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Uhi ta moko: Art and practice of Maori tattooing

By: Dion Peita, Category: Science, Date: 11 Feb 2011

As the art and practice of ta moko developed in Aotearoa - New Zealand, Maori pioneered the use of smaller, narrower uhi without teeth that cut grooves through the skin.

Maori tattoo implement E5225

Emma Furno © australian Museum

Uhi ta moko or tattoo implements feature in our collections were traditionally fashioned from bone, stone and shell.  The one featured is made from the wing bone from the wandering albatross Diomedea sanfordi. However, after European contact Maori from Aotearoa New Zealand adopted the use of metal to replace stone and bone in the tattooing process.

This tattoo implement features cross-hatched carving along the main shaft, and has a tightly wound barb to apply pigment.  In an attached image you will also see a container E077628 made from stone with concentric grooves which held the precious pigment which was used during the ta moko process.   The uhi ta moko was exchanged between the Australian Museum and the Wanganui Museum, NZ in 1895.

As the art and practice of ta moko developed in Aotearoa New Zealand, Maori developed the use of smaller, narrower uhi without teeth that penetrated through the skin. This process was followed by the application of small, toothed uhi combs that applied the pigment. Maori also tattooed various parts of the body, especially the buttocks and thighs. The buttocks were tattooed in a design pattern called rape, which consisted of two sets of concentric spirals that come together in the centre. A further pattern is applied to the thighs known as puhoro.

Many of the design motifs are universal, especially the spiral elements applied to the nose, cheek and lower jaws; and the curvilinear rays on the forehead and from the nose to the mouth. The remaining elements were carefully chosen to accentuate and enhance the individual features.  Moko may also indicate social status, role, and expressions of identity in a particular community.
 

In a contemporary context many young individuals both Maori and non-Maori see the donning of ta moko, or elements of ta moko as a way to confirm their cultural identity.  One need only look to the NRL and other popular codes to see the design motifs taking on a new context.  

When asked the question, what is ta moko?  Expert ta moko practioner Mark Kopua on the matter said these poignant words, "it is 99% process and 1% ta moko." Meaning that one had to understand the historical and cultural value systems to which this artform is derived to truly consider the entrusted work ta moko.