New Zealand Culture: Maori Tattoos

An important piece of Maori culture is the traditional Maori tattoo, or ta moko. This sacred art form was brought to New Zealand from the Polynesian islands and is a rite of passage for New Zealand’s indigenous Maori population. Ta moko are most commonly given on the face—the head is the most sacred part of the body—and display an individual’s family line, social rank, and more.

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Men commonly wear full-face moko, while women wear tattoos on their chins (moko kauae). It is believed that the designs are always present on the wearer’s face, but the tattoo artist reveals them to the world.

The practice diminished in the 20th century, but is experiencing a resurgence as a way to proudly claim one’s Maori identity. In August, New Zealand cabinet member Nanaia Mahuta became the world’s first member of parliament to wear a moko kauae. Speaking to Broadly, Mahuta said, “When I got it done, I felt incredibly calm. I felt like it had always been there.”

However, the ta moko process is incredibly painful. Pigments are carved into the skin with a chisel, traditionally made of bone. The traditional process took several hours, and the face would become so scarred and swollen that the wearer was fed with a funnel for days afterward. Today, a modern tattoo machine is more common.

This is only a small part of ta moko’s cultural significance. Want to learn more about Maori culture? Call our travel designers at (312) 951-8517 to plan your New Zealand cultural adventure!