to get at least a polite answer on the subject.


Some closing comments on Ta Moko tattoos

A bold statement and a powerful tattoo with origins in the underworld – Mataora – Tā moko tattoos are definitely not boring. If you are considering obtaining one for yourself, then you’ll want to find a local Ta Moko artist and tell them what you have in mind.

As these artists are well-versed in traditional Maori tattooing, they’ll be able to discuss your unique design and let you know what each of the lines and whirls represent about your character. It’s a serious choice and one of the most serious tattoos that we know, and know you know the story about Mataora – Tā moko tattoos!

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